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U.S. raises alarms that China is helping Russia reconstitute its defense industry


Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads to China this week, and while Blinken is in Beijing, there is bound to be talk of Congress' approval this weekend of $61 billion to Ukraine to fight Russia. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When she was still a top State Department official, the recently retired Victoria Nuland took part in several meetings with the Chinese about Ukraine.

VICTORIA NULAND: The Chinese have told the world that they are neutral in this conflict and that they are not providing weapons to Russia, but what they're doing instead is providing all of the inputs for weapons.

KELEMEN: Ninety percent of Russia's microelectronics are now coming from China, she says. And that's not all.

NULAND: Machine tools that go into ballistic missiles, rocket motors, something called nitrocellulose, which is basically the gunpowder that makes things go boom, is all coming from China.

KELEMEN: China calls this normal trade. Nuland says that in some of the conversation she had, the Chinese either deny supporting Russia's war effort in Ukraine or say they will look into it.

NULAND: For Russia, it's a great deal because they get all the smart stuff coming from China that they can no longer produce themselves, and then all they have to do is put the pieces together. And we know this because we find it on the battlefield, and we find it in our analysis of how Russia is able to make this surge in defense production.

KELEMEN: Experts say it will be hard, maybe impossible, to drive a wedge between Russia and China, which declared a no-limits partnership on the eve of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Alexander Gabuev, who runs the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, says the leaders of the two countries have similar outlooks.

ALEXANDER GABUEV: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are like-minded leaders that want to make their countries great again, and they share this suspicion and animosity towards the U.S. leadership that they define as U.S. global hegemony that seeks to undercut the rise of Beijing and Moscow.

KELEMEN: At the start of the war, the U.S. laid out some clear red lines for China, urging Beijing not to supply Russia with weapons. But Gabuev says there's plenty below that threshold that China could and is doing. And that's just in part because of economic reasons.

GABUEV: And I think that strategically, China also is taking a relaxed approach because it's not interested in Russia losing the war. It definitely doesn't want to lose Vladimir Putin as a partner.

KELEMEN: As Russia makes advances in Ukraine and reconstituting its defense industry with China's help, Gabuev says the U.S. is now trying to draw a new red line for China. But he says that Washington will need to be more specific and will need help from Europe. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he heard a lot of concerns from the Europeans at a Group of Seven meeting in Italy.

ANTONY BLINKEN: China can't have it both ways. It can't purport to want to have positive, friendly relations with countries in Europe and at the same time be fueling the biggest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War.

KELEMEN: Former diplomat Victoria Nuland says the U.S. and its partners need to be talking about this more publicly, as China continues to claim that it's a neutral player in Ukraine.

NULAND: It's also offered to play a role in the future in any ongoing talks. But if it is known to be the military industrial back office for Russia's war effort, that makes it harder for it to make that case.

KELEMEN: She says it's fair to say that Russia would not have been able to stage its current offensive in Ukraine without weapons from North Korea and Iran, and without, in her words, the massive infusion of parts and knowhow from China.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.