Analysis on Two Superpowers: Joseph R. Biden and Xi Jinping Discuss the Fate of Ukraine

AP Photo/Sam McNeil

One of the most important, two-hour telephone calls of the post-Cold War took place on Friday, March 18, 2022. U.S. President Joseph Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. The discussion laid out the US and Chinese positions on the conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, which is now in its 23rd day.


The United States noted our position — that we want to draw the conflict to an end by compelling Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin to abandon his invasion of Ukraine, through a regime of economic sanctions against Russia and military assistance to the Ukrainian government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The unfolding events in Ukraine increasingly indicate that Mr. Putin may have bitten off more than he bargained for. The Ukrainians have proven to be more determined than Russia’s Federal Security Service’s (FSB’s) foreign intelligence branch had indicated to Mr. Putin. They had apparently thought the Mr. Zelenskyy would flee the country when they entered, perhaps inaccurately thinking he would do what another failed US ally, Mohamed Ashraf Ghani, did in Afghanistan, only seven months prior. They also thought that Ukrainians would welcome the Russian army with open arms. The FSB was mistaken and Mr. Putin has supposedly placed some senior officials under house arrest.

The Ukranian resistance is effective enough that Mr. Putin is also said to have replaced several of the generals commanding the operation. The result of this change, based on press coverage of the war, is a shift from the relative avoidance of targeting civilians to one of deliberately attacking ordinary Ukrainians to break the morale of the people and force Mr. Zelenskyy to accept Moscow’s ceasefire terms.

Within this morass, the Russian military seems to be finding itself having to shift from its assumption of a “cake walk,” short war — where they would replace a corrupt government with a friendly one at low cost.  It now faces a conflict where the cost in soldiers and equipment is growing, and the logistics of the supply lines to sustain it are stretching thin.

Ukraine asked for outside assistance even before hostilities began, and has a much more developed process of replenishment to sustain its war effort than the set piece, timeline-minded Russians. Their field commanders are beginning to adapt, and they are realizing they need more men, equipment, ammunition, fuel, food, and supplies to prevail. And Mr. Putin has reached out to his “friend” Xi Jinping, hoping to obtain help to counterweight the Western support for Ukraine.


This is something the United States does not want China to do. And Mr. Biden has taken the extraordinary step of speaking to his Chinese counterpart about it directly. Both the White House and Chinese government have issued their statements regarding the phone call. I believe it’s important enough to every American that you take the opportunity to read it firsthand. What is important to bear in mind, as you watch the delicate diplomatic maneuvering of the true superpowers of this planet, is that you and I are not the intended audience of these statements — Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy are.



The White House readout on the phone call is deliberately terse in tone.

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke today with President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The conversation focused on Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. President Biden outlined the views of the United States and our Allies and partners on this crisis. President Biden detailed our efforts to prevent and then respond to the invasion, including by imposing costs on Russia. He described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians. The President underscored his support for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. The two leaders also agreed on the importance of maintaining open lines of communication, to manage the competition between our two countries. The President reiterated that U.S. policy on Taiwan has not changed, and emphasized that the United States continues to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo. The two leaders tasked their teams to follow up on today’s conversation in the critical period ahead.

The Chinese debrief on the phone call comes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. It says:


“On the evening of 18 March, President Xi Jinping had a video call with US President Joe Biden at the request of the latter. The two Presidents had a candid and in-depth exchange of views on China-US relations, the situation in Ukraine, and other issues of mutual interest.

President Biden said that 50 years ago, the US and China made the important choice of issuing the Shanghai Communiqué. Fifty years on, the US-China relationship has once again come to a critical time. How this relationship develops will shape the world in the 21st century. Biden reiterated that the US does not seek a new Cold War with China; it does not aim to change China’s system; the revitalization of its alliances is not targeted at China; the US does not support “Taiwan independence”; and it has no intention to seek a conflict with China. The US is ready to have candid dialogue and closer cooperation with China, stay committed to the one-China policy, and effectively manage competition and disagreements to ensure the steady growth of the relationship. President Biden expressed readiness to stay in close touch with President Xi to set the direction for the US-China relationship.

President Xi noted the new major developments in the international landscape since their first virtual meeting last November. The prevailing trend of peace and development is facing serious challenges. The world is neither tranquil nor stable. As permanent members of the UN Security Council and the world’s two leading economies, China and the US must not only guide their relations forward along the right track, but also shoulder their share of international responsibilities and work for world peace and tranquility.

