China’s alignment with Russia makes progress on Ukraine difficult

A meeting in Rome Monday between top American and Chinese officials was preceded by reporting that Moscow had asked Beijing for military assistance in its war against Ukraine. Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund, and Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy in the George w. Bush administration, join Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today's meeting in Rome between top American and Chinese officials was preceded by reporting that Moscow had asked Beijing for military assistance in its war against Ukraine.

    China has so far stayed somewhat removed from the conflict, even if tacitly supportive of Russia.

    Amna Nawaz is here now with a deeper look at that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    A senior administration official told reporters this afternoon the Rome meeting was a — quote — "intense seven-hour session" with — quote — "very candid conversation" between the two officials, and that U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan conveyed deep concerns about China's alignment with Russia.

    Here with me now to look at both China's role and the wider American response to Ukraine are Bonnie Glaser. She is the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund. That's a policy organization focused on the United States and Europe. And Eric Edelman, he was undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration. He is now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. That's a national security research institute.

    Welcome to you both.

    And, Eric, I would like to start with you and those reports that Russia has requested both military support and economic assistance from China in this moment. If true, what does that say to you about how Vladimir Putin is assessing this moment in time, where Russia is and where they could go next?

    Eric Edelman, Former State Department and Defense Department Official: Well, I think two things, Amna.

    One, both sides have actually denied this is the case. So we need to keep our minds open about it. But the U.S. government has told allies that Russia was seeking some assistance for the military operation in Ukraine, which I think does suggest that they are running into some very severe shortfalls and logistical problems, which they hope the Chinese will help them where.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bonnie, what about this story about potential economic assistance?

    We know, of course, Russia is facing deep and devastating sanctions from the U.S. and others in the world. Is it possible China would step in to fill some of that financial void?

  • Bonnie Glaser, German Marshall Fund:

    It is highly unlikely that the Chinese would directly violate sanctions.

    We have seen in the past, when there are sanctions, for example, in 2014 against Russia, that Chinese banks essentially complied. The commercial banks in China don't want to risk getting cut off from the information financial system.

    But, of course, the Chinese can find creative ways to circumvent sanctions. They have done so with North Korea and with Iran. For example, the Chinese could let Russia's Central Bank cash in on some of the $140 billion that it holds in Chinese bonds. It could use its policy banks to provide loans directly to Russian enterprises, instead of going through Russian banks.

    But ,at the end of the day, I think China will be careful. It does not want to suffer secondary sanctions from the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Bonnie, as we mentioned, all this happens amid that high-level meeting in Rome. We should mention it was previously scheduled as well as a follow-up to the virtual meeting between President Biden and Leader Xi.

    But they did say that there is an importance of maintaining open linings of communications here. I guess, from your perspective, what is the best-case scenario for the U.S. coming out of that meeting with China?

  • Bonnie Glaser:

    Well, the best-case scenario, I think, is that there is some understanding between the United States and China about how to address some very high-priority security issues, Ukraine number one.

    Another one is North Korea, which reportedly may be firing off an ICBM in the coming months. There are many issues between the United States and China that need to be dealt with. And so what we need to have is sustained dialogue with China, with some very clear pathways forward about how to address some of these issues.

    And to do that, we need to build more mutual trust in the relationship. That is very, very difficult at this point. Xi Jinping views the United States as a country in decline. It sees Western democracies as failed. And it has aligned — Xi Jinping has aligned himself very closely with Putin and with Russia.

    And so I think that this is going to be very difficult for the U.S. and China to find ways to work together to address these issues.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Eric, if are you one of the U.S. officials in these meetings right now in what they call this moment of crisis, you are meeting with those Chinese officials.

    And we did press that senior administration official for details about what was asked from the U.S. perspective. And as far as they would go was to say, look, there was a candid, direct exchange of views. And they made clear that there would be consequences of certain actions.

    If you're a U.S. official, what are you asking for from China right now, as you're looking to contain Russia?

  • Eric Edelman:

    Well, as you know, Presidents Putin and Xi signed a document saying they had an unlimited partnership.

    And I think what the U.S. officials and what Jake Sullivan were doing were trying to actually hem in the limits of that partnership and make sure to their Chinese interlocutors that the — there will be real costs, not just in the U.S.-China relationship, but more broadly, if China, for instances, were to violate its sanctions, even, as Bonnie was saying, finding creative ways around the sanctions.

    But, in particular, I think, they were trying to convey that providing military assistance to Russia at this point in time would create real — some real difficulties, because it does raise all sorts of escalation issues.

    My understanding from seeing some press reporting is that what allegedly was being asked of China was for surface-to-air missile, drones, which had been very effective, and actually used by Ukraine, logistics vehicles, like heavy trucks, armored vehicles, but also things like MREs, meals ready to eat, prepackaged food, which tells you just how poorly this operation was planned by the Russians and how much they're bumping up against the logistical obstacles.

    And if China were to help Russia overcome some of those logistical obstacles, it would clearly change, potentially, the situation on the battlefield in Ukraine, which is not going well for Russia right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Eric, just to follow up on that, it is not going well for Russia.

    But we did obviously see over the weekend a slight escalation with those attacks in Western Ukraine now, very close to the Polish border. What's your assessment of that?

  • Eric Edelman:

    Well, that was clearly a message to the U.S.

    Russia is clearly unhappy about the military equipment. The facility that was hit is a facility the U.S. has used in the past to train and exercise with the Ukrainian military.

    So it was clearly a message that, although the fighting has largely been in the northeast and south of Ukraine, that Russia has the capability to hit west as well, and basically a warning, as have been other actions taken by Russia, including the nuclear threats that they have made, as well as the discussion that has been undertaken by Russian media about the potential for chemical and biological weapons use, which in many cases is seen, I think correctly, as a potentially precursor to their use of those weapons in this conflict, which would be a very severe escalation, of course.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Eric, just to follow up on that, and in the minute we have left, how then do you see, given all that, the refusal of the Biden administration and NATO member nations to enforce a no-fly zone, which we know President Zelenskyy has repeatedly asked for?

  • Eric Edelman:

    Well, there are some very serious technical obstacles to a no-fly zone.

    I personally would prefer to see an effort at something more limited, which would be a humanitarian exclusion zone to allow people to be evacuated from the cities under siege and for food and medicine and humanitarian goods to get through.

    And I think proposing things like that actually shines a light on the total barbaric nature of this military operation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bonnie, very briefly, given this critical moment right now, what should be the U.S. message to China moving forward?

  • Bonnie Glaser:

    Well, the U.S. message to China should first be not to backfill the sanctions, circumvent them in any way, not to help Russia's economy, not to help its military, and if it has any leverage at all that it can use in a conversation between Xi Jinping and Russia's President Putin, to call an end to this war, to implement a cease-fire, to get Russia to accept some outcome that is less than what Putin hoped for, to begin negotiations with President Zelenskyy.

    I think that what — that China should use that leverage. And I think that our national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, likely conveyed those messages to Yang Jiechi when he met with him in Rome.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Bonnie Glaser and Eric Edelman joining us tonight.

    Thank you both so much for your time.

  • Eric Edelman:

    Thank you.

  • Bonnie Glaser:

    Thank you.

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