It is a pivotal moment for China, as the world waits to see if it will try to halt Russia’s invasion of Ukraine . Beijing has been cautious so far, refusing to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. But suspicion is growing in the West amid reports that Russia has asked China for military and economic aid. China’s support could tilt the balance in Putin’s war, which is now in its third week and intensifying, as the human toll mounts. Its decision will also be consequential for Beijing’s global standing, and its relations with Moscow, Washington and Brussels. Against this backdrop, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi met US national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Rome on Monday – a meeting that ran for seven hours and was described by both sides as “intense” and “candid”. Few details were given, though Sullivan was said to have been “direct” about Beijing’s perceived tacit support for Putin, warning China would face severe “consequences” if it helped Russia evade Western sanctions. Yang was also blunt about what he called the White House’s efforts to “distort” or “smear” China’s position. While hot-button issues like Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and North Korea were discussed at the meeting – which had been planned for weeks – Ukraine was the focus. Given the parlous state of US-China ties, however, there was little expectation they would agree on much beyond keeping the lines of communication open. But this was an important encounter at a time when Beijing’s hedging strategy has become increasingly untenable, as the West stands united against Russia and piles pressure on China to intervene. In fast-changing Europe, rage against Russia fuels suspicion of China From Beijing’s perspective, aligning with Moscow could offset some of the pressure from their common adversary Washington. China may also benefit from the US preoccupation with Putin’s war in the short term – a distraction from its focus on the Indo-Pacific. However, the transatlantic unity against Russia also gives an indication of how the US and Europe could confront China in the future. And perhaps more importantly, with Russia likely to be significantly weakened by the Ukraine conflict, Moscow may not be a reliable buffer for Beijing in a new cold war. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin may have declared their nations’ partnership has “no limits” but it would make little sense for Beijing to go out of its way to bail out Moscow. It may just be a matter of time before it moves away from Russia – after all, as the maxim goes, nations have no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.