President Xi stressed that he and President Biden share the view that China and the US need to respect each other, coexist in peace and avoid confrontation, and that the two sides should increase communication and dialogue at all levels and in all fields. President Biden has just reiterated that the US does not seek to have a new Cold War with China, to change China’s system, or to revitalize alliances against China, and that the US does not support “Taiwan independence” or intend to seek a conflict with China. “I take these remarks very seriously,” said President Xi.


President Xi pointed out that the China-US relationship, instead of getting out of the predicament created by the previous US administration, has encountered a growing number of challenges. What’s worth noting in particular is that some people in the US have sent a wrong signal to “Taiwan independence” forces. This is very dangerous. Mishandling of the Taiwan question will have a disruptive impact on the bilateral ties. China hopes that the US will give due attention to this issue. The direct cause for the current situation in the China-US relationship is that some people on the US side have not followed through on the important common understanding reached by the two Presidents and have not acted on President Biden’s positive statements. The US has misperceived and miscalculated China’s strategic intention.

President Xi underscored that there have been and will continue to be differences between China and the US. What matters is to keep such differences under control. A steadily growing relationship is in the interest of both sides.

The two sides exchanged views on the situation in Ukraine.

President Biden expounded on the US position, and expressed readiness for communication with China to prevent the situation from exacerbating.

President Xi pointed out that China does not want to see the situation in Ukraine to come to this. China stands for peace and opposes war. This is embedded in China’s history and culture. China makes a conclusion independently based on the merits of each matter. China advocates upholding international law and universally recognized norms governing international relations. China adheres to the UN Charter and promotes the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security. These are the major principles that underpin China’s approach to the Ukraine crisis. China has put forward a six-point initiative on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, and is ready to provide further humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and other affected countries. All sides need to jointly support Russia and Ukraine in having dialogue and negotiation that will produce results and lead to peace. The US and NATO should also have dialogue with Russia to address the crux of the Ukraine crisis and ease the security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine.


President Xi stressed that with the need to fight COVID-19 on the one hand and protect the economy and people’s livelihood on the other, things are already very difficult for countries around the world. As leaders of major countries, we need to think about how to properly address global hotspot issues and, more importantly, keep in mind global stability and the work and life of billions of people. Sweeping and indiscriminate sanctions would only make the people suffer. If further escalated, they could trigger serious crises in global economy and trade, finance, energy, food, and industrial and supply chains, crippling the already languishing world economy and causing irrevocable losses. The more complex the situation, the greater the need to remain cool-headed and rational. Whatever the circumstances, there is always a need for political courage to create space for peace and leave room for political settlement. As two Chinese sayings go, “It takes two hands to clap.” “He who tied the bell to the tiger must take it off.” It is imperative that the parties involved demonstrate political will and find a proper settlement in view of both immediate and long-term needs. Other parties can and should create conditions to that end. The pressing priority is to keep the dialogue and negotiation going, avoid civilian casualties, prevent a humanitarian crisis, and cease hostilities as soon as possible. An enduring solution would be for major countries to respect each other, reject the Cold War mentality, refrain from bloc confrontation, and build step by step a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture for the region and for the world. China has been doing its best for peace and will continue to play a constructive role.

The two Presidents agreed that the video call is constructive. They directed their teams to promptly follow up and take concrete actions to put China-US relations back on the track of steady development, and make respective efforts for the proper settlement of the Ukraine crisis.”




So, what is the message of the superpowers to Mr. Putin and Mr. Zelenskyy?

Message One:  The United States is committed continue to exert stern pressure on Russia to reconsider its course of action and seek to end the incursion against Ukraine using sanctions and aid.

Message Two: China is insistent that Ukraine and the Russian Federation find a diplomatic exit from the crisis.

Message Three: The two largest GDP economic superpowers of planet Earth share common concerns and are talking to each other, fully aware of their differences, but not allowing them to distract from the important and focus of ending this episode.

The bottom line: This was a conversation where, by design or circumstance, one superpower fixes the target, and the other maneuvers it. Such is the way humans deal with extreme, existential risks, the kind Mr. Putin created by his own hubris. Tonight, while Mr. Putin may want to divide and conquer these two, highly co-dependent national interests, he has further to go to convince either of his position. It’s time to for Russia to stop believing its own propaganda and start listening to what the world is sobering up to.

Could a lot still go wrong here? Yes. That’s the scary part. But, it seems neither the US nor China want it to. And out of that, it may be possible for Ukraine and Russia to take the bell off the tiger.


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