The US president, Joe Biden, will warn his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, that he will face “costs” if Beijing rescues fellow authoritarian ally Russia from intense western sanctions aimed at punishing Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The two leaders’ first phone call since a video summit in November will be a chance to air differences as the US spearheads an unprecedented pressure campaign on Russia, placing China in a geopolitical bind.
It’s “an opportunity for President Biden to assess where President Xi stands,” the White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Early on Friday, air raid sirens sounded in the western Ukraine city of Lviv, followed by the sound of explosions and a column of smoke, a few miles from the city centre.
The Biden-Xi call, at 1pm GMT on Friday, comes after Russia was accused by the UK, the US, France, Albania, Ireland and Norway of war crimes, and Paris claimed Vladimir Putin was only pretending to be interested in negotiating a peace deal.
The British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said there was “very, very strong evidence” of war crimes being committed by Russian forces as the war enters its fourth week.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who has warned repeatedly that Putin will turn to the use of chemical weapons, said the US administration was gathering evidence of war crimes and appeared to dismiss hopes of a resolution through diplomacy.
Amid signs of a faltering Russian invasion, the Pentagon reportedly assessed that Putin may resort to threats to use nuclear weapons as sanctions and setbacks on the ground “slowly weaken Russian conventional strength”.
“Russia likely will increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the west and project strength to its internal and external audiences,” said Lieut General Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in a 67-page summary of global threats, according to Bloomberg.
Psaki said that in Biden’s meeting with Xi, trade rows and snarled international supply chains would be discussed, but a big focus is expected to be the western bid to force Russia from Ukraine.
Friday’s Biden-Xi call follows a meeting between a Chinese foreign ministry official and Russia’s ambassador to China to exchange views on bilateral counter-terrorism and security cooperation, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.
In other developments:
The UK Ministry of Defence released its latest intelligence report, which said logistical problems continue to beset Russia’s faltering invasion of Ukraine. Russia is being forced to divert “large numbers” of troops to defend its supply lines rather than continuing its attacks in Ukraine, it said.
About 130 people have been rescued so far from the basement of a theatre hit by a Russian airstrike in the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, officials said.
In Kharkiv, a rescue worker has died and another was injured after a shopping centre was shelled on Thursday, sparking a fire that has burned through the night. Two residential buildings were also damaged in the attack.
The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy cautioned Russian troops against drawing a comparison to hostilities back in 2014. Ukraine is “different now”, he said.
The World Health Organization said it had so far verified 43 attacks on healthcare facilities, with 12 people killed and 34 injured, including health workers.
More than 320,000 Ukrainian citizens have returned to help their country fight since Russia began its invasion, according to the state border guard service of Ukraine.
Biden has successfully marshalled a tight western alliance against Russia, while giving military support to Ukrainian forces.
But Beijing has refused to condemn Moscow and Washington fears the Chinese could switch to full financial and even military support for Russia, transforming an already explosive transatlantic standoff into a global dispute.
Not only could Beijing potentially help Russia weather crippling pressure on its banks and currency, but western governments would also face a decision on whether to impose sanctions against China, likely prompting turmoil on world markets.
Biden labels Putin ‘a murderous dictator, a pure thug’ – video
The White House was tightlipped on whether Biden will threaten China with sanctions during his call, but some sort of response is on the table.
Biden “will make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression and we will not hesitate to impose costs”, Blinken said.
The diplomat said he hoped China would use “whatever leverage they have to compel Moscow to end this war”.
“Instead, it appears that China is moving in the opposite direction,” Blinken said, adding he was “concerned that they’re considering directly assisting Russia with military assistance”.
The Biden-Xi call comes after US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Communist party’s chief diplomat, held what the White House called a “substantial” seven-hour meeting in Rome this week.
Against a backdrop of already intense tensions over Taiwan and trade disputes, the ability of Biden and Xi to discuss Ukraine will reverberate widely.
Xi and Putin symbolically sealed their close partnership when they met at the February Winter Olympics in Beijing – shortly before Putin launched his onslaught on Ukraine.
Since then, Beijing has stood out by refusing to join international outcry over the invasion, while taking the Russian line in blaming the US and Nato for European tensions. Chinese authorities have refuse to officially refer to a “war”, again in keeping with Kremlin talking points.
But China has also tried to remain somewhat ambiguous, declaring support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Under growing pressure to take sides, China will weigh clashing priorities, said Brookings Institution fellow Ryan Hass, a former adviser on China to Barack Obama.
Despite its ties to Moscow, China, the world’s second-biggest economy and its biggest exporter, is tightly bound to US and other western economies. It also wants to play a leadership role in the world.
“China’s and Russia’s interests are not in alignment. Putin is an arsonist of the international system and President Xi sees himself as an architect for remaking and improving the international system,” Hass said.
“President Xi is trying to balance competing priorities. He really places a lot of value in China’s partnership with Russia but at the same time he does not want to undermine China’s relations in the west.”
With Agence France-Presse