Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on September 16. Photo: AP
Kevin Rudd
Kevin Rudd

Why China must stop Russia from using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine

  • Beijing has begun to diplomatically distance itself from Moscow, but this is not enough to prevent further damage to China’s international standing
  • Given Putin’s track record of giving effect to his threats, Xi must act in China’s national interest and intervene to defuse the nuclear threat
As Xi Jinping emerges emboldened from China’s 20th party congress and prepares to possibly meet Joe Biden next month for the first time since he became US president, all eyes will focus on the two countries’ worsening geopolitical relationship over Taiwan.

This will include whether they will now seek some sort of formula to stabilise (if not normalise) their relationship, or whether it will continue to spiral downwards in the absence of an effective diplomatic mechanism to manage the growing structural divisions between them.

But while Taiwan and the gathering pace of a wider economic and technological US-China decoupling will be front and centre, there is one even bigger, and more immediate, geopolitical wild card looming before them: the risk of Russia using a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

Putting aside the humanitarian consequences this would bring, and the dangerous spiral of escalation it could spur, if Putin actually deployed nuclear weapons, it would irretrievably damage China’s own national interests and future standing in the world.

Among the Chinese foreign and security policy elite, it is generally agreed that Xi went too far in his joint statement during Putin’s February visit that the China-Russia strategic partnership now enjoys “no limits”.

And while Chinese diplomats privately insist that they had no prior knowledge of Russia’s decision to violate the UN Charter by invading Ukraine and that Xi has personally encouraged Putin to seek a negotiated settlement, given the depth and duration of the Xi-Putin personal and political relationship, this is not accepted across the wider international community.


Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin speak in person for first time since Russia invaded Ukraine

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin speak in person for first time since Russia invaded Ukraine

If Putin now does the unthinkable and crosses the nuclear Rubicon, the international political pressure on China to sever its strategic ties with Russia would be unprecedented.

Failing that, China would be seen as implicitly condoning Russia’s action. Russia’s remaining relationships in the world would also probably be severed, and BRICS partners such as India and South Africa (which have abstained from recent UN votes on Russia) would join the democratic world in their condemnation.

Some countries in Asia could also decide to begin acquiring their own nuclear capabilities, increasingly fearful of proximity to a nuclear-armed China and North Korea in an era where the international political norm of decades of non-use of nuclear weapons had been shattered.

Putin’s nuclear threats are pushing Europe to make peace with China

The Russian nuclear option is being taken seriously in Beijing. The fact that China has in the past week renewed efforts to evacuate its remaining citizens from Ukraine in part reflects how real the threat has become in the minds of the Chinese.

Russia possesses the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, including an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 tactical weapons.

As Putin’s failure in his “special military operation” becomes clear to even his most ardent admirers, Beijing has already begun to diplomatically distance itself from Moscow.

During his latest encounter with Xi at September’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan, Putin was forced to acknowledge China’s “questions and concerns”.

But in the eyes of the world, diplomatic distancing is not enough. This will be seen as politically self-serving after Chinese overreach in support of Russia in the first half of the year – and the resulting damage to China’s international standing.

This is particularly the case in Europe where public opinion sees Russia and China through the same (or a similar) lens. The European Union would be horrified if China effectively sat idly by while Putin proceeded to deploy a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield.

Worrying revival of interest in nuclear weapons in China, South Korea

China has formidable political and economic leverage over Russia. Moscow relies on Beijing’s diplomatic support around the world to help peel away critical votes in UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.

Moscow is also increasingly dependent on the Chinese economy as global markets are progressively shut to Russian commodities. And given the effectiveness of US and allied financial sanctions against Russia, Putin is increasingly dependent on the Chinese yuan to facilitate its international transactions.
As the northern winter approaches and Russian forces continue to lose swathes of captured land back to Ukraine, a growing sense of desperation is evident in Russian military tactics and strategy, including the deliberate targeting of Ukrainian energy infrastructure.


Why Russia is using ‘kamikaze drones’ in Ukraine

Why Russia is using ‘kamikaze drones’ in Ukraine
The use of tactical nuclear weapons, notwithstanding their dubious utility in the battlefield, would be designed to terrorise the Ukrainian civilian population – particularly given their long memories of the nuclear fallout from Chernobyl.

In other words, we can no longer rule out the possibility of Putin moving to a decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons simply because the rest of the world calculates that he would be mad to do so. To put it another way, given his track record of giving effect to his public threats (including the invasion itself), it’s time his nuclear threats were also taken seriously.

And given that nuclear non-proliferation remains a core shared interest between the US and China, a first practical step forward by both countries would be to agree on a joint statement with others at the UN on the non-use of all forms of weapons of mass destruction in and around Ukraine.

That could also create the political ballast necessary for the US to restart the collaboration component in their overall management of the growing strategic competition between them. Indeed, cooperation on nuclear non-proliferation might help stabilise the overall relationship when everything else is currently heading in the reverse direction.

The bottom line is that Xi now has the power, influence and, above all, an overriding national interest to intervene directly and urgently with Putin to prevent the unthinkable from happening. It’s time for Beijing to act.

Kevin Rudd is a former prime minister of Australia, the global president of the Asia Society, and author of The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China