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U.S. warns China not to supply lethal aid to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

China's top diplomat went to Russia this week. Wang Yi was in Moscow, and his visit illustrated a reality - China remains one of Russia's very few powerful friends in the world. Though Chinese diplomats talk often about sovereignty and have even said that Ukraine's sovereignty should be respected, China has not abandoned Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Now the United States is warning China not to support Russia's invasion more actively. Robert Daly joins us next. He's director of the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. Good morning, sir.

ROBERT DALY: Good to be back with you.

INSKEEP: Yeah. It's good to talk with you. How is China helping Russia right now?

DALY: Well, China is helping Russia through providing an awful lot of dual-use technology - things like semiconductors, drones, chemical precursors that can be used in weapons. And it's also helping Russia by buying a lot of its hydrocarbons and by sticking up for Russia rhetorically. It's repeating on global stages and in front of anybody who asks that it is really the fault of the United States and NATO that Russia and Ukraine are at war. They are pushing the Russian line that it was NATO's expansion eastward that truly threatened Russian sovereignty and that justified the violence.

INSKEEP: OK. So buying Russian oil and gas, which sends them money, sending them technology and other materials. But then the question becomes, is there something more that China seems likely to do?

DALY: Well, clearly, the United States has specific intelligence indicating that China is thinking about - not that it's done it - but is thinking about directly providing lethal aid. And Secretary of State Blinken warned the Chinese foreign minister last week in Munich that China must not take this step or there will be serious repercussions, meaning more sanctions. And the United States is also sharing this intelligence with allies. So the NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has also warned China that he sees evidence that it is considering providing lethal aid. And so NATO and the United States are warning China against taking this step.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to think of what China might have that Russia could use in this situation. We know that Russia has a lot of weapons. We also know that they've used a lot of ammunition. They may be running low. They've needed to get drones from Iran. Are there specific military - pieces of military hardware that the Chinese may have that the Russians could use?

DALY: Well, ammunition, artillery, armed drones would all be in the mix. The great difficulty for China is that anything that it provided along these lines would be discovered on the battlefield in Ukraine. China is not going to be able to do this secretly, and it surely knows that. So to provide lethal aid would be to cast its lot wholly with Putin in a way that it's been hesitant to do to date.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, that gets to the next question. Russia has, as famously said a year ago, a no-limits partnership with China. But are there, in fact, limits?

DALY: There have been limits so far. China has not criticized Russia, and it's provided all sorts of aid, as we've said. It claims to have a neutral position, but the West doesn't buy that. China has clearly been working closely with Russia in many ways and it had been before the invasion of Ukraine. So the question now is, does China see a real risk that Russia could lose or that Putin could be defeated in a way that would leave China without its major ally in a confrontation with the United States? It is fear of that that would be behind any Chinese decision to provide lethal aid. It hasn't wanted to take that step. The posture of peacemaker is very important for Xi Jinping, both before the world and before his own people. But he also sees himself in an existential competition with the United States for which he needs Russia. So any decision to provide lethal aid would reflect a Chinese fear that Putin was losing.

INSKEEP: Oh, I'm glad that you said the word peacemaker, because China is widely expected to unveil some kind of peace plan for Ukraine. Can you imagine anything practical coming of that?

DALY: No. On Friday, China is going to unveil something. But China, of course, is, from a slightly different angle, trapped in the same problem that all other potential peacemakers are, which is that Putin cannot be rewarded for his aggression, but nor can he be utterly defeated and humiliated. He has to be given something if a peace is going to hold. And so China generally hides behind broad statements. And one that it issued two days ago - things like, only security based on morality and correct ideas can have a solid foundation. So they talk about sovereignty and noninterference in affairs, but we've seen nothing specific.

INSKEEP: OK. Just the idea of correct ideas. OK. That's all they've got.

DALY: Yes.

INSKEEP: Robert, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

DALY: Good to talk with you. Thanks.

INSKEEP: Robert Daly is director of the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.