Zhou Bo: China Can Use its Leverage with Russia to Prevent a Nuclear War

  • Zhou Bo: Senior Fellow of Center for International Security and Strategy of Tsinghua University, China Forum Expert

    Will Putin use nuclear weapons in Ukraine? This billion-dollar question matters not only to Kyiv and Europe, but also to China. So far Beijing has trodden a careful line between Russia, its strategic partner, and Ukraine, which is a significant trading partner. During September’s Samarkand summit, Vladimir Putin thanked China for its “balanced position” on the Ukraine conflict.

    But if Moscow decides to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine, China can hardly maintain such a position anymore. A joint declaration between Beijing and Kyiv in December 2013 agreed that China will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine and, more importantly, will provide security assurances in the event of any such threat by a third party.

    Putin’s intensifying rhetoric is therefore raising the stakes for Beijing. He said last month he would be ready to defend the “territorial integrity” of Russia “by all means.” If his military is struggling on the battlefield — which it is in areas such as Kharkiv, where Ukrainian forces are retaking lost territory — then the likelihood of Russia deploying tactical nuclear missiles only increases.

    China has so far refrained from providing any military assistance to Russia. But given Beijing’s huge influence on Moscow, it is uniquely positioned to do more to prevent a nuclear conflict.

    First, Beijing should tell Moscow to honour the five nuclear powers’ joint statement in January that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world and threatening Ukraine — which chose to give up its nuclear weapons — has already tarnished its reputation. It would be all the more appalling if Putin followed through on his threat against Ukrainian citizens, who he had previously described as “practically one people” with Russians.

    Second, Beijing should make clear to the Kremlin that using nuclear weapons on the battlefield would put China in a very difficult situation. Beijing has maintained a policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons for more than half a century. While other defence policies have changed, this has held firm and China prides itself on having nuclear strategies which are the most stable, sustainable and predictable among nuclear powers.

    The last thing Beijing wants now is a sour relationship with European capitals. At a time when the US is ramping up its competition with China, it is particularly important that Europe does not always take America’s side. Putin has admitted that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about Russia’s invasion — but if he uses nuclear weapons, then Beijing’s response will go far beyond questions and concerns. Could China remain neutral in the event of international protests against Moscow? And could Beijing abstain from a UN Security Council vote condemning Russia for its actions?

    Finally, Beijing could play a significant role in brokering a deal between Russia and Nato. For example, Nato could promise to halt any further expansion in exchange for Moscow agreeing not to use nuclear weapons. Such a compromise would save face on both sides. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reached a similar agreement: the Soviets would dismantle their ballistic missiles in Cuba in exchange for a US pledge not to invade Cuba again. Secretly, America also agreed to dismantle all of the Jupiter medium-range ballistic missiles which had been stationed in Turkey for possible use against Russia.

    Since Moscow’s primary concern has been Nato expansion, Putin might find this option worth considering. It would be worth thinking about for Nato too. The alliance’s expansion in the face of the Kremlin’s warnings has helped push Europe to the brink of a nuclear conflict. Putin is right to conclude this is a war between Russia and the west rather than between Russia and Ukraine. As a goodwill gesture, Nato could pledge not to use nuclear weapons first against Russia or within Moscow’s sphere of influence.

    In a 2018 documentary, Putin asked, “Why do we need a world without Russia in it?” The answer should be, “But where is Russia without the world?” If Putin now opens a nuclear Pandora’s box that was kept closed even during the cold war, it would be a moment of infinite stupidity. China can help the world by simply telling Putin: don’t use nuclear weapons, Mr President.

    (This article was first published on Financial Times on Oct. 27, 2022.) 

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