On Friday, March 18, 2022, one of the most crucial two-hour phone calls of the post-Cold War was held. The crisis in Ukraine was discussed by President Joseph Biden of the United States and President Xi Jinping of China. The discussions covered the U.S. and Chinese perspectives on the conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, now in its 23rd year.
The United States acknowledged its position, namely that it wanted to end the conflict by forcing President Vladimir Putin of Russia to withdraw his troops from Ukraine. This effort had been realized through economic sanctions against Russia and military support to President Volodymyr Zelensky's government in Ukraine.
As the events unfold in Ukraine, it seems that Putin may have taken on more than he bargained for. The Ukrainians are more determined than the Russian Federal Security Service's (FSB’s) foreign intelligence branch indicated to Putin. They believed that President Zelensky would leave the country after they entered, possibly thinking he would do the same thing as another failed US ally, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, did seven months ago. They believed that the Ukrainians would openly welcome the Russian Armed Forces. The FSB was wrong, and Vladimir Putin has allegedly placed senior officials under house arrest.
It is believed that the Ukrainian resistance was so effective that Putin replaced many of the generals in command. Based on media coverage, this shift in tactics is meant to attack civilians more directly rather than to avoid them. This will break the spirit of the people and force Zelensky into accepting Moscow's ceasefire terms.
The Russian military is finding it difficult to switch from its presumption of a “cake-walk,” a short war, where they would replace corrupt governments with friendly ones at low cost. The Russian military now finds itself in a conflict with rising costs for soldiers and equipment, as well as supply-line shortages.
Ukraine requested outside assistance before hostilities started. It has a more sophisticated process of replenishment than the set-and-forget Russians. Their field commanders are adapting and realizing that they require more men, equipment, and ammunition to win. In an effort to counter Western support for Ukraine, Putin reached out to his friend in China, President Xi Jinping.
The United States doesn't want China to help Russia. Biden took the unusual step of talking to his Chinese counterpart directly about it. The White House and the Chinese government issued statements about the phone call. It is important enough for every American to have the chance to read it. As we observe the delicate diplomatic maneuverings of the superpowers of the planet, it is important to remember that we are not the intended audience of these statements. Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin are.
The White House readout is deliberately terse, as paraphrased here:
Today, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke with President Xi Jinping of China's People's Republic of China. The conversation was focused on Russia's unprovoked invasion in Ukraine. The views of the United States and our allies on the crisis were presented by President Biden. Biden outlined our efforts to stop and then respond to the invading army, including by imposing sanctions on Russia. He explained the consequences and implications of China providing material support for Russia's brutal attacks on Ukrainian civilians and cities. He reiterated his support for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Both leaders agreed that it was important to maintain open lines of communication in order to manage competition between the two countries. The President reiterated that the U.S. policy regarding Taiwan has not changed and stressed that the United States will continue to oppose unilateral changes to the status-quo. Both leaders gave their teams the task of following up on today's discussion in the crucial period ahead.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China provided the Chinese debriefing on the telephone call. It reads: “President Xi Jinping held a video conference call with US President Joe Biden on the evening of March 18. They had an honest and detailed exchange of views about China-U.S. relations, Ukraine and other matters of mutual interest.”
A paraphrased version of China’s comminique is shared here:
President Biden stated that the Shanghai Communique was issued 50 years ago by the United States and China. 50 years later, the U.S.-China relationship is at a crucial moment. The future of the world will depend on how this relationship develops. Biden stated that the U.S. is not seeking a new Cold War against China. It does not intend to alter China's system. The revitalization of its alliances does not target China. The U.S. also reiterated its support for Taiwan independence. And it has no plans to fight China. The U.S. is open to a candid dialogue with China and closer cooperation, to maintain its commitment to the one-China strategy, to effectively manage disagreements and competition to ensure the continued growth of the relationship. Biden indicated that he was willing to keep in touch with President Xi in order to determine the direction of the U.S.-China relationship.
President Xi noted major changes in the international scene since their last virtual meeting in November. The current trend towards peace and development faces serious challenges. The world is not stable or tranquil. China and the U.S. are permanent members of the UN Security Council and two of the most powerful economies in the world. They must guide their relations along the right path and also take on their international responsibilities to ensure peace and stability.
