Joe Biden spoke for nearly two hours with Xi Jinping as the US sought to dissuade China from backing Russia’s war on Ukraine.
A White House account of the call on Friday said that the US president “described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians”.
A senior administration official said there would be consequences “not just for China’s relationship with the United States, but for the wider world”, but would not give more details on whether Biden had gone into specifics on possible sanctions, other than to point out what had happened to Russia as an example.
“The president really laid out in a lot of detail the unified response from not only governments around the world, but also the private sector to Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine,” the official said. “The president made clear that there would likely be consequences for those who would step in to support Russia at this time.”
Biden did not make any direct requests to Xi to persuade Putin to end the attack.
“The president really wasn’t making specific requests of China. He was laying out his assessment of the situation … and the implications of certain actions,” the official said. “Our view is that China will make its own decisions.”
The Chinese account of the conversation in the state news agency, Xinhua, said it was “candid and in-depth” but gave little detail about Ukraine. The report said that Xi expressed the wish that the war was not happening, but gave no sign of what the Chinese leader’s intentions were towards support for Moscow.
Xi said the situation in Ukraine had developed to such a point “that China does not want to see” according to the report, which stuck to Beijing’s policy of avoiding the words “war” or “invasion”.
Beijing’s readout of the call did not suggest any Chinese role in ending the war. It quoted Xi as referring to a favourite aphorism, “Let he who tied the bell on the tiger’s neck take it off”, a seeming reference to China’s position that the US and Nato are ultimately to blame for Vladimir Putin’s actions.
Beijing blames the war on Nato’s refusal to rule out future Ukrainian membership of the alliance, and western supplies of weapons to the country. Xi also expressed concern about the impact on Taiwan, which he has vowed to restore to rule from Beijing.
Xi claimed “some people in the United States are sending the wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces, which is very dangerous”.
“If the Taiwan issue is not handled properly, it will have a subversive impact on the relationship between the two countries,” Xi added. The US “One China” policy acknowledges that Taiwan is part of China, but Washington does not recognise Beijing has sovereignty over the island.
Before the call, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Biden would question Xi about Beijing’s “rhetorical support” of Putin and an “absence of denunciation” of Russia’s invasion.
US officials fear that Xi has already decided to give Russia economic assistance and some military aid, though it unclear what difference Chinese arms supplies would make on the battlefield, as the more sophisticated weapons, like drones, would not be compatible with Russian equipment.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, both had hour-long conversations with Putin on Friday morning,
According to Scholz’s office, the German leader had “put pressure on [Putin] to introduce a ceasefire as soon as possible, to improve the humanitarian situation and to make progress in the search for a diplomatic solution for the conflict”.
A spokesman gave no details on whether any progress had been made, adding that the conversation had been focused on the war and attempts to stop it.
In the Kremlin’s version of the conversation, put out ahead of the statement from Berlin, it was described as “harsh but businesslike”, with Putin complaining about war crimes he said had been committed by the Ukrainian army, referring to attacks he said had taken place in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Makiivka that had led to “numerous deaths”.
“These war crimes are being ignored by the west,” Putin said according to Russian news agency reports referring to the Kremlin. Putin reportedly told Scholz the Russian army “is doing everything to avoid civilian victims”.
According to the Kremlin’s account, Putin accused Ukraine of trying to “slow down” the discussions with Russia, and said that the government in Kyiv was making “unrealistic suggestions”. It added that the Russian leadership was “ready to seek solutions appropriate to its basic views”.
The Kremlin account of Putin’s call with Macron said the Russian president had talked about the Kremlin’s approach to peace talks with Ukraine but gave no details. The Elysée Palace said Macron had said he was “extremely concerned” about Mariupol, which has suffered constant shelling. According to the Kremlin version, Putin repeated the claim that Russian forces were doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.
The US, UK, France, Albania, Ireland and Norway have all accused Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine, and the prosecutor at the international criminal court has begun collecting evidence. The UN’s international court of justice has ordered Russia to halt its invasion, declaring that it had no evidence to support Russian claims, used to justify the attack, that Ukrainian forces were committing genocide against Russian speakers in the east of the country.
The UN security council met on Friday to hear a repetition of Russia’s unsubstantiated claims, circulated after the invasion as a justification, that Ukraine had run biological weapons laboratories with US help.
“The UN was clear that there was no evidence. It was nonsense then. It’s nonsense now,” the UK permanent representative, Barbara Woodward, said afterwards. “And as far as we’re concerned, frankly, this is the disinformation of the desperate. Things are clearly not going well for Russia in Ukraine.”