Biden, Xi to speak on Friday on Ukraine, competition

US President Joe Biden meeting Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a virtual summit on Nov 15, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - United States President Joe Biden will hold a call on Friday (March 18) with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, the White House said on Thursday, as the US piles pressure on China not to provide support to Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.

The planned phone call was announced by White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who said the call is part of ongoing US efforts to maintain open lines of communication between the two countries.

"The two leaders will discuss managing the competition between our two countries as well as Russia's war against Ukraine and other issues of mutual concern," she said.

China's Foreign Ministry said the two leaders are due to speak on Friday night, Beijing time. They will discuss Sino-US relations and exchange views on issues of common concern, the ministry said.

The call is Mr Biden and Mr Xi's first since November, and follows a meeting in Rome on Monday between White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi.

During that meeting, Mr Sullivan raised concerns about China's alignment with Russia. A senior Biden administration official said Mr Sullivan was direct with Mr Yang about "the potential implications and consequences" for China for providing support to Russia.

The Rome talks were described as intense but with no specific outcome.

"We have deep concerns about China's alignment with Russia. We are watching closely if China or any other country provides support - military, economic, or other support - to Russia," a senior administration official told Reuters.

China has aligned its rhetoric with that of Russia, and Mr Xi and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin had declared weeks before the invasion that their countries' friendship had "no limits". China has also said it wants to avoid being impacted by US sanctions over the war in Ukraine.

The Biden administration has tried to persuade Beijing to use its influence to help end the war, but has generally been reluctant to publicly admonish Beijing for tacit support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Instead, it has said every nation will be judged by history for its role in the war, and US officials have warned China both publicly and privately that they would face serious consequences for helping Russia by softening the blow of sanctions.

Beijing denied any efforts to help Moscow, and Chinese officials said they want to see the conflict end.

China’s foreign ministry on Thursday endorsed remarks by its envoy to Ukraine, in which Beijing delivered some of its most supportive comments yet towards the war-torn country. 

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Ambassador Fan Xianrong told Lviv Governor Maksym Kozytskyi during a meeting on Monday that China was a “friendly country for the Ukrainian people” and would “never attack Ukraine”, according to a summary posted on the Lviv government’s website.

He went on to praise the strength and unity demonstrated by the Ukrainian people, in an apparent reference to their efforts to resist Russia’s ongoing invasion. 

Asked about Mr Fan’s comments at a news conference on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “China surely supports these remarks by our ambassador in Ukraine. China supports all efforts that are conducive to easing the situation and for a political settlement.”

A day earlier, Mr Zhao had said he was “not aware” of the comments, fuelling uncertainty about whether Mr Fan was expressing the central government’s position.

The world’s two largest economies also continue to spar over human rights and economic policies. The Biden administration has yet to unveil actions against what it considers China’s harmful non-market practices.

Mr Biden and Mr Xi last spoke in November, during a video conference in which Mr Biden stressed that the two superpowers need to establish guardrails to ensure their competition does not veer into conflict.

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