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Photo: "Axios on HBO"

KYIV — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told "Axios on HBO" that he doesn't consider China to be a major geopolitical threat — a stance that may cause him friction with the Biden administration and Congress — even as he vowed to limit Chinese control of critical technology sectors.

Why it matters: Zelensky's comments represent a break with U.S. national security leaders from both major political parties who are trying to rally allies to confront the threat of the Chinese Communist Party.

Driving the news: Asked about emerging consensus in Washington that China is the No. 1 geopolitical threat, Zelensky said, "I cannot agree with that because in Ukraine we do not feel this."

  • "There really is this a sort of cold war between China and the United States," he said.
  • "We know United States business is represented in Ukraine, but at the same time, it's true that Chinese business is also represented."
  • "I believe that regardless of the nation, the nationality, if people, if business, if a certain country, treats you with respect, respecting your people and borders, they can be present in your country."

Between the lines: There's only so much leverage the U.S. has to push Zelensky away from China. Beijing has crushed Washington at vaccine diplomacy — a painful reality that Zelensky discussed in the "Axios on HBO" interview.

  • Zelensky has tried to obtain for his country the higher-quality American vaccines. And he’s pushed the Europeans for their help. But given the difficulty he’s faced to secure doses, he said he is willing to work with Beijing to get large quantities of a safe COVID vaccine for the Ukrainian people.  
  • Worth noting: The U.S. did not offer its superior vaccines to Ukraine and in fact took steps to make it harder for Zelensky to obtain them.

Behind the scenes: How to handle China is a growing sore point in U.S.-Ukraine relations. Trump administration officials privately expressed concerns that China — which became Ukraine's top trading partner in 2019 — was flooding Ukraine with easy cash and in return embedding itself in Ukraine's critical sectors including defense and telecom.

  • U.S. officials are worried about China stealing intelligence secrets and wielding nefarious influence over allies who are increasingly beholden to Beijing.

Yes, but: Senior U.S. government officials have been trying for years to persuade Ukraine to stop China from buying Motor Sich, an aero engine manufacturer that is the crown jewel of Ukraine's defense sector.

  • In the interview, Zelensky said for the first time definitively that he will not allow China, or any other country, to buy a controlling stake in Motor Sich.
  • "Never," he said. "Not under me. I am not here for life... [But] in my time [in office], definitely not.

The bottom line: Russia is a far more imminent concern for Ukraine. But when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, China never condemned Russia's action. So while Zelensky may not call out China as a threat, he knows that China can't be relied upon in a Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Go deeper

Jan 30, 2021 - World

China is arresting citizens for posting criticism on social media

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

China is imprisoning ordinary citizens who criticize the government on foreign social media — posts not even seen in China, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Why it matters: Human rights activists told The Journal this is a change from the past, when postings abroad were deterred through detentions and harassment.

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations were "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

Updated 5 hours ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.