The US is talking with close allies on the possibility of imposing new sanctions on China if Beijing provides military support to Russia for its war in Ukraine.
The consultations, said to be at a preliminary stage according to multiple sources who spoke to Reuters, are intended to drum up support from a range of countries, such as those in the wealthy Group of 7 (G7).
Washington wants to coordinate support for any possible restrictions but it was not clear what specific sanctions it would propose. The conversations have not been previously disclosed.
The US Treasury Department, a lead agency on the imposition of sanctions, declined to comment.
Washington and its allies have said in recent weeks that China was considering providing weapons to Russia, which Beijing denies. Aides to US President Joe Biden have not publicly provided evidence.
They have also warned China directly against doing so, including in meetings between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping as well as during a “tense” in-person meeting on February 18 between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi on the sidelines of a global security conference in Munich.
‘Potential blow for China’s foreign relations’
The Biden administration’s initial steps to counter Chinese support for Russia have included informal outreach at the staff and diplomatic levels, including the Treasury Department, sources said.
They said officials were laying the groundwork for potential action against Beijing with the core group of countries that were most supportive of sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine a year ago.
Asked about the consultations, a White House National Security Council spokesperson said Russia’s war made it difficult for China with Europe and others.
“It’s a distraction for China and a potential blow to their international relationships they do not need nor should they want,” the spokesperson said.
Scholz to meet Biden
One official from a country consulted by Washington said they had only seen scant intelligence backing up the claims about China considering possible military assistance to Russia. A US official, however, said they were providing detailed accounts of the intelligence to allies.
China’s role in the Russia-Ukraine war is expected to be among the topics when Biden meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House on Friday.
Before that, the war will be discussed by foreign ministers from dozens of countries, including Russia, China and the United States in New Delhi on Wednesday and Thursday.
Last week China issued a 12-point paper calling for a comprehensive ceasefire that was met with scepticism in the West.
The initial outreach by Washington on sanctions has not yet led to broad agreement on any specific measures, the sources said.
One source said the administration wanted to first raise the idea of coordinated sanctions and “take pulses” in the event that any shipments are detected to Russia from China, which declared a “no limits” partnership shortly before the invasion on February 24 last year.
“On the G7 front, I think there is real awareness,” a second source said, but added that detailed measures focused on China were not yet in place.
Could China tilt conflict?
The Ukraine conflict has settled into grinding trench warfare. With Russia running low on munitions, Ukraine and its supporters fear that supplies from China could tilt the conflict to Russia’s advantage.
As part of a related diplomatic push, Washington won language in a February 24 G7 statement to mark the war’s first anniversary that called on “third-countries” to “cease providing material support to Russia’s war, or face severe costs.”
Though the statement did not mention China by name, the US imposed new penalties on people and companies accused of helping Russia evade sanctions. The measures included export curbs on companies in China and elsewhere that will block them from buying items, such as semiconductors.
“We’ve tried to signal very clearly, both in private in Munich, and then publicly, our concerns,” Daniel Kritenbrink, the top US diplomat for East Asia, told Congress this week. “We’ve talked about the implications and the consequences if they were to do so. And we also know that many of our like-minded partners share those concerns.”
Among the challenges the United States faces in putting sanctions on China, the world’s second-biggest economy, is its thorough integration in the major economies of Europe and Asia, complicating the talks.
US allies from Germany to South Korea are reticent to alienate China.
Anthony Ruggiero, a sanctions expert under former President Donald Trump, said the Biden administration does have scope for economically restricting private actors within China and that doing so could deter the government and banks from providing further support.
“Then the administration can send messages to China in public and in private, with the latter being more explicit, that the US will escalate the sanctions to include targeting Chinese banks with the full range of available options,” said Ruggiero, now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies group.
Washington should make China choose between access to the US financial system or aiding Russia’s war, Ruggiero said, citing the sanctions approach to Iran and North Korea.
- Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard