U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with China’s top diplomat, director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Foreign Affairs Office Yang Jiechi, in Rome on Monday. Unsurprisingly, Ukraine dominated the talks – at least according to the U.S. readout.
In announcing the meeting, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne had made clear that Ukraine would be on the agenda, alongside the broader bilateral relationship. “The two sides will discuss ongoing efforts to manage the competition between our two countries and discuss the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine on regional and global security,” she said in a statement.
By contrast, China didn’t mention Ukraine as a main focus of the meeting in its announcement. Instead, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that “[t]he key issue of this meeting is to implement the important consensus reached by the Chinese and U.S. heads of state in their virtual summit in November last year… They will exchange views on China-U.S. relations and international and regional issues of common concern.”
Zhao added, “The two sides have been in contact on the matter since late last year, stayed in communication about the meeting and set a time for the meeting according to their schedules” – emphasizing that the meeting had been scheduled independently of the Russian military operation that began in late February.
The official post-meeting readout from the White House said that “Mr. Sullivan raised a range of issues in U.S.-China relations, with substantial discussion of Russia’s war against Ukraine. They also underscored the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and China.” In a post-meeting phone call, a senior administration official told journalists that “[t]he two officials covered the whole range of issues in the U.S.-China relationship,” including “an extensive conversation on Russia/Ukraine.”
China’s Foreign Ministry actually issued two readouts. The first, framed as the usual summary of high-level talks, spent the vast majority of its length discussing bilateral issues – especially Taiwan. According to that readout, Yang spent the bulk of the conversation – which China described as “candid, in-depth, and constructive” – talking about “the consensus reached by the two heads of state” during a virtual meeting back in November. According to Yang, implementing that consensus, which effectively boiled down to a commitment to keep the relationship from veering into open conflict, is the “most important task for China-U.S. relations.”
China’s readout devoted an entire paragraph to chastising the United States for its approach to Taiwan, which Yang said was “obviously inconsistent” with Washington’s stated commitment to the one China policy. “China expresses serious concern and firm opposition to the United States’ recent series of wrong words and actions on Taiwan,” Yang said, warning that the U.S. “should not go further down this extremely dangerous path.”
The impressions given by the U.S. versus Chinese readouts were starkly different. The White House’s summary, for example, did not mention Taiwan at all. Ukraine, meanwhile, was not mentioned until the very end of the first Chinese Foreign Ministry readout, lumped in with a list of “international and regional issues” alongside North Korea, Iran, and Afghanistan.
But a second, shorter readout from the Foreign Ministry was entirely devoted to “clarifying” China’s position on the “Ukraine situation.” This largely reiterated points made previously by Chinese officials and spokespeople, starting with the statement that “China does not like to see the situation in Ukraine come to this point.” Alongside stressing China’s commitment to “respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of every country,” Yang also repeated pro-Russian talking points about “indivisible security” and “legitimate security concerns.”
While converging China-Russia ties have been a concern for Washington, the Ukraine war shone a harsh spotlight on this sore spot. The senior Biden administration official told journalists on Monday that “we do have deep concerns about China’s alignment with Russia at this time.”
In early February, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to Beijing – his first foreign guest in nearly two years – and the two issued a lengthy joint statement extolling their friendship. Xi himself proclaimed that “China and Russia have stayed committed to deepening strategic coordination of mutual support… The two countries have never and will never waver in this choice.”
Twenty days later, Putin sent troops across the border into Ukraine, launching a large-scale invasion of the country.
While China has not explicitly condoned the invasion and abstained from, rather than vetoed, several related U.N. Security Council resolutions criticizing Moscow, its position has hardly been neutral. In Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s annual press conference last week, he mentioned the need to “respect and protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.” However, he laid more stress on the “complex issues” behind the crisis, saying, “We must adhere to the principle of indivisible security and accommodate the legitimate security concerns of the parties involved.” That rhetoric closely matches Russia’s justification for the invasion.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespeople have repeatedly said that NATO’s “eastward expansion” is to blame for the crisis. Wang Wenbin added on March 3, after a longer-than-usual discussion of NATO’s faults, “We hope the culprits of the crisis can reflect upon their roles in the Ukraine crisis.”
Given the huge gap in positioning between China and the United States, it’s unsurprising that there was no sign of a breakthrough after the Sullivan-Yang talks in Rome, despite seven hours spent in what the senior U.S. official described as an “intense” conversation. The lead-up to the meeting had not left much room for hope. China’s Foreign Ministry started parroting Russian disinformation about U.S. bioweapons research in Ukraine, while the U.S. threatened China with sanctions of its own should it help prop up Russia’s economy.
“We are communicating directly, privately to Beijing, that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them,” Sullivan told CNN on Sunday, the day before the meeting. “We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country, anywhere in the world.”
China reacted with predictable pushback: “China opposes all forms of unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction of the U.S., and will resolutely defend the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies and individuals.”
Also just ahead of the meeting, U.S. media – citing U.S. officials – began reporting that Russia had asked China for military assistance. On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accused the U.S. of “maliciously spreading disinformation targeting China.” He added, “China’s position on the Ukraine issue is consistent and clear. We have been playing a constructive part in promoting peace talks.”
Yang made that point again in the talks with Sullivan, saying that China “firmly opposes any words or actions that spread false information or distort or smear China’s position.” Clearly, China is not happy with the spate of U.S. officials commenting on the latest developments in China-Russia relations vis-a-vis the Ukraine invasion.
Neither Yang nor Zhao, however, explicitly denied that China was considering providing support to Russia.
On the same day as Sullivan met Yang in Rome, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin held a virtual meeting to discuss “multilateral affairs between China and Russia.” According to China’s Foreign Ministry readout, “Both sides agreed to uphold the spirit of China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era, jointly uphold true multilateralism, strive to promote world peace and development, and safeguard the common interests of both countries.”