Joe Biden appears to be trying to force China’s hand over Ukraine. This follows days during which Beijing has tied itself in knots, offering to play a "positive role" for peace, but refusing to criticize Russia — avoiding even calling the invasion an invasion, and echoing Moscow’s justifications.

US officials at the weekend briefed American news outlets that Russia has asked China to provide military equipment, and requested additional economic assistance to help cushion the impact of Western sanctions. The officials, keen to protect their intelligence sources, declined to say precisely what Russia was seeking, nor...

Joe Biden appears to be trying to force China’s hand over Ukraine. This follows days during which Beijing has tied itself in knots, offering to play a “positive role” for peace, but refusing to criticize Russia — avoiding even calling the invasion an invasion, and echoing Moscow’s justifications.

US officials at the weekend briefed American news outlets that Russia has asked China to provide military equipment, and requested additional economic assistance to help cushion the impact of Western sanctions. The officials, keen to protect their intelligence sources, declined to say precisely what Russia was seeking, nor what China’s response had been. But they said they were watching closely and warned of “consequences” should Beijing come to Russia’s aid.

It seems no accident that the warning came just ahead of what is shaping up to be a key meeting in Rome today between Jake Sullivan, the White House national security advisor, and Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo and director of the party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission. Washington recognizes that China is the only country which has leverage with Russia, but is losing patience with the equivocations of Vladimir Putin’s “best friend” Xi Jinping.

“We are communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them,” Sullivan said in an interview with CNN. “We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country, anywhere in the world.”

Traditionally it is China that has bought military equipment from Russia, and not the other way round, with sales increasing sharply in recent years. But there are some areas, such as drones, where Beijing has developed considerable capabilities. If a request has come from Moscow, it will be seen as further evidence that the invasion is not going well.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijiang, on Monday called the reports “disinformation” and also attacked what he called the “unilateral sanctions” imposed by the West, from which he vowed to protect Chinese companies.

Beijing initially moved to cushion Russia from the impact of western sanctions. Hours after the invasion it lifted restrictions on wheat imports and moved ahead with large-scale energy deals. There was also talk of accepting payments in each other’s currencies, and more generally accelerating moves towards an alternative payments system to that dominated by the US dollar. In effect, Xi was underwriting Putin’s aggression.

But the scope and strength of western sanctions seem to have surprised China. It is dawning on Beijing that its own economy, much more global than that of Russia, is highly exposed to the fallout from the war and from the impact of secondary sanctions. Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary, warned last week that Chinese companies defying restrictions against exporting to Russia, would themselves be sanctioned. Caixin, a financial newspaper, reported that Chinese financial institutions were re-evaluating their business dealings with Russia. As the rouble plummeted, Chinese smart phone makers slashed shipments to the country. A report by Russia’s Interfax news agency said China had refused to supply Russian airlines with parts.

What China knew about the invasion and when is the course of considerable debate. US intelligence sources say that at a summit just ahead of the Winter Olympics, Xi asked Putin to delay any action until after the Games. Beijing has dismissed that as “fake news,” but it is very plausible that Xi knew, if only in broad terms.

The two share a deep paranoia about western democracies and a desire to create a new world order that is more friendly to autocrats. They share a dream of restoring past imperial glory, underpinned by grievance. If Xi has an issue with Putin’s aggression it is not with the aims, but the methods — the sheer barbarity, recorded in horrifying detail by twenty-four-hour news. The Russian leader is increasingly tainted.

China has always made a big thing of respect for “territorial integrity” and “sovereignty.” Historically, this hardly stands up to scrutiny, but it is central to Communist Party propaganda, and Putin is making a mockery of it.

China is in an uncomfortable position, and Washington knows it. After what appears to have been a good deal of private diplomacy with Beijing, a frustrated US is determined to force the issue. The way Xi reacts in the coming days will have profound implications for geopolitics for years to come.

This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.