China’s ‘unusual’ nuclear pact with Ukraine’s Yanukovich

Analysis: The deal reveals more about China’s tense relations in the Pacific than any allegiance to Ukraine or Russia

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in December 2013 in Beijing.
Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

After Russia sent troops into Ukraine's Crimea region in defiance of the West, Moscow reached out to China for international support. But while Russia says China is in agreement over Ukraine, Beijing has remained largely silent publicly and, analysts say, will likely remain so.

That silence may be due to a recent deal that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich signed with Chinese President Xi Jinping — to bring Ukraine under China's nuclear umbrella.  

On Dec. 5, two months before Yanukovich was dismissed by his nation’s parliament, Xi and Yanukovich signed the accord, which one participating Chinese official indicated to state media amounted to $10 billion and included an “unusual” nuclear clause. In the event of a nuclear attack or so much as the threat of one, China would offer Kiev military support.

Yet the pact seems to reveal more about Beijing's various territorial disputes in Asia than it does about China's ties with Russia.

China has in fact penned a slew of multi-billion-dollar agreements with leaders who have since been unseated or debilitated by popular revolt in countries like Libya, Syria and now Ukraine, costing China both financially and in terms of influence.

Amid Russia's incursions into Crimea, it's unclear whether China will strengthen ties with Russia. But after a series of unfortunate contracts with toppled Arab Spring leaders and now Yanukovich, some China watchers have expressed hopes that China will stop aligning itself with nations threatened by political instability.

"China is trying to position itself in the world today as a major economic and political player. I believe that China will play a very sensitive and long-term card in dealing with those countries that had political and social crises like Libya and Syria," said Dong Qingwen, communications professor and Chinese media analyst at the University of the Pacific.

It's a tall order for a nation that has attempted to brand itself since its 1949 inception as aligning with developing nations, some of which have since developed entrenched dictatorial administrations.

An ‘unusual’ nuclear umbrella

And so it is, analysts say, that Xi's deal with Ukraine deal was really aimed at asserting power over China's adversaries in ongoing territorial disputes with Japan and South Korea.

“That’s unusual for China. China never goes that far to interfere with political issues in Europe,” Austria-based Chinese political analyst and international relations professor Yu Ligong told Al Jazeera.

China has long sought to cast off its no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons, and some have said this shift has invited ongoing tensions with less-equipped military powers in the region. China has the second-largest defense budget in the world behind the U.S., and Beijing announced Wednesday its defense spending increased by 12.2 percent to $132 billion, though that is still just one-fifth of the U.S.'s defense budget.

Yu said the “nuclear umbrella” pact with Kiev was designed to send a message to Japan, amid ongoing disputes over the Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands, and Southeast Asian rivals in disputes in the South China Sea.

“Through this agreement with Ukraine, China wanted to paint a new face: ‘We won’t apply nuclear weapons, but we are a nuclear power. You should not forget.’ It’s a way to show muscle,” Yu said.

The message appeared to have fallen on deaf ears. Chinese media published countless articles on the agreement, but the deal got little play in the international media, Lu noted. And little over a month later, at Davos, it appeared Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hoped to move international support against what Tokyo says is Chinese aggression in the Pacific.

Quiet diplomacy

For now it appears China's involvement with Kiev stops at its "unusual" cooperative agreement with Ukraine’s old regime.

Though Moscow still seems to think otherwise. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, after a call with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi that the two were largely "in agreement" over Moscow's inroads in post-Yanukovich Ukraine, according to a report from Sky News. But China has offered no direct sign of support for Russia.

“China is walking a fine line,” said Jie Dalei, Peking University international relations professor.

“China does not want to jeopardize its quite robust strategic partnership with Russia by taking the U.S. and European (Union’s) position,” Jie said,

And some say it would behoove China, in its perennial war of words with neighboring countries for islands and water rights, to side with Russia against the U.S. and the West.

“China has become increasingly weary of a pivot to the Pacific of U.S. military assertiveness,” said Georgetown economics professor and China expert Arthur Dong.

“China views the United States as the only thing in the way of its pursuit of destiny, that is, recovery of islands and domains that it held as late as the 19th century," Dong said. "China’s relationship with Russia is not based on love but one based on convenience.”

So far, China appears in state media to have subscribed to Moscow’s premise that Russia is acting to protect Ukraine’s Russians from perceived dangers. But Jie maintains that’s as far as China may go.

“China does not want to vocally support Russia's actions,” Jie said. “China has its own separatist problems, as seen in the very recent terrorist attack at Kunming's train station, so China would not be too happy if Crimea can walk away from Ukraine with impunity.”

China’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to an interview request from Al Jazeera, and Russia’s mission declined to comment.

Picking the right team

China doesn't show signs of ending its alignment with countries that find themselves in unstable political situations, and recent history has shown it could lose a great deal by investing — both politically and financially — in those countries.

Bilateral trade between the Syria and China rose to almost $2.5 billion in 2010 before Syria’s civil war was triggered by Arab Spring unrest in 2011. Before the toppling of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, China had 50 large-scale projects in Libya.  

The December deal with Ukraine may have amounted to less than $10 billion, but was designed to offer China preferential trade status in the post-Soviet nation. It’s a deal that may have to be renegotiated in Ukraine's pending election in May.

Russia is still an economic power — a major regional energy supplier at a time when China is scouring the globe for stable oil supplies to drive its economy. But human rights concerns in Russia have rallied various groups to protest and even attack the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With this in mind, some analysts say China might not solidify an alignment with Russia in Ukraine, even after it worked together with Moscow on multiple occasions to block U.N. Security Council resolutions on the conflict in Syria.

“China doesn't want to damage its relations with and image in the U.S. and European countries by siding with Russia,” Jie said.

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