The People’s Republic of China (PRC) years ago promised Ukraine and the United Nations it would act against any countries that used or threatened to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Collaboration between the PRC and Russia, however, flies in the face of that commitment and calls into question other international commitments made by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
PRC leaders’ words don’t always reflect their actions. The war in Ukraine, sparked by Russia’s unprovoked invasion in February 2022, “sounded an alarm for humanity,” CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping said in June 2022. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a mid-November 2022 meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, endorsed Moscow’s pledge not to use nuclear weapons.
Despite Russia’s repeated threats to use a nuclear weapon in the war, however, the PRC has strengthened its ties with Russia at all levels, breaking its vow to stand by Ukraine.
Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, does not have nuclear weapons, agreeing in 1994 to turn over its nuclear arsenal to Russia following the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991. Shortly after Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament, the PRC guaranteed Ukraine’s safety in a statement to the U.N. General Assembly. It specified that “disputes and differences should be settled peacefully through consultations on an equal footing,” and recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. The PRC reaffirmed its commitment in 2001 and 2013.
The PRC’s duplicitous stance on the Russia-Ukraine war, which has cost tens of thousands of lives, and its stepped-up military exercises with Russia have led some to question the relevance of the 2013 PRC-Ukraine Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed by Xi and Ukraine’s then president, Viktor Yanukovych. “It’s a promise of a nuclear-weapon state to stand up for a nonnuclear-weapon state being threatened by a nuclear-weapon state,” Gregory Kulacki, a Japan-based analyst of nuclear issues and the PRC for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Wall Street Journal newspaper in March 2022. “It means something, and it should be pointed out to China.”
Translations of the pact vary. According to The Diplomat magazine, it states, “China pledges unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the nuclear-free Ukraine and China further pledges to provide Ukraine nuclear security guarantee when Ukraine encounters an invasion involving nuclear weapons or Ukraine is under threat of a nuclear invasion.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised the specter of using nuclear weapons multiple times since the invasion, including in early October 2022, the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported.
Beijing and Moscow, despite not having a formal military alliance, increasingly have collaborated on military activities since the invasion. The joint drills attempt to showcase cooperation as the nations face tensions with the West.
In September, Beijing sent more than 2,000 troops, 300 vehicles, 21 combat aircraft and three warships to the weeklong Vostok 2022 exercise in Russia, the United States Naval Institute reported. The war games were intended to demonstrate Russia could stage such an exercise while at war with Ukraine, according to The Associated Press (AP).
In late November 2022, a quartet of nuclear-capable Russian Tu-95 bombers and Chinese H-6K bombers flew over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea on an eight-hour mission, the AP reported. The long-range strategic bombers made stops at air bases in both countries. (Pictured: A Russian Tu-95 strategic bomber taxis at an undisclosed air base in Russia before patrolling with Chinese People’s Liberation Army bombers.)
Japan and South Korea scrambled jets to monitor the bombers. Japan told the PRC and Russia it had “severe concerns” about the joint flights around its territory, according to The Japan Times newspaper. “We will closely monitor the increasing cooperation between the two countries with a sense of concern,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said.
While refraining from offering material support to Russia’s war in Ukraine, Beijing has refused to characterize it as an invasion and has stepped up purchases of oil, natural gas, coal and electricity from its neighbor, Reuters reported in mid-September 2022. Many of these purchases circumvent price caps imposed by the Group of Seven leading industrial nations by using Russian and Chinese currencies, thus enabling Russia to continue its war with Ukraine.
The PRC was similarly guarded in responding to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Despite its legal commitments to Ukraine, the PRC has stymied U.N. responses and advanced its economic relations with Russia, in addition to the combined military drills, according to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Such actions and inaction violate the PRC’s legal commitments to Ukraine and the U.N., disregard international law, undermine U.N. authority, erode the international rules-based order and embolden further Russian aggression.
Observers have noted parallels between Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the PRC’s claim to Taiwan. Furthermore, inconsistent PRC diplomacy and actions are causing the region to change in ways that are not necessarily in Beijing’s interest.
IMAGE CREDIT: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS