Jeffrey LewisA Chinese “Nuclear Umbrella” for Ukraine?


Two of our graduate students review Chinese-language materials to shoot down that silly story from a few weeks ago about China giving Ukraine a nuclear umbrella.


That’s Not What Xi Said!

 By Catherine Dill and Jonathan Ray

Catherine Dill is a research assistant at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Jonathan Ray is a former MIIS student and now Research Analyst at Global Commercial Insights LLC. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of any organization.

Last month, Miles Yu of The Washington Times asserted that China made a “pledge to protect Ukraine under its nuclear umbrella.” His claim is based on an incorrect translation that turns a routine diplomatic pledge made by all nuclear weapons states, including the United States, into a sinister Chinese plot.

Yu based his misleading story on a joint statement issued on the treaty of friendship and cooperation signed on December 5th by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Washington Times’ translation of the relevant segment reads:

“China pledges unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the nuclear-free Ukraine and China further pledges to provide Ukraine a nuclear security guarantee when Ukraine encounters an invasion involving nuclear weapons or Ukraine is under threat of a nuclear invasion.”

Yu goes on to write that “China’s official media, including Xinhua and Global Times, touted the deal with the headline ‘China Pledges Nuclear Umbrella to Protect Ukraine.’”

A nuclear umbrella!  This comes as quite a shock, given that a staple of Chinese diplomacy over the past fifty years has been an outright hostility to so-called “nuclear umbrellas.” Western analysts occasionally suggest that China offer a nuclear umbrella to states like North Korea or Pakistan to persuade them to give up the bomb. Each time, Chinese officials or experts explain patiently that “China is not a country that provides nuclear umbrellas to other countries.”

Yu’s story, however, is based on an inaccurate translation and misrepresents the bulk of reporting in Chinese media outlets. A correct translation of the complete segment, as provided in Chinese by Xinhua and translated by the authors, is the following:

The Chinese government assesses that Ukraine unilaterally renounced its nuclear weapons, and as a non-nuclear weapons state (NNWS) joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), signed July 1, 1968. In accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 984 and the Chinese government’s statement on providing security assurances to Ukraine on December 4, 1994, China pledges unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear Ukraine, and under the conditions of Ukraine suffering an invasion using nuclear weapons or suffering the threat of this kind of invasion, to provide Ukraine with relevant security guarantees. (相应  can also be translated as “appropriate” or “corresponding.” )

The Chinese statement mentions the “relevant” security guarantees (相应安全保证), specifically United Nations Security Council Resolution 984 and China’s negative security assurance.  What China offered Ukraine was a negative security assurance—a promise not to use nuclear weapons against it—as well as the standard positive security assurance that all nuclear weapons states offer under United Nations Security Council Resolution 984 to come to the aid of states coming under nuclear attack.

These positive and negative security assurances are standard fare.  In theory, the United States offers the same assurances to the vast majority of countries around the world, including states with whom we have less than warm relations such as Cuba. The nuclear weapons states, including China and the United States, made or reaffirmed these pledges in 1995 as part of the diplomacy to secure support for the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

So, for example, in 1995 all the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) agreed to United Nations Security Council Resolution 984, pledging assistance to any state suffering “aggression with nuclear weapons” or the threat from nuclear weapons.  All of the nuclear weapons states, including the United States and China, made “negative” security assurances to refrain from threatening non-nuclear weapons states with nuclear weapons.  The United States pledge was heavily qualified at the time (although the Obama Administration has since issued a “clean” negative security assurance for all states in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.)  China’s individual statement was free of such reservations, stating that under no circumstances would China use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapons state or party to a nuclear weapons free zone.

The most recent joint statement simply states the obvious – that China’s blanket negative and positive security assurances to all non-nuclear weapons states also apply to Ukraine.  After Ukraine, as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan, returned their Soviet nuclear weapons to Russia, each state signed a memorandum in Budapest with the US, United Kingdom and Russia that reiterated the standard security guarantees to all three. (Belarus|Kazakhstan|Ukraine) ” Later, China and France joined its provisions in the form of individual statements.” China issued its statement to Ukraine in December 1994.

This simply is not a nuclear umbrella. China’s 1995 statement relating to the NPT, which is available in English as well as Chinese, explains that were a non-nuclear state to suffer a nuclear attack, China would “impose strict and effective sanctions on the attacking State.” The statement makes clear that the security assurance “shall not in any way be construed as endorsing the use of nuclear weapons.” If someone attacks Ukraine with nuclear weapons, the Chinese will send a sternly worded letter.

Yu’s representation of Chinese media is also misleading. Some state-media outlets initially did report the story with ambiguous headlines, although the text of the stories was clear. We located Xinhua, Global Times, and other reprints titled “China-Ukraine Joint Statement: China Pledges to Provide Nuclear Security Guarantee to Ukraine [中乌声明:中国承诺向乌克兰提供核安全保证].” Each article provided text of the joint statement, but did not mention, let alone “tout” as Yu writes, a nuclear umbrella. Perhaps Yu can produce a single article that supports his interpretation, but this does not fairly represent the state-media coverage overall.

On the other hand, the announcement produced the predictable flurry of inaccurate commentary among bloggers and general media outlets. Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television, one of the few private broadcasters in mainland China, ran articles such as “China For the First Time Announces to Pledge Nuclear Umbrella to Non-Nuclear State [中国首次宣布向无核国家提供核保护伞]”, “Beijing Exhibits Nuclear Strength, Pledges to Protect Ukraine [北京展核实力 承诺保护乌克兰]”, and similar videos.

State-media responded by making clear that these were misrepresentations of the text. Xinhua interviewed Wu Dahui (吴大辉, Director of Tsinghua University’s Eurasia Strategic Research Center), who called the “nuclear umbrella” a “pure and simple misinterpretation.” The Global Timesran an article titled “China Giving Ukraine a Nuclear Umbrella is a Misunderstanding, and Not the Same as the US [中国给乌克兰核保护伞是误解   与美国非一回事].” The article makes the same points we’ve made—that China’s negative and positive security assurances are related to the 1995 pledges and do not constitute a system of extended deterrence.

So, is China providing Ukraine a “nuclear umbrella?” Well, that’s not what Xi said.