The Biden administration’s diplomatic outreach to China to try to avert war began after President Biden and Mr. Xi held a video summit on Nov. 15. In the talk, the two leaders acknowledged challenges in the relationship between their nations, which is at its lowest point in decades, but agreed to try to cooperate on issues of common interest, including health security, climate change and nuclear weapons proliferation, White House officials said at the time.
After the meeting, American officials decided that the Russian troop buildup around Ukraine presented the most immediate problem that China and the United States could try to defuse together. Some officials thought the outcome of the video summit indicated there was potential for an improvement in U.S.-China relations. Others were more skeptical, but thought it was important to leave no stone unturned in efforts to prevent Russia from attacking, one official said.
Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine
What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
Days later, White House officials met with the ambassador, Qin Gang, at the Chinese Embassy. They told the ambassador what U.S. intelligence agencies had detected: a gradual encirclement of Ukraine by Russian forces, including armored units. William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, had flown to Moscow on Nov. 2 to confront the Russians with the same information, and on Nov. 17, American intelligence officials shared their findings with NATO.
At the Chinese Embassy, Russia’s aggression was the first topic in a discussion that ran more than one and a half hours. In addition to laying out the intelligence, the White House officials told the ambassador that the United States would impose tough sanctions on Russian companies, officials and businesspeople in the event of an invasion, going far beyond those announced by the Obama administration after Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
The U.S. officials said the sanctions would also hurt China over time because of its commercial ties.
They also pointed out they knew how China had helped Russia evade some of the 2014 sanctions, and warned Beijing against any such future aid. And they argued that because China was widely seen as a partner of Russia, its global image could suffer if Mr. Putin invaded.
The message was clear: It would be in China’s interests to persuade Mr. Putin to stand down. But their entreaties went nowhere. Mr. Qin was skeptical and suspicious, an American official said.