By Trevor Hunnicutt and Michael Martina
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States is sounding out close allies about the possibility of imposing new sanctions on China if Beijing provides military support to Russia for its war in Ukraine, according to four U.S. officials and other sources.
The consultations, which are still at a preliminary stage, are intended to drum up support from a range of countries, especially those in the wealthy Group of 7 (G7), to coordinate support for any possible restrictions.
It was not clear what specific sanctions Washington will propose. The conversations have not been previously disclosed.
The U.S. Treasury Department, a lead agency on the imposition of sanctions, declined to comment.
Washington and its allies have said in recent weeks that China was considering providing weapons to Russia, which Beijing denies. Aides to U.S. President Joe Biden have not publicly provided evidence.
They have also warned China directly against doing so, including in meetings between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping as well as during a Feb. 18 in-person meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi on the sidelines of a global security conference in Munich.
The Biden administration's initial steps to counter Chinese support for Russia have included informal outreach at the staff and diplomatic levels, including the Treasury Department, sources familiar with the matter said.
They said officials were laying the groundwork for potential action against Beijing with the core group of countries that were most supportive of sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine a year ago.
Asked about the consultations, a White House National Security Council spokesperson said Russia's war made it difficult for China with Europe and others.
"It's a distraction for China and a potential blow to their international relationships they do not need nor should they want," the spokesperson said.
One official from a country consulted by Washington said that they had only seen scant intelligence backing up the claims about China considering possible military assistance to Russia. A U.S. official, however, said they were providing detailed accounts of the intelligence to allies.
China's role in the Russia-Ukraine war is expected to be among the topics when Biden meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House on Friday. Before that in New Delhi on Wednesday and Thursday, the war will be discussed by foreign ministers from dozens of countries, including Russia, China and the United States.
Last week China issued a 12-point paper calling for a comprehensive ceasefire that was met with scepticism in the West.
The initial outreach by Washington on sanctions has not yet led to broad agreement on any specific measures, the sources said.
One source said the administration wanted to first raise the idea of coordinated sanctions and "take pulses" in the event that any shipments are detected to Russia from China, which declared a "no limits" partnership shortly before the invasion on Feb. 24 last year.
"On the G7 front, I think there is real awareness," a second source said, but added that detailed measures focused on China were not yet in place.
COULD CHINA TILT CONFLICT?
The Ukraine conflict has settled into grinding trench warfare. With Russia running low on munitions, Ukraine and its supporters fear that supplies from China could tilt the conflict to Russia's advantage.
As part of a related diplomatic push, Washington won language in a Feb. 24 G7 statement to mark the war's first anniversary that called on "third-countries" to "cease providing material support to Russia's war, or face severe costs."
Though the statement did not mention China by name, the U.S. imposed new penalties on people and companies accused of helping Russia evade sanctions. The measures included export curbs on companies in China and elsewhere that will block them from buying items, such as semiconductors.
"We've tried to signal very clearly, both in private in Munich, and then publicly, our concerns," Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, told Congress this week. "We've talked about the implications and the consequences if they were to do so. And we also know that many of our like-minded partners share those concerns."
Among the challenges the United States faces in putting sanctions on China, the world's second-biggest economy, is its thorough integration in the major economies of Europe and Asia, complicating the talks. U.S. allies from Germany to South Korea are reticent to alienate China.
Anthony Ruggiero, a sanctions expert under former President Donald Trump, said the Biden administration does have scope for economically restricting private actors within China and that doing so could deter the government and banks from providing further support.
"Then the administration can send messages to China in public and in private, with the latter being more explicit, that the U.S. will escalate the sanctions to include targeting Chinese banks with the full range of available options," said Ruggiero, now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies group.
Washington should make China choose between access to the U.S. financial system or aiding Russia's war, Ruggiero said, citing the sanctions approach to Iran and North Korea.
(Reporting by Michael Martina and Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Don Durfee and Grant McCool)