Blinken to warn China against helping Russia develop its military industry

On his trip to Beijing, the U.S. secretary of state will try to consolidate America’s fragile understanding with the Asian giant. Taiwan, trade, and the South China Sea are among the key topics to be discussed

U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, with his wife, Evan Ryan
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken with his wife, Evan Ryan, after the G7 meeting in Capri (Italy), on April 19.Ciro De Luca (REUTERS)

A few hours after the U.S. Senate approved military aid for Kyiv, Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in China Wednesday to warn the Asian giant against supporting Russia in its war in Ukraine and helping it develop its military industry. Blinken’s second trip to China in less than a year is also aimed at consolidating the fragile understanding between the two powers and addressing issues that have sparked rising tensions, such as Taiwan and the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

The mere fact that Blinken is making the trip three weeks after U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by phone about key global and bilateral issues demonstrates that relations between the two great powers of the 21st century have improved since last year and the situation is stabilizing, even if the road has been bumpy.

But while Beijing claims that it “remains committed to open dialogue and communication” with Washington, the belligerent language in state media has made it clear that certain red lines cannot be crossed. “The relationship between China and the United States has encountered substantial headwinds in recent years. Blame U.S. politicians, whose perceptions of China as a long-term strategic competitor and ‘most consequential geopolitical challenge’ are deeply flawed,” states an editorial by the state news agency Xinhua published this Wednesday.

Blinken’s trip to Shanghai, where he landed, and then to Beijing has been planned for weeks, but was only officially announced last weekend. It comes amid growing concern in the West that China is gradually increasing its assistance to Russia to help it manufacture war material — a move that not only endangers Ukraine, but also the rest of Europe. It is a concern that was expressed by the G7 at the group’s meeting in the Italian city of Capri last week.

At the G7 meeting, Blinken accused Beijing of being the “primary contributor” to Russia’s military production. “If China purports on the one hand to want good relations with Europe and other countries, it can’t on the other hand be fueling what is the biggest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War,” said Blinken.

Washington and its allies are alarmed by how companies based in China have been sending duel-use items (those with both military and civilian use) to Russia, and components to manufacture weapons, from bulletproof vests to armored vehicles, which Moscow uses to intensify its production of defense equipment. According to The Wall Street Journal, Biden’s administration is considering imposing sanctions that could punish the Chinese banks that finance the export of this material to its neighboring country.

“Through Chinese support, Russia has largely reconstituted its defense industrial base, which has an impact not just on the battlefield in Ukraine but poses a larger threat, we believe, to broader European security,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, on the eve of Blinken’s trip to China. “We’ll express those concerns to China, and we will express our intent to have China curtail that support which is starting to pose such a threat to European security.”

Sale of microelectronic components

Earlier this month, senior U.S. officials said China had boosted sales to Russia of microelectronics components, machine tools and other technology that Moscow uses to produce and use missiles, tanks, aircraft and other defense equipment in its war in Ukraine. According to Washington’s calculations, in 2023, about 90% of Russia’s microelectronics components came from China, as did 70% of its machine tool imports in the final quarter of last year.

Companies from the two neighboring countries have also collaborated, according to the U.S., in the joint production of drones on Russian territory. Chinese companies provide Moscow with optical components for its tanks and armored vehicles, and the nitrocellulose it needs for the production of propellant weapons.

“We’re prepared to take steps when we believe necessary against firms that [...] severely undermine security in both Ukraine and Europe,” said the senior State Department official. “We have demonstrated our willingness to take them with respect to companies from various countries, not just China.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin maintains that China has a “right to normal trade and economic cooperation with Russia and other countries in the world on the basis of equality.” Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Wang blamed Washington for “fanning the flames” by arming and financing Ukraine. “The United States keeps making groundless accusations over the normal trade and economic exchanges between China and Russia, while passing a bill providing a large amount of aid for Ukraine. This is just hypocritical and highly irresponsible,” he said. “On Ukraine, China’s position has been just and objective [...] China is neither the creator of the Ukraine crisis nor a party to it.”

On the eve of Blinken’s arrival, the Chinese Foreign Ministry published a long statement setting out the country’s position on the visit. It said that while China-U.S. relations had started to stabilize, “there are still significant negative factors in the bilateral relationship.” It continued: “The United States continues pushing forward the strategy of containing China, keeps adopting erroneous words and actions that interfere in China’s internal affairs, smear China’s image and undermine China’s interests. China resolutely opposes such moves and has taken strong countermeasures.”

The statement also listed the five main goals that Beijing hopes to achieve from the meeting: establishing the right perception, strengthening dialogue, effectively managing disagreements, promoting mutually beneficial cooperation, and working together to fulfill responsibilities as major countries.

During his three-day visit to the world’s second-largest economy, Blinken plans to meet with government representatives, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi. It is not clear if he will see Chinese President Xi Jinping, who he met during his visit in June last year.

In these meetings, Blinken will address “a range of bilateral, regional and global issues,” including the situation in the Middle East, according to the senior State Department official. He will also discuss Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea: China claims sovereignty over nearly the entire sea, putting it in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The two countries will also address China’s massive investments in advanced manufacturing of clean energy goods, which the U.S. argues has resulted in an unfair playing field — a point raised during Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s visit two weeks ago.

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