US-China relations
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Derek Chollet is a senior adviser in the US Department of State. Photo: AP

Beijing will pay if it helps Russia evade sanctions, US State Department official warns

  • ‘China, if it were to seek to evade the sanctions, or somehow dividing the sanctions, they would be vulnerable,’ says Derek Chollet
  • The nations that have joined in sanctioning Russia represent a combined 50 per cent of the global economy; China accounts for around 15 per cent

If China tries to help Russia evade sanctions in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, it will face countermeasures, a senior US State Department official said on Thursday, without providing details.

State Department counsellor Derek Chollet said the allied nations that have joined in sanctioning Russia represent a combined 50 per cent of the global economy; China accounts for around 15 per cent.

“China, if it were to seek to evade the sanctions, or somehow dividing the sanctions, they would be vulnerable,” he said. “Any country that tries to evade these sanctions will also face the consequences of its actions. I don’t want to speculate with that would be.”

China has tried to walk a fine line as the US and its allies have unveiled a sweeping array of punitive financial and economic measures, stating that it neither supports, nor will it take part in imposing sanctions.


How international sanctions imposed since Ukraine invasion are hitting Russia

How international sanctions imposed since Ukraine invasion are hitting Russia

“China firmly opposes all illegal unilateral sanctions, and believes that sanctions are never fundamentally effective means to solve problems,” Liu Pengyu, spokesman in the Chinese embassy in Washington, said on Thursday.

But Beijing has declined to say whether it would help Moscow in evading them.

On the eve of the invasion, with tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the Ukraine border, China’s ambassador to Russia, Zhang Hanhui, said Beijing was “pleased” to see that the yuan was widely used in Russian trade, investment and foreign reserve transactions; within hours of the attack, Beijing announced it was fully open to Russian wheat imports despite earlier restrictions it had imposed over potential plant diseases.

Chollet declined to comment on reports, based on US intelligence sources, that senior Russian officials warned the Chinese on February 4 that they were planning a “military operation” in Ukraine. According to the sources, Beijing did not express support or opposition when given advance notice but asked that any action be delayed until after the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Told of Ukraine move, China asked Russia to wait until Olympics ended: sources

The invasion started on February 24, four days after the closing ceremony.

“I can’t speak to that, whether they were surprised by Russia’s actions,” said Chollet, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “A lot of the world was surprised. We weren’t because we were seeing the intel and trying to share it with everyone the best we could.”

He said Washington has been talking with China at “all levels”, initially hoping Beijing would convince Moscow to call off its invasion and subsequently would try and get President Vladimir Putin to stop the invasion, de-escalate and agree to a diplomatic solution. Despite a second round of negotiations on Thursday, Putin vowed to fight on.

“This is a consistent message that we’ve given the Chinese and all other countries. Now is the time for the world to step up and speak with one voice against what is an unprovoked, unjustified, premeditated invasion,” said Chollet, who has previously held positions at the White House and Department of Defence.

‘China should be worried’: Anger grows in Europe as Russian invasion rolls on

A secondary US objective would be for Beijing to help address the massive humanitarian crisis caused by the Russian invasion, the US official added. “The bottom line is, we want China to become more a part of the solution, not trying to stand on the sidelines or, worse, exacerbate problems.”

President Joe Biden’s administration made effective and innovate diplomatic use of US National Security Agency intelligence leading up to the crisis, analysts said. This involved sharing confidential information with allies, declassified intelligence with the public and repeatedly issuing warnings on Putin’s plans, citing the information.

At one point, according to a New York Times report, Washington even shared the intelligence with Beijing and urged it to try and dissuade Moscow only to see China turn around and inform Russia. Moscow subsequently derided the US for “hysteria”.

“You can imagine how angry that made folks at the NSC,” said Jeffrey Moon, a former National Security Council official.

Chollet said the intelligence-sharing approach was effective and helped prepare people for the sacrifices that sanctions would require, but added that every crisis was different and that the same playbook would not necessarily be effective next time.

Zhang Jun, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations, abstained on Wednesday in a General Assembly vote denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Xinhua

On Wednesday, 141 nations voted in a rare special session of the United Nations General Assembly to condemn the Russian invasion, 35 including China abstained and five including Russia opposed.

In a press conference on Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China did so because the resolution failed to consider the “history and complexity” of the situation.

Chollet said Washington would have preferred that China support a tougher UN Security Council resolution Sunday – which was vetoed by Russia as China abstained – or that it had outright supported the resolution on Wednesday resolution. “Sometimes even abstentions speak very loudly,” he said.

UN experts say that China prefers working behind the scenes whenever possible without showcasing its opposition, in keeping with Wednesday’s abstention.

“Even though Russia uses its veto more promiscuously, while China often abstains, it is hard to imagine council action in the current environment where the two former antagonists would be on opposite sides,” said a 2020 Brookings Institution report.

China ‘concerned’ about Ukraine’s nuclear safety as Russians advance

On Thursday, Wang repeated China’s claim that provocative US statements caused the Russian invasion. “We hope the culprits of the crisis can reflect upon their roles in the Ukraine crisis,” Wang said. “They should earnestly shoulder due responsibilities.”

Chollet rebuked the claim and pointed out that Beijing was in the global minority.

“I can’t get into their motives on what’s behind what they said. All I can say is I categorically reject any suggestion that somehow Russia’s unprovoked, unjustified invasion of Ukraine, of the largest country in Europe, is somehow anyone’s fault other than their own.

“Not just the United States rejects that, but the balance of the world rejects that by a large margin.”

‘China will not ride to the rescue’ even as Russia trade defies sanctions

China – currently the object of a raft of US and EU sanctions after its crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, where up to 1 million Uygurs are in detention camps that Beijing characterises as employment centres – has long opposed sanctions.

When it has signed on – as it did in early 2016, supporting a United Nations resolution against ally North Korea after Pyongyang tested what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb – it has been criticised for undercutting their effectiveness.

“These are going to be meaningful sanctions against Russia and this is going to hurt,” said Chollet. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”