No one, China included, wants to see the Ukraine war going nuclear
- The longer the war ploughs on, the higher the chance of it turning into a nuclear crisis. To reduce the threat, China must put to good use its access to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and help broker a ceasefire
Major participants in the Russia-Ukraine war, whether involved directly or by proxy, lack agreement about when and how it must end. These varying perspectives result in an unseemly policy scrum, adding more confusion to this humanitarian tragedy. This obscene war, despite the many ways it presses hard on our conscience, is developing a second dimension of amoral abstraction.
Still, by moralising, the Russia-Ukraine war offers the narrow absolutism that obviates the need for reason. At this time of great danger – with Covid-19 variants still swirling around – no avenue to a ceasefire should be left unexplored.
A persistent process of entrepreneurial diplomacy is needed. War is not a game; it is deadly. Anger and hatred fuel the feral absolutism of wartime. The longer this war goes on, the greater the risk of an apocalypse.
While Ukraine itself reportedly has no nuclear weapons – Mikhail Gorbachev having arranged their transfer to Russian custody in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet empire – its primary patron has plenty in reserve, of course.
The United States (which dropped a pair of atomic bombs in 1945 on then-enemy Japan and remains the only state to ever use them) has nukes stored not only on its sovereign territory but in other places as well; its sole rival in nuclear prowess, quantitatively, is Russia, which has plenty. The showdown over Ukraine is thus particularly precarious, especially if you’re one to fret over the prospect of multiple mushroom clouds.
I am, of course, one of those who fret. A book I wrote more than half a century ago had the title Understanding Doomsday. My own understanding today is as follows: Zelensky and his Ukraine, as well as Russia, the US and Nato, and China, must soon nail down a ceasefire and negotiated settlement that supports global peace and stability; a bitter and seemingly endless war filled with recriminations all over Europe will take the world in an entirely different direction.
China put together its first nuclear weapon in the 1960s with the help of Russian communist engineering. But, interestingly, Beijing’s last weapons test was back in July 1996, after which it signed on to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, though it has not ratified it (neither has the US, among others).
Yet it probably offers better heavyweight diplomatic access to Putin than almost anyone, and for that reason needs to continue working with its Russian friends on the proposition that more war is unpredictably dangerous; everyone could lose. High-level conversations such as this would surely make a difference. China is important to every state.
The Russia-Ukraine war is not just about Ukraine, or even just about Russia – its impact reaches far and wide, from Europe’s economy and US inflation to poorer nations’ food supplies. It is a war that affects the world though it is not a world war – yet.
It is a slow-moving train that will pick up speed the longer it goes on; it must be stopped before we get taken for a runaway ride over the edge.
LMU Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies Tom Plate is vice-president of the Pacific Century Institute and founder of Asia Media International (asiamedia.lmu.edu)