NUSA DUA, Indonesia — The battle in Ukraine shifted to a geopolitical front on Saturday, as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with the Chinese foreign minister at the end of a Group of 20 summit in Indonesia, pressing him to change positions and join the United States and partners to “stand up” against Russia’s war, while also trying to ease overall tensions with Beijing.
It was a change of tone for the Biden administration, which just over a week ago pushed for a NATO blueprint, released during a summit in Madrid, to include a sharp rebuke of China, labeling its policies “coercive,” its cyberoperations “malicious” and its rhetoric “confrontational.”
The Biden administration’s softer approach at the Group of 20 meeting reflected its conflicting foreign policy goals. As it works to shore up alliances with its Asian allies to constrain China, it is also trying to assemble a global effort to punish Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine — an effort that has little chance of success without cooperation from China foremost, but also from countries like India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia.
During the five-hour meeting, held on the Indonesian resort island of Bali one day after the summit of G20 foreign ministers, Mr. Blinken emphasized issues of shared interest with Beijing, including climate change and global health, while stressing the American concern with China’s alignment with Russia. It followed months of American warnings to China against sending weapons to Russia or helping Moscow evade Western sanctions imposed in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Mr. Blinken dismissed China’s claims to be neutral in the war between Russia and Ukraine as implausible. “I tried to convey to the state councilor that this really is a moment where we all have to stand up” to condemn Russian aggression, Mr. Blinken said, using the formal title for China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi.
“I would start with the proposition that it’s pretty hard to be neutral when it comes to this aggression,” Mr. Blinken said, pointing out that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, had stood by his declaration in February of a partnership with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and had even held a joint strategic bomber exercise in May.
“There’s a clear aggressor. There’s a clear victim.”
Mr. Wang responded sharply to Mr. Blinken’s statements, urging the United States to refrain from attacking China’s political system and recycling Cold War-era strategies of containment, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s readout of the meeting. He also called on Washington to remove tariffs on Chinese products and to stop imposing sanctions on Chinese companies.
“Many people thus believe that the United States suffers from a growing ‘China phobia,’” Mr. Wang said, echoing the Kremlin’s frequent complaints about “Russophobia.” “If this ‘expanding threat’ concept is allowed to keep growing, the United States’ China policy will soon become an inescapable dead end.”
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
The tête-à-tête followed the gathering of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 industrialized nations that ended without a traditional communiqué, reflecting the apparent impossibility of reaching a consensus amid the war in Ukraine. At two points in the sessions, when Russia came under sharp criticism for its attack on its neighbor, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, left abruptly, according to officials, and then departed the gathering before its conclusion.
However, Mr. Lavrov sat down with several ministers from nations that have declined to join the Western-led coalition against his country, including China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Argentina and Indonesia, putting into sharp relief the Biden administration’s challenge to isolate the country and highlighting Russia’s continued success at conducting business with the outside world and funding its relentless war machine.
Mr. Lavrov had good reasons to sit down with those countries, as they offer Russia’s best hope to avoid isolation. As Washington tries to put more emphasis on China and its relationship with Russia, large parts of the world are simply trying to stay out of the way.
Kim Darroch, the former British national security adviser and ambassador to Washington, said it was reminiscent of the nonaligned movement during the Cold War, when large parts of the developing world tried to avoid taking sides between the West and the Soviet Union.
“That thinking still pervades the governments of some of these big countries like India and South Africa,” Mr. Darroch said. “And never underestimate the impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, especially in Africa,” which gives China considerable political and financial leverage.
Even France and Germany worked to water down some of the language on Beijing in the NATO document, as China remains a crucial market for them.
Some foreign policy analysts were skeptical that Washington’s recent efforts would bear fruit.
“The U.S. and European countries have been pressuring China since February to take a tougher stand against Russia because of the invasion. But it is clear now that China is not going to be more critical of Russia,” said Noah Barkin, a specialist on Chinese-European relations from the Rhodium consultancy group.
As the war stretches into its fifth month, some have begun to wonder how long the United States can continue to support Ukraine’s military and economy, despite President Biden’s vow to stand with Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”
The United States has authorized $54 billion in military and other assistance, but no one expects another $54 billion check when that runs out — and there is no sign of the Russian offensive ending, though a recent missile strike on a shopping center in central Ukraine suggested that Moscow was running low on precision weaponry and increasingly turning to less sophisticated armaments that could hit unintended targets.
Meanwhile, as Ukrainian forces have lost ground in the eastern Donbas region, they appeared on Saturday to be intensifying their efforts in the south, particularly around Kherson, a lush agricultural area bracketing the Dnipro River that was the first to fall to Russian troops after the war began on Feb. 24.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian officials have characterized the fighting in the south as chipping away at Russian positions and taking back some territory, though the progress has been slow. They are also urging residents of the region to evacuate ahead of what they are hinting could be a major counteroffensive.
As for the United States and China, Linda Jakobson, deputy chair and founding director of China Matters, an independent think tank in Australia, said it was likely that Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi would meet in November to discuss their countries’ relations. While it would be their first in-person meeting since Mr. Biden became president, the two spent long hours together during the Obama administration, when Mr. Biden was vice president and Mr. Xi a senior party official.
“They’ve already shown that they believe in intensive dialogue, even if it doesn’t lead to concrete results,” she said. “And it at least doesn’t set back the relationship.”
Increasing the challenge of the American position is that while China has stood by Russia against the United States and NATO, it has not offered Russia any significant aid in its war effort, said François Heisbourg, a defense analyst with the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. Whatever the West does should not change that.
“What China does for Russia is less useful for Russia than what would happen if we press the Chinese too hard,” Mr. Heisbourg said.
Michael Crowley reported from Nusa Dua, Indonesia, Steven Erlanger from Brussels and Catherine Porter from Toronto. Reporting was contributed by Amy Qin in Taipei, Taiwan, Erika Solomon in Berlin, and Michael Schwirtz and Stanislav Kozliuk in Kyiv, Ukraine.