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Chinese and U.S. officials meet in Rome to talk about war in Ukraine

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Some of the world's largest economies have united in the past few weeks in slapping sanctions on Russia and condemning its invasion of Ukraine. Now, a notable exception is the world's second largest economy, China. The U.S. is worried that China might help bail Russia out or help it circumvent the West's massive sanctions. To that end, top U.S. and Chinese officials met today in Rome.

NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch joins us to explain the significance. Hey, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So John, who was at this meeting, and was it primarily about those U.S. fears that China might end up helping Russia out?

RUWITCH: Yeah. This meeting was between national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese Politburo member, Yang Jiechi, who is the most senior foreign policy official in China. It was planned months ago and is really a follow-on to the virtual summit between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Biden in November, which focused on bilateral ties.

But Ukraine was a focus here and, in particular, what a senior administration official described as China's concerning alignment with Russia. That official described the talks as, you know, lasting several hours - seven hours, to be exact - candid. They were intense, and they reflected the gravity of the moment.

SUMMERS: OK, so you talked about a concerning alignment between China and Russia that the U.S. seems quite concerned about. Can you explain just a little bit more about that?

RUWITCH: Sure. I mean, you'll remember that China and Russia have been getting closer in recent years. Putin was - Vladimir Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympics. And on the eve of the invasion, the two countries said there were no limits to their relationship. China's Russia's biggest trade partner. Economic links have been getting deeper. And the China-Russia alignment is also strategic. You know, their relations have blossomed as both have seen ties with the U.S. deteriorate.

So from the U.S. side, they're really two sets of concerns here. One is economic. So there are, you know, concerns about what China might be able to do on the economic front to help Russia offset these damaging sanctions that have been imposed by the West. The second is military, really. Reporting has come out in recent days that Russia asked China for military assistance. The senior administration official said Sullivan was quite direct about those concerns and potential implications and consequences of actions.

SUMMERS: All right. So that's the U.S. perspective, but what is China's calculus in all of this?

RUWITCH: Well, China is kind of caught between its strategic partner, Russia, and its biggest economic partners, the U.S. and the EU, in all this. Beijing's been treading carefully. They've called for peace and made a vague offer to help mediate. They've sent a couple of shipments of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but Beijing has also rhetorically pretty much aligned with Russia.

I spoke with Yun Sun about this. She's the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, which is a think tank in Washington. And this is what she says China wants most right now.

YUN SUN: I think the Chinese genuinely wants to see this war to end sooner rather than later because this is a lot of reputational baggage for China. This also really puts China in a very difficult, awkward position.

RUWITCH: Yeah, an awkward position. So Beijing doesn't want to abandon Russia, but at the same time, it's deeply suspicious of U.S. strategic motivations in the Russia conflict and beyond.

SUMMERS: So John, in the about 30 seconds we have left here, what is the big underlying worry for China?

RUWITCH: It's a dangerous moment for China, right? I mean, Beijing obviously wants to try to avoid paying a heavy price for siding with Russia or being seen as siding with Russia. That's something that could feed into this democracy versus autocracy narrative that the Biden administration has been talking up and that Beijing has tried to oppose. You know, the Ukraine invasion has created an alliance that - among the U.S. and its friends - that if it were to shift focus to Asia would be, you know, a nightmare for Beijing.

SUMMERS: All right, we'll have to leave it there. NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch, thanks.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.