The U.S. believes China may be providing nonlethal military assistance to Russia for use in Ukraine, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the matter, and the administration worries China is considering sending lethal aid.
While China has provided some help to Russia, including parroting Russian disinformation campaigns about the war and promoting Russian false pretexts for the war, this is more tangible assistance for Russian troops in Ukraine, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The officials declined to provide specifics about the nonlethal military assistance but said it could include gear for the spring offensive, such as uniforms or even body armor.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not reply to a request for comment over the weekend. Asked by Bloomberg about reports of Chinese lethal assistance to Russia, a spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, "The U.S is not qualified to give orders to China. We will never accept U.S’s criticism, even coercion and pressure on China-Russia relations."
In the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, senior U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, warned Beijing not to provide material support to Russia for the war or there would be consequences. China seemed to be complying and did not sell lethal weapons systems to Russia.
“We have been clear about our concerns about lethal aid. We have not yet seen them cross that line, but we don’t think they have taken it off the table,” according to a source familiar with the situation.
The source said China was trying “to creep up to the line without getting caught,” and that recent trend lines point to potentially more tangible Chinese government support for the Russian military.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, met after the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, and a source familiar with the conversation said this was “an essential topic of conversation.” Blinken and other U.S. officials have been sharing information about the Chinese assistance to Russia with allies and partners at the conference.
Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at the conference Saturday and said China had grown closer to Russia.
“We are also troubled that Beijing has deepened its relationship with Moscow since the war began,” she said. “Looking ahead, any steps by China to provide lethal support to Russia would only reward aggression, continue the killing, and further undermine a rules-based order.”
The U.S. is consulting with allies and partners in Munich and elsewhere and sharing the concerning trend lines on China support for Russia, according to sources familiar with the conversations.
Bloomberg and CNN reported in January that the Biden administration had confronted Chinese government officials with evidence suggesting that Chinese companies had been providing nonlethal support to Russia in the war.
Now U.S. officials say the assistance is coming from the Chinese government itself.
It’s not clear if the support violates any sanctions, the officials said, or if the U.S. would impose new sanctions or costs on China for this nonlethal support, but sources familiar with the administration’s thinking said the U.S. would not hesitate to target those who violate sanctions.