US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, are set to undertake their first bilateral talks since November, amid growing US anxiety about Beijing’s connection with Russia and its stance on Ukraine’s increasingly violent war.

The White House said that Biden and Xi will speak by phone at 13:00 GMT on Friday, amid warnings from Washington that China may consider giving military assistance to Russia.

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When President Joe Biden speaks with China’s Xi Jinping on Friday, it will be more than simply another phone contact in a never-ending frenzy of phone diplomacy.

This call comes at a potentially critical juncture in US-China relations. White House officials are observing the burgeoning friendship between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin with increasing anxiety, and China’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been troubling to western observers. Beijing looks to be neither entirely supportive nor directly opposed, creating an ambiguous position that Biden intends to analyse and influence when he meets with Xi on Friday.

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Officials at the White House predicted that the call would become heated; a preparatory meeting between the two leaders’ advisers lasted seven hours earlier this week. And Biden raised the stakes a day before his call, claiming that his Chinese counterpart “does not believe democracies can be sustained in the 21st century.”

1. The call comes at a key stage in the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Biden will meet with Xi at a critical time. According to US authorities, China is debating whether to send military or financial aid to Russia, which has sought it due to significant military losses in Ukraine. If China accepts, it might have a long-term negative impact on its relationship with the West.

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“We’re concerned that they’re considering directly assisting Russia with military equipment to use in Ukraine,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed what other US officials had been warning for days on Thursday.

Already, the US has indicated to several NATO partners that it believes China is willing to support Russia, even if Moscow denies asking for it and Beijing denies offering any assistance.

According to American officials, Xi is disturbed by Russia’s invasion and the performance of Russia’s military, which has suffered logistical and strategic failures since the invasion began more than two weeks ago.

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Xi, who was watching from Beijing, was taken off guard by the fact that his own intelligence had been unable to forecast what would happen, despite the fact that the US had been warning of an invasion for weeks, according to officials.

2. China might offer Russia a number of support

According to US sources, China is unlikely to offer Russia with big offensive assets such as tanks or jets. Instead, authorities said they anticipated China would send smaller supplies like as meals, ammo, spare parts, or surveillance equipment, if anything at all.

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Officials said it’s still feasible that China will help Russia relieve the consequences of draconian Western sanctions through financial assistance, though it’s unlikely that the country will be able to totally mitigate the effects of the US and European penalties.

During their phone chat, Biden aims to convey to Xi the risks of helping Russia’s conflict, whether through military or financial aid. Blinken stated that he will “make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression and we will not hesitate to impose costs.”

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The Communist Party’s 20th National Congress in Beijing this fall is largely expected to give Xi a record third term in power. During such a critical year, western experts believe Xi will be more cautious of the economic risks posed by secondary penalties. According to China’s official data, trade between the European Union and China over $800 billion last year, and trade between the United States and China exceeded $750 billion, while trade with Russia was just under $150 billion.

However, there is still a disagreement within the administration about what steps to take against China if it decides to support Russia. Biden and his team have refused to publicly explain the measures they are considering, but have warned China that there will be “consequences” if they help Russia.

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3. US must handle a ‘cold-blooded’ alliance between Russia and China

Even before Russia attacked Ukraine, US officials were wary about Putin and Xi’s growing friendship. Last week, CIA Director Bill Burns stated that the collaboration was founded on “a lot of very cold-blooded reasons.”

In a lengthy letter issued in February, when Putin visited Beijing for discussions and to attend the Winter Olympics opening ceremony, the two presidents declared their friendship had “no limits.” According to the text, China supports Russia’s core demand to the West, with both sides “opposing further enlargement of NATO.”

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Since then, the cooperation has been put to the test as Xi considers how to respond to Russia’s war in Ukraine. The White House has been closely monitoring Beijing’s fluctuating response, which has ranged from denying an invasion would occur to attempting to escape Western condemnation by presenting itself as eager to join in mediation.

Officials in the United States have received conflicting signals. When China abstained from a United Nations condemnation vote against Russia, it was interpreted as a sign of Beijing’s distance from the country. Last month, a prominent Chinese official stated that Ukraine’s sovereignty must be recognised.

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Other indicators, like China’s amplification of Russian disinformation, hint to a more conciliatory approach. And top US officials have stated that the absence of condemnation is sufficient evidence of China’s allegiance.

“We believe China in particular has a responsibility to use its influence with President Putin and to defend the international rules and principles that it professes to support,” Blinken said Thursday. “Instead, it appears that China is moving in the opposite direction by refusing to condemn this aggression while seeking to portray itself as a neutral arbiter.”

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4. American allies in Asia are intently monitoring China’s response to the Ukraine crisis

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which violated its sovereignty and plunged Europe into its deadliest conflict in decades, has sent shockwaves around the world. Taiwan, China’s self-governing island, is one place that is keeping a careful eye on things.

Beijing has recently increased military aircraft around the island and warned against American assistance. Even though a Chinese invasion of Taiwan did not appear to be imminent in the early days of the Ukraine crisis, there were suspicions that Russia’s invasion would foreshadow one.

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American officials have now downplayed the connections, claiming that the united reaction to Russia may force China to reconsider its ambitions for Taiwan. Russia’s incursion has mobilised not only the West and NATO, but also countries in the Asia-Pacific region, something American intelligence believed Xi was unprepared for, assuming instead that economic interests would prevent countries in the region from implementing harsh sanctions.

Even some members of Biden’s national security staff were taken aback by how swiftly several US partners in Asia, like Japan and Australia, were willing to impose sanctions on Russia following its invasion.

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5. Biden and Xi have a long relationship – and extremely different worldviews

Biden frequently mentions the lengthy hours he spent with Xi while both were vice presidents of their respective countries. He claims to have spent the most time with Xi than any other world leader.

Despite this, they haven’t met in person since Biden assumed office, and Xi hasn’t left China during the Covid epidemic. As a result, they have had to meet via web conference or phone, which Biden has stated is not ideal.

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He and his staff have laboured to develop a strategy of managed competition with China. They have maintained the tariffs set by former President Donald Trump and have chastised China for failing to meet its promises under a Trump-era trade agreement.

Prior to the Ukraine conflict, Biden appeared bent on turning American foreign policy toward Asia, where he sees competition between the US and China as the century’s defining issue.

And, despite the fact that the Ukraine issue has absorbed the White House in recent weeks, officials think they can still preserve their overarching vision.