A senior Republican legislator said that China was considering sending 100 drones and other lethal weapons to Russia, as US officials warn that Beijing may escalate its support for Moscow in the Ukraine conflict.

Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House foreign affairs committee, said the US was increasingly concerned about Beijing’s willingness to escalate its backing for Moscow in its year-long invasion of Ukraine, ahead of an expected meeting between Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping next week.

The news that a Chinese company was in talks to supply Russia with drones was first reported by Der Spiegel.

“We have intelligence that’s been reported that they are contemplating sending 100 drones into Russia. We also know they’re buying all their energy from them, economically supporting them,” McCaul said in an interview with the news network ABC.

McCaul said Beijing was also looking at sending in “other lethal weapons”.

“The fact that they’re going to meet next week, Chairman Xi and Putin, to discuss this unholy alliance that they have, to put weapons into Ukraine, to me is very disturbing because while maybe Ukraine today, it’s going to be Taiwan tomorrow.”

While the US previously believed that China was reluctant to provide lethal assistance to Russia in its fight with Ukraine, that assessment has changed this month following new information, CIA director William Burns said.

In response, US officials have stepped up their public warnings to China about the potential consequences of such a move — a message they have also conveyed to Chinese counterparts in back-channel meetings, according to multiple US officials.

While the US has alleged that Beijing is providing non-lethal assistance to Russia in the conflict, such as satellite imagery to help target Ukrainian weapons, the addition of drones would mark a serious escalation of China’s involvement in the war.

Senior US officials this week repeatedly sounded the alarm about the possibility that China could provide Russia with weapons, which secretary of state Antony Blinken last weekend said could include ammunition. But the administration has not shown any evidence to back the claim despite Blinken saying it would be “out there soon”. 

President Joe Biden on Friday appeared to undercut the claims from his top officials by saying that he did not expect China to make any significant move on weapons.

On Sunday, Burns said in an interview with CBS that the US was “confident” that the Chinese leadership had been considering “the provision of lethal equipment”. But he said that Beijing had not made a final decision and that there had been no evidence, thus far, of “actual shipments of lethal equipment”.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, has sought to temper the concerns. In multiple interviews on Sunday, he noted that China had made no shipments to Russia. Sullivan said the US would continue to utilise “the private high-level diplomatic channels” it had established to warn Beijing of the consequences of providing Moscow with any lethal aid, as it had during Blinken’s meeting in Munich last week with Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat.

“We will watch carefully, we will be vigilant, and we will continue to send a strong message,” Sullivan told CNN. “We’ve certainly made very clear the seriousness of the consequences for our relationship, and I think for China’s relationship with our European allies as well.”

Sullivan added: “Beijing will have to make its own decisions about how it proceeds, whether it provides military assistance. But, if it goes down that road, it will come at real costs to China.”

Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

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