President Xi stated that he and President Biden agree that China and the US must respect each other and coexist peacefully. He also stressed that both sides need to increase communication and dialogue at all levels. The U.S. has not sought to start a new Cold War, change China's system, or revive alliances against China. President Biden also reiterated that the U.S. does not support Taiwan taking any more steps toward independence and doesn’t seek conflict with China.
“I take these comments very seriously,” stated President Xi.
President Xi noted that China-U.S. relations have been facing increasing difficulties, rather than getting out of the “mess” created by the US administration. It is worth noting that certain people in the U.S. sent a false signal to Taiwan independence forces. This is extremely dangerous. This will cause a disruption in bilateral ties if the Taiwan issue is not handled properly. China hopes the U.S. will pay attention to this matter. The current state of the China-U.S. relationship is directly due to the fact that some US officials have failed to follow through on the important agreement reached between the two presidents. They have also not taken action on President Biden’s positive statements. The U.S has misunderstood and miscalculated China’s strategic intentions.
President Xi stressed that there are and will be differences between China, the U.S. and other countries. It is important to manage these differences. Both sides benefit from a steadily improving relationship.
Both sides had a discussion about the current situation in Ukraine. Biden spoke out about the US position and indicated his willingness to communicate with China in order to avoid the situation getting worse.
President Xi stated that China doesn't want the situation in Ukraine to become worse. China is a strong supporter of peace and opposes war. This principle is a part of China's culture and history. China draws its conclusion independently on the merits of each case. China supports international law and internationally recognized norms that govern international relations. China supports the UN Charter and the vision of a common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security. These are the main principles underpinning China's approach in the Ukraine crisis. China has presented a six-point plan on Ukraine's humanitarian situation and is willing to continue humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and other countries that are affected. All sides must support Russia and Ukraine by supporting dialogue and negotiations that produce results and lead towards peace. NATO and the U.S. should have dialogue with Russia in order to resolve the Ukraine crisis and reduce security concerns for both Russia and Ukraine.
President Xi stressed the fact that countries all over the globe are facing difficult times because of the need to combat COVID-19 and also protect the economy and livelihoods of people. Leaders of large countries must think about how to address global hotspots and, more importantly, keep in mind global stability as well as the lives and work of billions. People would suffer if they were subject to sweeping and inexorable sanctions. They could cause serious crises in the global economy, trade, finance, and energy as well as food and industrial supply chains. This would result in irreversible losses and crippling of an already fragile world economy. Complex situations require that you remain calm-headed and rational, even if they become more complicated. No matter what the situation, political courage is necessary to make room for peace and allow for settlement. Two Chinese sayings are: “It takes two people to clap” and “He who tied a bell to a tiger must remove it.” It is essential that all parties show political will and reach a fair settlement, taking into account both immediate and long-term interests. The other parties should and can create the conditions for that end. It is essential to maintain dialogue and negotiation, avoid civilian casualties, stop a humanitarian crisis and end hostilities as soon as possible. A lasting solution would be to have major countries respect one another, abandon the Cold War mentality, avoid bloc confrontation, and build step-by-step a balanced, efficient, sustainable security architecture for the region as well as the global community. China has done its best to promote peace and will continue to do so.
Both presidents agreed that the video conference was constructive. The presidents directed their teams to immediately follow up on the call and to take concrete steps to get China-US relations back on a steady development track and to make respective efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis.
So, what are the messages from the superpowers to President Putin?
Message 1: The United States will continue to press Russia to reconsider its actions and to seek an end to the invasion of Ukraine through sanctions and assistance.
Message 2: China insists that Ukraine and Russia find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Message 3: The two largest ($300-trillion-plus-GDP) economic superpowers on Earth have common concerns. They are speaking to one another, fully aware of each other's differences but not allowing their differences to distract from the main objective of this episode.
Bottom line: This conversation was one in which, by design or circumstance, the target was fixed, and the other moved it. This is how humans deal with existential, extreme risks–the kind that Mr. Putin created through his own selfishness. While Putin may want to conquer and divide these two highly dependent national interests, he still has to convince them of their positions. Russia must stop believing in its propaganda and listen to the warnings of the world.
Can a lot go wrong? Yes. This is the scary part. It seems that neither the U.S. nor China want it to. It may be possible that Russia and Ukraine will take the bell from the tiger.