Unnamed US officials have been sharing questionable intelligence reports with journalists about Beijing’s support for Russia.
Has the US launched a soft offensive to pre-empt any possibilities of China providing Russia with material or logistical support for Moscow's offensive in Ukraine?
Recent media reports quoting unnamed US officials suggest so.
In the past two weeks, unnamed US officials have told media outlets that Beijing knew about the type of military plans Russia wanted to use in its war on Ukraine.
US officials have also been telling journalists that Russia had sought military assistance, including drones and surface-to-air missiles from Beijing, which had expressed willingness to help its major trading partner.
Both China and Russia have denied those reports, with Beijing calling it part of a disinformation campaign.
“Assertions that China knew about, acquiesced to or tacitly supported this war are purely disinformation,” Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the US, wrote in an opinion for The Washington Post.
“Had China known about the imminent crisis, we would have tried our best to prevent it,” he added.
Russia is facing stiff resistance around Ukrainian capital Kiev and has lost tanks and other military equipment, raising concerns over Moscow’s preparedness.
Just days after the conflict began late last month, The New York Times published a story on March 2, quoting unnamed US intelligence officials who believe China had knowledge about Russian military plans.
It also alleged that Beijing asked Moscow to delay the assault until the end of the Winter Olympics, which took place in China between February 4 and 20.
More recently, on March 15, The Financial Times reported that the US was telling allies that China had expressed willingness to give military assistance to Russia.
The US is known to play such mind games, especially in a global battle of perceptions with an adversary like China which can offset any setback faced by its all-weather friend Russia due to the western economic sanctions.
“I don’t trust this news. I think the US is using this to pressure China. I don’t quite believe that China will try to help Russia militarily,” says Zeno Leoni, a fellow of the defence studies department at King’s College, London.
“There is a dimension with what’s going on in Ukraine, and then there’s the US-China dimension. In fact, we shouldn't forget there was a trade war between the US and China,” he tells TRT World.
The US has been annoyed with China, which, along with 35 countries, didn’t support a March 2 UN General Assembly vote that called on Russian forces to withdraw from Ukraine immediately.
Leoni says it’s unlikely that Moscow and Beijing could have discussed any military cooperation over Ukraine at this point.
“It seemed very strange to me because there is nothing China can do for Russia at the moment,” he says.
“The problem Russia has faced in Ukraine has nothing to do with missiles, or tanks or troops. It's more about logistics, planning and morale of its soldiers.”
Military experts are baffled at the poor management of the Russian supply lines, which have left their armoured columns vulnerable to rocket attacks from Ukrainian soldiers and militias.
Threat of secondary sanctions
Officially, the US has scoffed at China’s position on the crisis in Ukraine.
Beijing supports the idea of preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity, meaning it doesn’t want Russia to annex further territory. Yet, at the same time, it has not condemned Russia and instead asked western powers to respect Moscow’s legitimate security concerns.
The US and its allies have imposed back-breaking sanctions in a bid to hurt the Russian economy. US officials have also threatened sanctions against Chinese firms if they tried to circumvent those sanctions.
Cut off from the global financial system, Moscow can turn to Beijing to purchase components and parts required to produce electronics such as computer systems.
But there’s already an indication that Chinese banks and companies are wary of being caught up in the web of secondary sanctions, targeting individuals and companies outside of Russia.
In any case, Washington won’t have a free ride when it comes to targeting Chinese entities.
“Because it’s one thing to sanction Russia, which has a limited impact on the global economy, and it’s another thing to sanction China (the world’s largest exporter,)” says Leoni.
China’s foreign minister Wang Yi has also said his country doesn’t want to get embroiled in the sanctions.
But Beijing might not mind risking sanctions if that helps it gain geopolitical ground down the road, says Leoni.
“I think China is happy to pay the price to an extent because it is at a stage of historical developments where it needs to make friends, allies and develop external influence.”