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The leaders of the U.S. and China will talk by phone about pressing issues

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Leaders of two nations that have critiqued each other in public hold a call today in private. President Biden plans a talk with China's Xi Jinping. The U.S. wants China to help isolate its strategic partner Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. Let's hear some of the public disagreement that has led up to this private talk. The U.S. publicly questioned China's course, a statement made on this program.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on NPR earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANTONY BLINKEN: China's already on the wrong side of history when it comes to Ukraine and the aggression being committed by Russia. The fact that it has not stood strongly against it, that it has not pronounced itself against this aggression flies in the face of China's commitments as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council responsible for maintaining peace and security.

MARTINEZ: In Beijing, China's foreign ministry spokesman brought up Blinken's wrong side of history remark on NPR. The spokesman called it a smear. He went on to claim that when it comes to Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO are the culprits of the crisis. So that is the context for this big phone call between the two leaders.

NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng is with us. Explain to us first, Emily, why China is a player in this Russia-Ukraine conflict.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Well, Vladimir Putin may have gone rogue when he decided to invade Ukraine. But the one foreign leader he might listen to is China's Xi Jinping. They have very close ties. And as Russia becomes more isolated, Russia will increasingly have to rely on the wealthier, more powerful China next door. And case in point, this week, China and Russia were the only two countries to vote against an International Court of Justice resolution calling for an end to the war.

MARTINEZ: Can this call maybe prompt China to take a stronger position on the Russia invasion? I mean, what might change China's calculus for its support of Russia?

FENG: In short, no. And you mentioned some of the early signs - you know, the deputy foreign minister tweeting out Blinken's line to him again. These signs are not positive. China has not indicated it will budge. But just hours before the call, China then reportedly, according to Reuters, also sailed an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait, a move whose timing is definitely provocative given the call. So this will not budge China. But it is certainly the start of perhaps more consistent pressure on China to change its stance.

MARTINEZ: So I was wondering then, why schedule a call then?

FENG: Biden plans to warn Xi Jinping on the call about the political costs that China might face if it continues staying silent on the sidelines. And some of the costs are being felt here. There have been sanctions all around the world against Russia. Prices here at the pump are up for oil. The stock market in China has been down. So China could see some limits in its partnership with Russia because China wants to see global stability. Right now China is undecided about whether sticking with Russia maximizes its own self-interest. But prolonged pressure, like this call on China, might convince it that being Russia's friend forever isn't worth the price geopolitically.

MARTINEZ: What does China want to get out of all this?

FENG: Well, ultimately, it wants to diminish the U.S.-dominated world order, and Russia could help it do that. What China's counting on is that if it waits out this war long enough, this - these sanctions against Russia might disintegrate a bit as the economic costs mount. The problem is, is it willing to wait until basically all of Ukraine is destroyed by the Russian assault? - in which case, China might be in a very good position to then cast itself as a cease-fire broker. But this Biden call is hoping to nudge China closer to stepping out against the war sooner than that.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing - Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.