German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will hold confidential talks on Friday in Washington with US President Joe Biden about the war in Ukraine amid growing concerns that China may provide weapons to Russia as its invasion of Ukraine grinds into a second year.
Scholz set off on the one-day trip, which unusually will not include a press delegation, late on Thursday.
Biden and Scholz will meet for an hour at the White House, including a significant "one-on-one component," a senior US official said, giving the two men a chance to "exchange notes" on their respective recent meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the state of the war.
"Both of the leaders wanted this to be a working-level meeting, wanted it to be very much a get down into the weeds, focused on the issues of Ukraine," the official said.
A major topic will be the push to deliver fresh Western support to Ukrainian forces, which are bracing for new Russian offensive in coming weeks, officials said. Washington is due to announce a new $400 million military aid package for the Kyiv government on the day of Scholz's visit, officials said.
His first trip to Washington since just before the invasion comes days after Biden's security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told ABC that Biden overrode his military's advice and agreed to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine because Scholz made it a pre-condition for sending German Leopards. Berlin says Biden came to see it was necessary and the decision was consensual.
The German leader arrives as United States is sounding out close allies about the possibility of imposing sanctions on China if Beijing provides military support to Russia for its war in Ukraine, according to four US officials and other sources.
Neither Washington nor Berlin says they have seen evidence of Beijing's providing weapons to Moscow, but US officials say they are monitoring the situation closely.
Germany, which has typically taken a much less hawkish stance on China, its top trading partner, than the United States, has suggested China could play a role in bringing about peace - a prospect many China observers view with skepticism.
A second senior US official downplayed suggestions of big strains between Washington and Berlin.
"The relationship is in a rock-solid place," the official said. "Tomorrow’s meeting will largely focus on what we are doing together next to support Ukraine - a sign of the good footing the relationship continues to be on."
US officials welcomed Scholz's speech to parliament on Thursday, in which he urged China not to provide arms to Moscow and asked Beijing to pressure Russia to pull back its forces.
"US policymakers have a chronic concern that industrial European powerhouses like Germany will allow their commercial interests in China to temper their willingness to take tough positions on security and geopolitical issues," said Daniel Russel, who served as the top US diplomat for East Asia under President Barack Obama and is now with the Asia Society.
"The Biden administration will use the Scholz visit to try to shift Germany’s balance in the direction of stronger pushback."
"OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE STOCK"
The White House said last month that Scholz's visit was an opportunity to "reaffirm the deep bonds of friendship between the United States and our NATO ally Germany."
Last month, a vast delegation of US officials including Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended an annual security gathering in Munich, with many praising Germany for its support of Ukraine, which required an overhaul of its approach to defense and foreign policy.
Friday's meeting "is not a sign of crisis. It is an opportunity to deepen the personal relationship between both leaders," said Sudha David-Wilp, head of the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund think tank.
"Washington is still looking to Berlin as the lead military power in Europe. It is an opportunity to take stock," she said.
US officials say Scholz would likely raise concerns about an ongoing irritant in transatlantic ties: US subsidies for green technologies under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which Germany argues could put its companies at a disadvantage.
Critics say the IRA was a slap in the face to Europe from its biggest ally at a time when Europe was already struggling with sharply higher energy prices due to the Ukraine war.
A US-EU task force is meeting on the issue, but Washington has said it cannot change the law, and insists the tax credits will benefit European firms by driving down costs for clean energy globally.
"The government should expressly push for fair competitive conditions in the talks," said Peter Adrian, president of the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK).
The IRA is already attracting Germany companies to the United States, a DIHK survey showed on Wednesday.