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US says China talks on Russia were a ‘substantial discussion’

A photo shows the main entrance of the Cavalieri Waldfor Astoria hotel in Rome on March 14, 2022. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

The U.S. and China offered positive assessments of their first high-level, in-person talks since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — with the White House calling discussions “substantial” and Beijing saying they were “constructive” — although they announced no specific outcomes or agreements.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan “raised a range of issues in U.S.-China relations,” including the war, in a roughly six-hour meeting in Rome with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, the White House said afterward. “They also underscored the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and China,” according to the statement on the meeting, which was initially planned as a follow-up to President Joe Biden’s video summit with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in November.

“The relatively moderate tone — amid a period of harsh recriminations from both sides — suggests an effort to preserve diplomatic space for a call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in coming days,” Eurasia Group analysts Neil Thomas, Michael Hirson and Ali Wyne wrote in a note. “Failure to hold a call — or an unproductive conversation — would be an ominous sign given that China’s position on Ukraine is a potential tipping point in the relationship.”

Yang reiterated China’s call for “all parties” in Ukraine to exercise restraint to protect civilians, according to a summary released Tuesday by the Foreign Ministry. He said China was opposed to the spread information that would “distort” or “smear” its position, in an apparent reference to claims by U.S. officials that Russia had asked China for military assistance shortly after the start of the war.

“China is committed to promoting peace talks,” said Yang, a member of the Communist Party’s 25-seat Politburo. “And the international community should jointly support the Russia-Ukraine peace talks to achieve substantive results as soon as possible, and push the situation to cool down as soon as possible.”

During the “constructive” talks with Sullivan, Yang stressed Beijing’s opposition to Washington’s support for Taiwan, which “concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Beijing considers democratically ruled Taiwan to be part of its territory.

U.S. officials had disclosed the Russian requests for China military assistance shortly before the talks — a sign that the Biden administration is increasingly concerned about the role Russia’s most powerful diplomatic partner could play in the conflict. A senior administration official declined to comment on Russia’s alleged request for Chinese aid and described the meeting as intense.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that Russia had all the resources it needed to complete its mission as planned.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday that U.S. officials raised concerns with their Chinese counterparts during the meeting. The two sides also discussed North Korea and Taiwan, the senior administration official told reporters in a briefing on condition of anonymity.

The Biden administration has sought to persuade Beijing to use its influence in Moscow to help end a conflict that has now entered its third week. The president’s top advisers have pressured China to enforce sanctions on Russia’s economy imposed by the U.S. and its European and Asian allies.

The senior administration official acknowledged that the administration has deep concerns about Russia’s alignment with China. Just weeks before the invasion, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared in a lengthy joint statement that the two nations’ friendship had “no limits.”

The talks between Sullivan and Yang began in the late morning at the luxury Rome Cavalieri hotel, according to people familiar with the meeting. They asked not to be identified discussing a confidential issue. The hotel was closed off to the media. Sullivan and Yang last met in Switzerland in October.

One American official said that Russia’s request for China’s assistance with its invasion was not new, and came shortly after the Feb. 24 invasion. A second official would not specify what kind of military equipment Moscow had requested and declined to say how the administration knew the information. Both officials asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

White House spokespeople declined to comment.

While the Biden administration has been careful not to call out China directly for what officials believe was its tacit support of the Ukraine invasion, the White House continues to stress that history will judge China’s actions relating to the war.

“We believe that China, in fact, was aware before the invasion took place that Putin was planning something,” Sullivan told CNN on Sunday. “They may not have understood the full extent of it because it’s very possible Putin lied to them the way he lied to Europeans and others.”

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