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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.

Birx: Trump White House could have reduced COVID deaths by 30 to 40%

Deborah Birx, then-coronavirus response coordinator, speaks during a news conference in the White House last November. Photo: Chris Kleponis/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Deborah Birx, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator under former President Trump, told a House subcommittee this month that the Trump administration could have prevented tens of thousands of deaths during the early stages of the pandemic.

Driving the news: "I believe if we had fully implemented the mask mandates, the reduction in indoor dining ... and we had increased testing, that we probably could have decreased fatalities into the 30% less to 40% less range," Birx said in closed-door testimony to the Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, according to excerpts provided by the panel.

Study: Fear of debt keeps Latinos out of college

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Fear of never being able to pay off school loans is keeping many young Latinos in the U.S. from going to college or completing a degree, according to a report published in September.

State of play: Latinos tend to have more difficulty repaying school debt than white student borrowers, according to Federal Reserve data, at the same time that they need more loans in order to afford tuition.