Uncovering Biden and Xi’s private discussions about Ukraine
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, China has played a crucial – though publicly invisible – role in strategic decision-making in both Washington and Moscow.
Beijing’s logistical intervention forced the U.S. to scrap a deal with Poland to supply Soviet MiG-29 jets back in March to the Ukrainian air forces.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s flurry
And since September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s flurry of personal diplomacy with NATO and the United States has led to a rare moment of public agreement on Russia, with Xi Jinping declaring that the world “needs to prevent a nuclear crisis on the Eurasian continent” during a meeting with Joe Biden at the G20 summit in Bali.
Throughout the war, China’s actual position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict has been challenging to determine because Beijing has told both sides what they wanted to hear. In March, Wang indirectly accused the United States of “stoking tensions” and “sowing discord” with Russia.
The illusion of Chinese support was one of many miscalculations that led Putin to war.
Last month, he told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, “China will also firmly support the Russian side under President Putin’s leadership to unite and lead the Russian people,” according to state broadcaster CCTV.
Wang also said, “China is willing to deepen contacts with the Russian side at all levels.”
So, whose side is Beijing on?
In reality, China has consistently supported only one side – its own. But the illusion of Chinese support was one of many miscalculations that led Russian dictator Putin to an all-out war against Ukraine.
At a summit in Beijing on February 4 this year, Xi and Putin declared “boundless friendship” with no “forbidden areas” of cooperation. Both leaders said the new level of Sino-Russian strategic partnership was “superior” to the Cold War alliances.
According to a source with long-standing close ties to China’s top political and military leadership, Beijing was aware of Russia’s plans for a military invasion.
But the Russians presented their plans as “a limited operation to retake a lost Russian province and reunify Russia within its historical borders.”
Most importantly, in a confidential annex to the “boundless friendship” was a mutual security guarantee that Russia has been demanding from China for decades but has so far been unable to obtain, the source said.
Similar to NATO’s Article 5, that an attack on one member is an attack on all, Beijing and Moscow pledged to come to each other’s military aid in the event of a foreign invasion of their territory and if specific conditions were met regarding the cause of such an attack.
This extremely wise and intelligent clause, introduced at China’s insistence, would effectively exclude territories recently annexed during the war, thus relieving Beijing of any obligation to respond to attacks on annexed parts of Ukraine.
China was shocked by Putin’s further actions
The scale of the Russian military operation – in particular, the secrecy of the lightning attack on Kyiv, which even Lavrov did not know about until February 21 – caught Beijing off guard.
While China officially supported Putin diplomatically by accusing NATO of provoking the conflict, there was a deep (and well-founded) concern that Putin would overreact and press the West into a united front that could have been avoided with a limited operation in Donbas.
Putin’s threat of nuclear escalation on February 27 alarmed the world, including the Chinese. A key priority for Beijing was the Russia-NATO standoff to “avoid any nuclear escalation and help achieve a ceasefire,” said a source with regular personal contacts with the People’s Liberation Army leadership.
The threat of an escalation of the Russian war
When the threat of further escalation arose a few days later in the form of a proposal by the Polish government to supply Ukraine with the entire fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets, the Chinese became worried.
In truth, there was little likelihood that the Polish MiGs would significantly impact the battlefield. Between 26 and 33 Polish MiG-29s were produced in the early 1980s for the East German Air Force and were sold to Warsaw for the symbolic sum of 1 euro each in 2003.
Romania, which owned 20 similar MiG-29s, decommissioned them many years ago. Nevertheless, the provision of fighter jets of any type to Kyiv by a NATO country was an important symbolic, if not necessarily operationally significant, step toward direct NATO involvement in the conflict.
But then, something changed Washington’s mind. Part of it was an urgent and confidential third-party initiative involving former European leaders and senior officials, which the Chinese eventually supported.
Since Putin’s nuclear alert announcement on February 27, the Chinese army leadership has maintained military-to-military (as opposed to diplomatic or political) contacts with senior Russian general officers who have communicated over years of joint military exercises and military procurement negotiations.
Russia’s nuclear doctrine
Beijing’s goal was to ensure that even in a political decision to use nuclear weapons, the Russian army would insist on adhering to its long-standing military nuclear doctrine of using nuclear weapons only in the event of provoked attacks on Russian territory.
Through these informal “second track” contacts, Washington and the PLA agreed – unusually given the deterioration of relations under Donald Trump’s presidency – that if the U.S. stopped the MiG deal, Beijing’s generals would do their best to defuse Putin’s nuclear threat at the operational level. “It worked,” the Chinese source said. “The U.S. decided that supplying aircraft was a step too far.”
Not announced, but clear to everyone
Although this initiative was not previously reported in early March, the fact that the U.S. remained fundamentally cautious about supplying strategic weapons to Ukraine throughout the war.
It confirms that Washington was deeply aware of China’s concerns, which it shared with many of the largest European Union countries. Despite a sharp increase in funding and military equipment, including NATO-standard 155mm artillery capable of firing guided missiles and a high mobility rocket artillery system.
NATO is restrained from providing long-range attack aircraft, helicopters, tanks that meet NATO standards, and combat missile and cruise missile systems.
China cautiously supports Russia
At the same time, Chinese support for Moscow remained equally cautious. Beijing has offered diplomatic and information support but ruled out significant military cooperation, which has led the Russians to buy combat drones from Iran, cannibalize household appliances for computer chips, and attempt to buy back helicopters, missiles, and missile defense systems from their military customers around the developing world.
The threat of U.S. sanctions on their global operations has forced many leading Chinese banks, such as ICBC, the New Development Bank, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to withdraw loans and funding from Russia.
Chinese energy giants such as Sinochem have suspended all Russian investments and joint ventures. In August, UnionPay – China’s equivalent of Visa and Mastercard – suspended cooperation with Russian banks due to the sanctions.
Has China come to its senses?
Thanks to Biden and Xi Jinping’s joint condemnation of the nuclear threat in Bali earlier this month, the so-called “second” understanding of March has become the “first line” of state policy.
According to a Chinese source, thanks to Wang’s shuttle diplomacy, NATO and China have effectively agreed not to escalate the Ukraine-Russia war at a broader scale.
During a series of meetings with NATO leaders since early September, Wang pledged to use China’s considerable leverage in Moscow to dissuade Putin from using nuclear weapons. In return, NATO confirmed they would not provide strategic weapons to Ukraine.
China’s price for its peacekeeping? Beijing hopes to improve relations with NATO and Europe and end the bloody and futile war its ally, Putin, recklessly started.