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As China mulls helping Russia in its war on Ukraine, is the U.S. in a "new type of Cold War" with Beijing?

Russia and China strengthen ties
New concerns as China-Russia ties strengthen 02:34

The war in Ukraine is about to enter its second year, and after losing ground to Ukrainian forces in the second half of 2022, Russia may be seeking more help from China. Beijing's top diplomat met in Moscow Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said he was looking forward to a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Russian officials have said that visit is expected as soon as early March.

The U.S. and its global allies have become increasingly concerned about China's closer relations with Russia. Moscow and Beijing insist it has nothing to do with other nations, but experts say the very public forging of ties between the two countries is unquestionably a message to the United States.

One of the biggest and most immediate concerns is that Beijing could start providing weapons and or ammunition — lethal support — to help boost Russia's war on Ukraine.

President Biden returned Wednesday night to Washington after a whirlwind visit to Ukraine and neighboring Poland. In the Polish capital of Warsaw, he underscored America's commitment to the NATO alliance members on the far edge of eastern Europe, a couple of which share land borders with Russia.

Biden reassures eastern NATO allies 01:56

"We will defend literally every inch of NATO," Mr. Biden declared in a message clearly meant both to reassure America's European allies, and to warn Russia and its backers.

Just 700 miles away in Moscow, Putin was flaunting his own powerful alliance, sitting down for a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Asked what China hopes to gain from the public display of support for Putin as the Russian autocrat continues his unprovoked assault on Ukraine, Dr. Evan Medeiros, an Asia scholar at Georgetown University, said, "on the one hand, they don't want Russia to lose. On the other hand, they [China's leaders] know their economic fortunes are tied to stable relations with Europe and the United States."

H.R. McMaster, a CBS News contributor who served as national security adviser in the Trump White House, said Thursday on "CBS Mornings" that Russia was clearly desperate to boost dwindling supplies of weaponry after waging its war with "World War One-like tactics" that saw Putin's army burn through ammunition at a rate of 60,000 rounds per day at times.

Ret. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster on Ukraine war, potential Russian escalation 05:08

McMaster said Russia was likely to turn first to allies like Iran and North Korea to shore up its armaments, noting the difficult decision that Medeiros eluded to facing Chinese President Xi Jinping right now.

"China is already supporting Russia's war-making machine," said McMaster, noting Beijing's increased purchase of Russian oil — 60% more, he said, over the last year. "So, they're feeding Putin… to keep the war going."

"They also are providing microelectronics and other materials that have led the U.S. Commerce Department to blacklist a large number of Chinese companies already," McMaster added. He said the question now for Xi is whether it's worth going "all-in with Russia" and risking his country's vital economic ties with the West.

Medeiros, who served as the Obama administration's top advisor on the Asia-Pacific region, said the relationship between the U.S. and China has clearly been on a downward spiral since the U.S. shot down the Chinese spy balloon that made its way over sensitive military sites earlier this month.

"That incident, combined with Wang Yi's criticism of the United States and now his trip to Russia… it clearly has crossed that threshold into a new type of Cold War," said Medeiros.

China has not shied away from opportunities to flex its military power alongside Russia's. On Wednesday, the two nations launched joint military exercises along with South Africa off that country's coast. U.S. officials have voiced concern over the timing of the war games, coinciding with the one-year mark of Russia's ongoing assault on Ukraine.

South Africa Russia China Exercises
Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, second right, and Chinese naval officers attend the Armed Forces Day in Richards Bay, South Africa, Feb. 21, 2023, amid joint naval exercises off the east coast of the country with Russian and Chinese navies. Themba Hadebe/AP

In a new interview, Mr. Biden criticized Putin's decision to suspend his country's participation in the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between the U.S. and Russia, calling it "a big mistake," and "not very responsible."

Mr. Biden went on to say, however, that he did not believe Russia's withdrawal from the New START treaty meant Putin was thinking about using nuclear weapons.

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