The U.S. has accused China of mulling the possibility of sending weapons to Russia to help support its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, further ratcheting up international tensions as the conflict hits its one-year mark this week.
What has the U.S. actually said?
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS that China was now "considering providing lethal support" to Moscow ranging "from ammunition to the weapons themselves."
"We've made very clear to them that that would cause a serious problem for us and in our relationship," he added.
He made similar comments in a series of interviews from Germany, where on Saturday he attended the Munich Security Conference and met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.
Has the U.S. shown any proof?
At the moment, it’s just the accusation.
Appearing Sunday on ABC, Blinken emphasized that US President Joe Biden had warned his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, as long ago as last March against sending weapons to Russia.
Since that time, "China has been careful not to cross that line, including by holding off on selling lethal weapons systems for use on the battlefield," an administration source familiar with the issue told AFP.
What would China have to gain from sending Russia weapons?
The U.S. did not say what it thought China would have to gain from the move, though Bejing’s ascent to global superpower has occurred in the current international order including through friendly relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
China may be mulling the move as an attempt to avoid any drastic shake-ups that could affect its standing on the global stage.
But giving military support to Russia at this late stage of the conflict when things aren’t going the Kremlin’s way would be a risky move.
A top US Republican senator who also attended the Munich conference, Lindsey Graham, said it would be a serious mistake for China to provide Russia with weapons.
Doing so now, he said, would be "dumber than dirt. It would be like buying a ticket on the Titanic after you saw the movie."
Graham also said he believed the U.S. should declare Russia a state sponsor of terror for its actions in Ukraine – which would mean that China or any other country supplying it with arms would face sanctions.
How has China reacted?
Beijing lashed out on Monday against what it said were "false" claims, saying: "It is the United States and not China that is endlessly shipping weapons to the battlefield.
"We urge the United States to earnestly reflect on its own actions, and do more to alleviate the situation, promote peace and dialogue, and stop shifting blame and spreading false information."
What has China’s stance been so far?
There have been concerns China is deepening ties with Russia despite the conflict – but Wang insisted that Beijing was playing a constructive role, and would support dialogue and potential peace talks.
The closest thing Russia has to global superpower support is China, though it is far from definitive or unconditional. China has never condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nor has it endorsed it.
China has walked a delicate and slightly ambiguous line that has at times echoed the Kremlin’s line, referring to the invasion as a “special military operation”, for instance and abstaining from United Nations votes condemning it.
Last year China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his country would help Russia “overcome difficulties, eliminate disturbances, realize the strategic goals of development, and further establish Russia on the international stage.”
Yet this contrasted sharply with comments just two weeks previously from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning, who called for de-escalation, adding, “all countries deserve respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and that “support should be given to all efforts that are conducive to peacefully resolving the crisis.
Russia has repeatedly requested arms from China, but as far as is known, Beijing has balked.
China has, however, provided non-lethal equipment such as flak jackets and helmets, according to U.S. intelligence sources.
One way in which China is undoubtedly supporting Moscow is by increasing imports of Russian oil and gas.
But China remains wary of doing more in case it incurs the wrath of debilitating Western sanctions.
What’s the bigger picture?
Blinken leveled the allegations as US-Chinese relations have been further tested by Washington's shooting down this month of what it said was a large Chinese spy balloon.
Blinken's meeting with Wang – the highest-level encounter between the countries since US jets shot down the Chinese balloon on Feb. 4 – did not appear to smooth over recent friction. "I told him quite simply that that was unacceptable and can never happen again," Blinken told CBS about the balloon incident.
Wang on Saturday dismissed the US allegations of high-altitude spying in uncharacteristically strong language, calling them "hysterical and absurd."
Blinken said that his counterpart had offered him "no apology."
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