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The Biden administration has recently raised concerns with China about evidence it has suggesting that Chinese companies have sold non-lethal equipment to Russia for use in Ukraine, in an effort to ascertain how much Beijing knows about the transactions, according to two US officials.
That equipment includes items like flak jackets and helmets, multiple sources familiar with US and European intelligence told CNN, but stops short of the more robust military assistance that Russia has requested.
The equipment transfers are “concerning,” one of the US officials said, but at this stage, it’s not clear to Washington whether the central government is aware of it. Although state-owned enterprises dominate China’s economy, not all are subject to day-to-day oversight.
Some US officials believe that the Chinese government knows about the equipment transfers and should take steps to upend them, the second official said.
While the Biden administration is still weighing the impact and overall significance of the support, it is a matter of increasing concern among US officials.
The US officials declined to offer details on the communications between the Biden administration and Beijing.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken travels to China in the coming weeks, and the transfers are expected to be a topic of discussion, the second official said.
CNN has reached out to the Chinese Embassy in Washington for comment. Bloomberg first reported the contact between the Biden administration and Beijing.
If the Biden administration does determine that the central government of China is intentionally providing assistance to Russia’s invasion – or knowingly allowing that assistance – the administration would have to decide how forcefully to respond. Dating back to the very early days of the war, top aides to President Joe Biden have issued warnings to China of the potential consequences should China choose to support Russia in the conflict.
Such direct material aid from the Chinese government would also represent an apparent deepening of China’s self-proclaimed partnership with Moscow, which up until now has appeared carefully calibrated.
China and Russia publicly declared a “friendship without limits” at the outset of the conflict. But as Russia’s progress on the battlefield has spluttered and the international community has rallied around Ukraine, China has stopped short of offering much of the financial and military support Moscow has requested. Beijing — deeply intertwined economically with the West in ways Russia is not — has wanted to avoid angering the global community, sources with familiar with US intelligence said.
The US believes that at the outset of the war, China intended to sell lethal weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine, the US official said. But China significantly scaled back on those plans since then, this person said – something the Biden administration views as a victory.
American intelligence officials have consistently said that they have not seen any evidence that China has provided lethal aid to Russia.
“It turns out that there actually are some limits to that partnership, at least in terms of President Xi’s reluctance to supply the kind of military assistance to Putin that he’s asked for in the course of the war in Ukraine,” CIA director Bill Burns told PBS’ Judy Woodruff in December.
Still, China has avoided publicly criticizing Russia’s war efforts and the two countries have repeatedly emphasized their partnership.
In December, after a virtual meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the two countries would strengthen cooperation between their armed forces and pointed to a growth in trade.