Chinaa allegedly prevented the transfer of Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine through secret back-channel talks with Washington. The Chinese intervention caused the US to reject Poland’s offer to hand over its MiG-29 fighters to a US airbase for use by Ukrainian Air Force.
Beijing is playing a critical behind-the-scenes role in managing the fallout of the ongoing Ukraine crisis even though publicly it has maintained a low profile, according to the latest revelations made by a British journalist, Owen Matthews, who writes about Russia for ‘The Spectator,’ a UK-based weekly magazine.
China’s actual position on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has been difficult to discern. So far, Beijing has only offered diplomatic and informational support to Moscow, as part of which it has regularly accused the US of brewing tensions with Russia.
In October, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that “China will also firmly support the Russian side, under the leadership of President Putin, to unite and lead the Russian people,” according to China’s state-owned media.
Furthermore, Wang promised to deepen contacts with the Russian side at all levels.
Wang Yi held a phone conversation with Sergei Lavrov:
?? To deepen exchanges, promote bilateral relations and cooperation in various fields to a higher level.
?? To deepen multilateral cooperation, jointly safeguard peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region and the world. pic.twitter.com/WmQIHhBZLX
— 鳳凰資訊 PhoenixTV News (@PhoenixTV_News) October 28, 2022
At the same time, China has refrained from providing any significant military assistance to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, forcing Moscow to turn to Iran to acquire combat drones. Recent reports suggest that Russia could even buy missiles from Iran.
In September, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Wang told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that China “stays open-minded to dialogues and exchanges with NATO and is willing to promote the sound and steady development of bilateral relations jointly.”
China Wants To Avoid Nuclear Escalation
According to Matthews, who cites a source close to officials of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Beijing’s key priority is for the Russia-NATO confrontation to “avoid any nuclear escalation and to help reach a ceasefire.”
This was witnessed during the recent G20 summit in Bali, where Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the world “needs to prevent a nuclear crisis on the Eurasian continent” in a meeting with his US counterpart Joe Biden, marking a rare instance of public agreement between the US and China over Russia.
President Xi also appealed publicly for a “return to diplomacy and stressing the urgency in finding a peaceful resolution.”
Therefore, according to Matthews, Poland’s offer of supplying Ukraine with its entire fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets in March was a cause of concern for the Chinese, as it threatened significant tensions between NATO and Russia.
While writing for EurAsian Times, a US-based defense analyst explained that the fighter jets offered by Poland were early model MiG-29A and B aircraft with a poor reliability rate and an expensive maintenance record.
They were made in the early 1980s for the East German Air Force, and because of their poor record and high maintenance costs, Luftwaffe gave away 22 MiG-29s to Warsaw in 2003 at a symbolic price of 1 Euro per Fulcrum.
Also, operationally, these early-generation MiG-29s would have hardly made any difference for Ukraine on the battlefield against Russia’s more capable Su-30SM and Su-35S aircraft that completely outclass Ukrainian Air Force fighters.
However, a NATO country supplying fighter jets to Ukraine would have constituted “an important symbolic, if not necessarily operationally significant, a step towards direct NATO involvement in the conflict,” writes Matthews, according to whom China prevented this from happening.
Initial reports in March indicated that the US was positively considering Poland’s proposal to send its MiG-29s to Ukraine in return for advanced US-made F-16s. However, the Pentagon later rejected Poland’s surprise statement that it would hand over its MiG-29 fighter jets to a US airbase for use by Ukraine.
How China Changed Washington’s Mind?
According to Matthews, an “urgent and confidential back-channel initiative” involved former European leaders and senior officials and was backed by the Chinese, which changed Washington’s mind.
After President Putin ordered his military to put Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces on high alert, PLA began reaching out to Russian officers through military-to-military channels.
Beijing’s objective was to ensure that even if Moscow decides to use nuclear weapons, the Russian Army should adhere to its long-standing nuclear military doctrine to use them in the event of a provocation by attacks on Russian soil.
So, through the unofficial contacts between Washington and the PLA, both sides agreed that if the US stopped the MiG deal, PLA generals would do their best to defuse President Putin’s nuclear threat on an operational level.
“It worked,’ the Chinese source told Matthews, adding, “The [US] decided that supplying aircraft was a step too far.”
Russia-Ukraine Simmering Tensions
In the past few months, battlefield gains in the south and east of Ukraine may have made Kyiv confident that its forces could retake the Crimean Peninsula, a red line for Russia.
The Russian Black Sea fleet has been based at Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea, and a major Black Sea port, since 1783, when the Turks ceded control of the peninsula. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Crimea was the only Ukrainian region with a majority of ethnic Russians.
An independent poll in 2018 conducted by Levada Center found that 86% of Russians in Crimea backed the peninsula’s annexation in 2014. President Putin calls Crimea an “inseparable part of Russia.”
Also, Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council and Former President Dmitry Medvedev said an attack on Crimea would bring “Judgment Day.”
An attack on the Crimean peninsula would amount to an attack on Russian soil, so hostilities in Ukraine must end as soon as possible. President Xi’s appeal for diplomacy and urgency in finding a peaceful resolution is yet to be accepted by NATO, which insists that Kyiv will decide when to come to the negotiation table.
That said, there are senior figures within NATO like the US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Mark Milley, and the French President Emmanuel Macron, who have independently suggested that Kyiv must prepare for peace talks.