US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese top diplomat Yang Jiechi agreed to disagree on Ukraine in Rome. Image: Handouts

The Ukraine war has added a new layer of hostility between the United States and China, with Beijing formally pleading neutrality while – in words, if not yet deeds – taking Moscow’s side.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently met with China’s top foreign policy official Yang Jiechi in Rome. If Sullivan thought China would put a brake on its quasi-alliance with Moscow, he was mistaken.

And if Yang was thinking he could get Sullivan to reduce Ukraine to just one of many US-China issues he, too, was dreaming.

After the meeting, Sullivan said curtly that it had been an opportunity to have a “substantial discussion of Russia’s war against Ukraine.” The day before, he had been rather more bluntly hostile, threatening “consequences” if Beijing breached the series of international economic sanctions that are intended to persuade Russia to withdraw its army from Ukraine.

Perhaps Sullivan, given the Chinese belligerence in previous meetings, expected little from China this round.

And, indeed, China waited but a few hours after the meeting to announce that it would not abandon Russia in order “to seek to ease tensions with the United States.” Later, Yang brought up the most consistent dispute between the two countries: American attitudes toward Taiwan.

Yang also added a relatively new complaint: He repeated assertions that the US created the Covid virus at a biological weapons facility in Ukraine.

Yang Jiechi, left foreground, and Jake Sullivan, right foreground, meet n Rome. Photo: Chinese Foreign Ministry

On both sides of the globe, analysts saw anything but the will to cooperate in fixing the Ukraine problem. “The Ukraine crisis is driving China and the United States further apart, and observers do not expect their leaders to meet or the relationship to improve any time soon,” said Zhu Feng, an international affairs professor at Nanjing University.

It’s hard to say whether China was throwing out a load of problems to avoid focusing solely on Ukraine. Uncharacteristically, Chinese officials seemed perplexed about how much importance to give Russia’s “special military operation.”

Foreign Minister Wang Yi went so far as to say China has nothing to do with the issue and should be left out of any discussions over its resolution. Beijing does not want its trade with Russia to be curtailed as part of an international effort to punish Moscow, he said.

“China is not a party to the crisis, nor does it want the sanctions to affect China,” Wang said during a telephone call with Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Jose Manuel Albares. “China has the right to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests.”

Chinese officials then offered American allies in Europe a catch-all solution: Dump the United States as a key strategic partner. “The existing security mechanism in Europe established by the US, with the US-led NATO” is the problem, wrote the Global Times.

The Sullivan-Yang meeting was a “trap” to get China to take a stand against its own interests, said one commentator.

“Not only did China’s position remain unchanged,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, “but it also refuted the rumors and false information the US was spreading. It means that the goal of the US for this meeting has failed.”

For an American audience, China’s tone softened. Qin Gan, the country’s ambassador to Washington, wrote Tuesday that “The sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine, must be respected” – an apparent swipe at quasi-ally Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Ukraine is effectively part of Russia.

But Qin also wrote in the Washington Post that “Threats against Chinese entities and businesses, as uttered by some US officials, are unacceptable.”

All China wants is to give peace a chance, Qin indicated. He used variations of the word “peace” 11 times in the article.

One word he didn’t use was “invasion.” Nor did he offer any suggestion that hurling artillery at major and minor cities was wrong.

As is often the case in Chinese public statements about relations with the US, all roads lead to Taiwan. Qin took pains to dismiss any parallels between the issue of Ukraine, a sovereign country, he said, and Taiwan, formally part and parcel of China.

The question is relevant in the context of military moves because China has been carrying out menacing air force flights over the breakaway island for months.

A Taiwan air force F-16 fighter shadows a PLA air force bomber that had approached the island of Taiwan on January 26 this year. File photo

“The Taiwan question is a Chinese internal affair,” wrote Qin.

Some American observers contend that, in any case, China represents a greater strategic danger than Russia.

“The United States and its strategic partners now confront two superpowers – not just one – and powers that pose both a global as well as a regional challenge,” wrote Anthony Cordesman, a veteran analyst at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in the United States.

“China is moving from cooperation and civil competition to the possibility of a major military confrontation, as well.”

The military option may come into play because China’s ability to withstand economic sanctions in case of a conflict is greater than Russia’s.

China heavily outspends Russia on its military. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that Russia officially spent only $62.2 billion in 2021, although the real amount could be as high as $178 billion.

In 2021, China officially spent $207.3 billion on its military; its purchasing power could be as much as $332 billion, according to the IISS.  

The US spent more than $754 billion; European NATO nations, more than $300 billion.

Where would the US and willing allies turn to punish a Chinese invasion of Taiwan? “If your strategy is that you can do really strong economic sanctions, then the military stuff is not as important,”  said Raymond Kuo, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation think tank.

“But if you can’t rely upon it, as in the case with China, then you have to make sure you do more with your military stuff.”

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.