In December 2013 China and Ukraine issued a joint declaration that says,
“In accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 984 and the Statement of the Chinese Government of 4 December 1994 on Security Assurances to Ukraine, China undertakes unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine as a non-nuclear-weapon state and to provide corresponding security assurances to Ukraine in the event of aggression or threat of aggression against Ukraine using nuclear weapons.”
Nuclear arms control experts call the pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons “negative security assurances.” They describe promises to help a non-nuclear weapons state threatened with nuclear use as “positive security assurances.” The former does not require action. The latter does.
Ukraine is being threatened. Not long after Russian forces invaded, President Vladimir Putin raised the alert level of Russia’s nuclear forces. He conducted nuclear weapons exercises on Ukraine’s borders and issued a not-so-thinly veiled nuclear threat to countries that might come to Ukraine’s aid.
When presented with opportunities to offer rhetorical support to Ukraine in the United Nations, Chinese delegates abstained. Chinese state-controlled media repeated and amplified Russian justifications for threatening and attacking its non-nuclear neighbor. And Chinese officials criticized the imposition of economic sanctions intended to compel Russia to stop. China may comply with the sanctions, but not, it seems, out of a sense of obligation to Ukraine. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested China’s only aim is to avoid hurting itself.
The Chinese leadership’s unwillingness to provide military assistance to Ukraine is understandable. Its refusal to provide rhetorical and economic support is harder to justify. The 1995 UN Security Council resolution on which the 2013 joint declaration is based obliges China to “seek Council action to provide, in accordance with the Charter, the necessary assistance” to Ukraine. China’s statement on the 1995 resolution specifies that assistance includes the imposition of “strict and effective sanctions.” Moreover, China’s statement notes this obligation, “naturally applies…in the event of an aggression with nuclear weapons or the threat of such aggression.”
The Chinese leadership’s refusal to honor its positive security assurance to Ukraine impacts the credibility of its negative security assurances to all non-nuclear weapons states. Already skeptical Asian leaders will find it even more difficult to believe China will not use nuclear weapons first in a military conflict or refrain from using its nuclear status to intimidate its neighbors. The most consequential among them may be Japan.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hard-liners in the Japanese Diet, encouraged by former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, have repeatedly asked current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to consider a “nuclear sharing” agreement with the United States. Kishida has emphatically rejected those requests. But his chief national security advisor, Akiba Takeo, has been secretly raising the idea of “nuclear sharing” with US defense and foreign policy officials for more than a decade. Abe’s push to take that debate public now is not because of concerns about Russia. It’s an opportunistic response to his concerns about China.
The uniquely Japanese concept of “nuclear sharing” is poorly defined but it refers to a cooperative security arrangement that would train and equip Japan’s self-defense forces to deliver US nuclear weapons. Kishida, and a large majority of Japanese voters, are opposed to nuclear sharing because it would violate Japan’s “Three Non-Nuclear Principles,” which forbid the production and possession of nuclear weapons as well as the entry of foreign nuclear weapons into Japanese territory.
At the same time, however, Kishida has not opposed US plans to deploy a new submarine-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missile (SLCM) on US naval vessels transiting Japanese ports. There were indications President Biden would cancel those plans. But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and China’s failure to condemn it, the fate of the SLCM is unclear. The United States is now on course to deploy US tactical nuclear weapons in Asia for the first time since President George H.W. Bush removed them at the end of the Cold War in 1991.
Xi’s risky response
It is difficult to imagine Xi is blind to the consequences of undermining faith in Chinese security assurances and, by extension, Chinese respect for international law. The Chinese leader once described the UN Charter as “a cornerstone of stable international order” that “must be unswervingly kept and upheld.” It is hard to square that statement with his response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It is equally difficult to imagine Xi is unaware of international and domestic political repercussions of aligning China with Russia and himself with Putin. China’s state-run media blames the war on NATO expansion, criticizes the effects of economic sanctions on Russian citizens as “immoral” and gives prominent coverage to sensational Russian accusations about the intent of US-funded bioresearch labs in Ukraine. At the same time, it gives scant attention to the consequences of Russia’s indiscriminate shelling of civilians, the military failures of Russian forces and international condemnation of Putin and Russia. Xi does not seem to be concerned about the risks to China’s international standing, and the domestic political legitimacy of his ruling cohort, if Russia loses the war or Putin loses his job.
US officials seem willing to concede that Putin may have lied to Xi about his intentions in Ukraine, which presents an opportunity for Xi to change course. Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, seemed to suggest Xi might seize that opportunity when he admitted, “the situation today in Ukraine has reached a stage that the Chinese side does not want to see.” But less than a day later, the Chinese judge on the International Court of Justice voted against the court’s decision to order Russia to immediately cease all military activity in Ukraine.
Chinese leaders seem to believe protecting their relationship with Putin’s Russia is more important than honoring their obligations to Ukraine and the United Nations. The long-term consequences are difficult to predict, but Xi’s response to the war in Ukraine is almost certain to accelerate US efforts to isolate and contain China.