The US has said it believes China may be about to provide lethal aid to help Russia in the war in Ukraine, prompting a direct warning against doing so from the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to China’s top diplomat.
Blinken made the warning to the Chinese state councillor Wang Yi on Saturday evening at a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich security conference during which he also rebuked China over the use of an alleged spy balloon over US soil.
In a blunt meeting he also urged China to stop helping Russia evade the impact of sanctions. China’s trade with Russia is increasing and it has been buying Russian oil, but probably below the US$60 per barrel price cap imposed by the EU and G7 group of states.
Blinken told US networks that the US had information China was considering whether to give Russia assistance, possibly including guns and weapons, for the Ukraine war.
“The concern that we have now is, based on information we have, that they’re considering providing lethal support,” Blinken told CBS’s Face the Nation shortly after he met with Wang. “And we’ve made very clear to them that that could cause a serious problem for us and in our relationship.”
The US believes China may already be providing some surveillance information to the Wagner group, the mercenary wing that works alongside the Russian army.
Kamala Harris, the US vice-president, in her speech to the security conference warned China against providing lethal equipment to a country that she said the US had judged was committing crimes against humanity. But Harris in her remarks did not assert that such lethal aid was about to be provided.
The US warnings about China’s intentions come in the context of a Chinese proposal to reveal a peace plan for Ukraine in a speech by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, coinciding with the 24 February anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Wang revealed the intention to launch the plan in his speech to the security conference on Saturday, and has been briefing leaders from France, Germany and Italy on China’s intentions, possibly in a bid to drive a wedge between EU states and the US.
The US has indicated it believes the plan is likely to be a vague assertion of the value of peaceful dialogue, territorial integrity and sovereignty, but without going into any details. European diplomats briefed on the plans also seemed sceptical about the value of a broad enunciation of vague principles, questioning whether China was really prepared to distance itself from its close partner Russia.
On the other hand, China is probably the only external actor that could put effective diplomatic pressure on the Russian president, Vladimiir Putin, to rethink his strategy.
Expressing the west’s scepticism, the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said: “China has not been able to condemn the invasion,” adding the plan “is quite vague”. Peace was only possible if Russia respected Ukraine’s sovereignty, he said.
The Ukrainian foreign minister, Dymytro Kuleba, intends to meet Wang on Sunday and expressed hope that China’s foreign policy principles would drive Beijing to accept the Ukrainian case. Kuleba said: “We believe that compliance with the principle of territorial integrity is China’s fundamental interest in the international arena. And that commitment to the observance and protection of this principle is a driving force for China, greater than other arguments offered by Ukraine, the United States, or any other country.”
Some fear the plan may be designed to head off support in the so-called global south for any resolution to the UN general assembly asserting support for Ukraine. Such a resolution either at the general assembly or to the smaller UN security council has been under discussion to mark the anniversary.
The last time the issue was addressed by the general assembly, Ukraine received the support of 141 states, and it may be hard to increase that level of support.
The German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, welcomed any effort by China to use its influence with Moscow, telling reporters she had “talked intensively” with Wang during a bilateral meeting on Friday about “what a just peace means: not rewarding the attacker, the aggressor, but standing up for international law and for those who have been attacked”.
“A just peace,” she added, “presupposes that the party that has violated territorial integrity – meaning Russia – withdraws its troops from the occupied country.”
In the speeches of both the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, there was no support for early peace talks, with both men saying the west may have to endure a long conflict.
Wang in his speech suggested there was a chance Europe was more eager to settle than the US. He said: “We need to think calmly, especially our friends in Europe, about what efforts should be made to stop the warfare; what framework should there be to bring lasting peace to Europe; what role should Europe play to manifest its strategic autonomy.”
There were other sentiments in Wang’s outline plan that the west can welcome, including its opposition to the use of threats of nuclear war, or attacks on civilian nuclear power stations. The references to the UN charter and territorial integrity may also be helpful to the west, but it was coupled with a reference to Russia having legitimate security concerns. Some diplomats welcomed the acknowledgment that China could no longer simply treat the war as a strictly European matter.