China's nuclear red line: An opportunity for dialogue? - SOAS China Institute

//China’s nuclear red line: An opportunity for dialogue?

China's nuclear red line: An opportunity for dialogue?

Photo credit: Michał Siergiejevicz (Flickr) / CC BY 2.0

By John Gittings | 04 April 2023

It is generally believed now that China has laid down at least one red line for Vladimir Putin over Ukraine — to refrain from nuclear threats or, even more, the use of nuclear weapons.  In the light of Beijing’s “peace plan” and of Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow, it may be useful to consider the treatment of this issue by both parties. It is hard to imagine anything of more universal concern.


The latest statement of the Chinese position came at the UN Security Council’s session on 31 March, which was called to discuss “threats to international peace and security” following the Russian decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.


The Chinese delegate Geng Shuang used stark language to state that nuclear weapons were a “sword of Damocles hanging over our heads”. Addressing the Ukraine issue, Geng reiterated China’s insistence in its recent paper on “the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis”: This emphasized that “nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought, that the threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed, and that nuclear proliferation must be prevented and nuclear crisis avoided.” Not surprisingly, the Xinhua account of Geng’s speech avoided any reference to the Russian move on missiles which had led to the debate.


The Ukraine delegate, Sergiy Kyslytsya, responded positively to the Chinese statement, saying that “to the credit of the Chinese side, it reminded to Moscow in a very sensible manner that a nuclear war cannot be won and fought, and that nuclear proliferation must be prevented”.


These statements need not be taken at full face value. By implicitly criticising Putin’s nuclear bluster, Beijing may seek to strengthen its claim to neutrality. And Ukraine continues its sensible policy of putting the best interpretation on China’s position in the hope of eventually winning support from Beijing.


Over a year since the infamous “no limits” agreement between Xi Jinping and Putin, we are still groping to understand the real extent and possible limits of Sino-Russian cooperation. (I have explored this challenge of analysis in a recent essay for the British Journal of Chinese Studies). Emphatic statements that China is totally aligned with Russia, or conversely that it is wholly neutral and working for peace, are inferential and sometimes partisan.


It is also evident that there is a host of other considerations that guide Chinese strategy, dominated by a hostile geopolitical view of the US – (sharpened by Washington’s own hostility) — and including Russia’s economic value to China, the ideological affinity between Putin and Xi, and diplomatic gain for Beijing among some nations of the South. These considerations may be offset, though not outweighed, by concern for the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity which Russia has violated (particularly important for Beijing in relation to Taiwan), and by the harmful effect of the Ukraine war on global economic stability and on international institutions. 


The nuclear issue, in my view, falls within this second category, and could even tip the balance if Putin were to translate his ambiguous language into a clearer threat of action. Nor can Putin be entirely confident that China will continue to “lean to one side”: the “no limits” formula has already faded, and the history of China-Russia relations offers some negative lessons.


We may note that in the recent Xi-Putin joint statement, the section on nuclear issues did not include the Chinese formulation opposing the “threat of nuclear weapons”. The statement did stipulate, perhaps at China’s insistence, that “all nuclear-weapon States should refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their territories…”. In seeking to justify the proposed Belarus deployment which appears to contradict this prohibition, Putin has had to argue not only that it will not violate the principle of nuclear non-proliferation (because control of the weapons remains with Russia) but that this is on a par with the positioning of US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. By doing so he has actually legitimised the US deployments!


Some will regard the whole nuclear question as a verbal charade played by Putin and Xi signifying little or nothing. Yet it constitutes an existential risk in the most real sense of that phrase which Beijing can appreciate as well as anyone else. Chinese analysts may privately judge Putin’s behaviour to be “adventurist”, recalling that Beijing passed the same verdict on the way that Khrushchev set in motion the Cuban missile crisis sixty years ago. 


Putin may have already referred to the nuclear problem  at the September 2022 meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, when he acknowledged China’s (unspecified) “ questions and concern”. When German Chancellor Scholz visited Beijing in November, Xi called on the international community to reject the threat of nuclear weapons. Later, at the G20 summit in Bali, Xi was said to have agreed with President Biden that the use of such weapons in Ukraine was unacceptable, although the Chinese media did not report this. 


All five recognised nuclear weapons states (NWS)  issued a joint statement shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine agreeing that nuclear weapons must not be used and a nuclear war could not be won. (The latest Xi-Putin declaration has re-endorsed this statement). Though circumstances are now much more difficult, this could provide a follow-up opportunity to discuss and probe further this aspect of the Chinese “peace plan”.  It might even open the way for broader discussions. 


It remains true that China could do a lot more to give reality to its claimed neutrality. Xi could (and should) speak with Zelensky; China could (and should) give substantial humanitarian aid to Ukraine; the Chinese media should dare to call the war a “war”. Yet in view of the inherent dangers in the situation today, the chance to discuss the nuclear aspect of the crisis should not be neglected. The UK is well-placed to do so in its role as an NWS along with China, and it should be explored by the several European leaders now seeking to broaden their dialogue with Beijing.

John Gittings is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.