Former PLA officer says China is restraining Russia over use of nuclear weapons
Former senior colonel in China's People's Liberation Army Zhou Bo talks to the FT's global China editor James Kynge about Beijing's leverage with Moscow, how China's influence can prevent the use of nuclear weapons in Europe and why it wants a strong relationship with Europe even in the face of increased competition with the US.
Produced by Tom Griggs, filmed by Petros Gioumpasis
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China finds itself in an uncomfortable position over the war in Ukraine. Beijing's no-limits friendship with Russia puts it on the opposite side to its largest trade partner, Europe. This raises a number of key questions. One of the most crucial is, can Beijing use its leverage with Moscow to restrain Russia from using nuclear weapons?
And as Ukraine gets the upper hand militarily, what role does Beijing see for itself once the fighting is eventually over? With me to discuss this is Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, a retired officer from China's People's Liberation Army, who is now a senior fellow at the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University. Welcome, senior colonel.
Thank you, James.
Could I start by just asking you how you feel the war in Ukraine is going for Russia? As I mentioned, China has a no-limits friendship with Russia. Do you feel that this friendship is now coming under strain?
Of course China doesn't want to have this war, and I believe nobody wants to have this war. And I believe even President Putin would regret to have this war, because of the result, which is apparent. He could not afford to lose a war, but apparently, he can hardly win this war.
When China thinks about this war. I think you mentioned a very important word which is often misquoted in the international media, although they quoted in a right way to call it 'unlimited friendship.' But this term is most misunderstood, in that.. think of this.
When people talk about their friendship, of course they wish this friendship would last. And should we say, in spite of friendship, this friendship is limited? We cannot say our friendship should be limited.
So this is a kind of a goodwill gesture. But in the statement where this word is mentioned, we're also talking about, this is not a military alliance.
Would you say there are now divergences in view between China and Russia over the war in Ukraine? Do you feel that there is tension in China with regard to what Russia is doing in Ukraine?
Well, certainly not happy to see this war, because it has strongly affected Chinese interests. When I talk about Chinese interests, well, because China now is the largest trading nation, largest industrial nation in the world, therefore Chinese interests are almost ubiquitous everywhere. And in Europe it actually has affected China's belt-and-road initiative.
It actually has worsened China's relationship with many European capitals who believe China should actually take sides, you know, not to take Russian sides on this issue. So it is damaging to China in many ways. But China has to be very careful on this issue, because as this is a bit like being sandwiched between two friends.
So is my friend's enemy also my enemy? Not necessarily. And I think the Chinese position has paid off because both sides would understand this position. Having said that, this does not mean that China would just stand idly by and watch this going on.
No, China is not. And China cannot afford to behave like that. Because China is a great power, and a great power shoulders great responsibility... and what is China's great responsibility in this war? That is not to throw wood into the fire.
While this is certainly is an important issue about sovereignty, this is clearly an invasion of one country into another country. But at the same time people tend to forget why this has happened at all. Because ever since the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, on to President Putin, they have all warned against this kind of Nato's expansion, and they have all fell on deaf ears. Putin is different in that he put this kind of wording into military operation, and that is a difference.
Do you feel that China has leverage with Russia, given that China is certainly a diplomatic ally of Russia? And if China does have leverage with Russia, can China use that leverage to prevent Russia from escalating the military conflict, perhaps beyond Ukraine into other parts of Europe?
I think China's leverage is certainly there. For example, let's think about this. The world is afraid that President Putin might resort to use of nuclear weapons.
China's voice matters, and China's friendship with Russia would matter all the more on this issue. So probably it has already played a significant role in reducing such nightmare from happening.
Right. And is this a conscious effort by China at the moment, or is it a sort of passive wish that China has that Russia should restrain itself from any scenario in which it might use nuclear weapons?
As I said before, this is a difficult situation for China. But China is the second-largest economy in the world. China is a member of UN Security Council. On such issue that is totally, deeply rooted in humanity, China must have its voice voiced.
China must show to the international community what is the right thing to do and what is forbidden things that should never be carried out. If we talk about the global south, there are many countries who actually, more or less, would have sort of sympathies of what... with Russia's position. So when we talk about world views we cannot only talk about what people think in the west. We have to think about the global response on this matter.
Who would China primarily blame for the war in Ukraine? Would it be the eastward expansion of Nato, or would it be Putin's actions?
I would say Nato's expansion is very much the fundamental reason why Russia has actually taken such actions. So for military alliances they have to find a threat to justify their own existence, to justify the expansion. Because they live by expansion.
But when I think about Nato I believe it is not morally justifiable for the continued existence of Nato. Why do I say that? Because if it is a bunch of small countries, you know, getting united against a big power, then I understand.
But if the strongest nations on Earth would become united, then I would have to think, for what? This is for political reasons. Because you are already strong enough militarily.
I suppose China's image and China's reputation has been damaged in Europe because of the war and because of the friendship that China has with Russia, which has been... well, certainly, rhetorically unwavering during the war. Now that it looks like we may be moving to a new phase and possibly towards an end game of the war in Ukraine, do you think that China really wants to repair its relations with Europe?
Well, I think it would be wrong to conclude that China's image is damaged. Because I believe the west has to think of China's role, not only through its own prism, but you put yourself in the shoes of China. Put yourself in the shoes of India. Put yourself in the shoes of the countries in the global south.
You would find China's position is not a unique position. Actually, let's talk about another issue, about liberal democracy. Well, if this has something to do with order, what is apparent is not only the world is become less western, but also the west itself is becoming less western.
Yes. This is not my conclusion. This is the conclusion of Munich Security Conference. Yeah, this is the theme of one of the conferences.
So we are seeing global democracy declining. And I believe it will continue to decline. Because it has declined for about 15 or 16 years.
So what's China's view on its relationship with Europe? If we are moving towards a potential endgame in the war in Ukraine, does that present an opportunity for China to improve its relations with Europe?
China definitely would like to secure good relationship with Europe. That means we do not want you to take sides, as always, on American side. This is a very simple, good wish from China, and Europe has so many things for us - high-tech technology and markets. All these things are needed for China.
Then the question lies more with how Europe would look at China. So this is kind of describing China as an economic competitor, partner somewhere, and a systemic rival. Altogether, it's confusing for China.
So I believe it tells about the confusion of Europe as a whole. Yeah. There are so many slogans in Europe which are difficult to understand, even for Europeans. For example, like, strategic autonomy, so on and so forth. And I hope this war actually would make Europeans to think about things more independently.
At some point, the war in Ukraine will end. And at that point, what kind of posture do you think China will take? Is China interested, for instance, to help rebuild Ukraine?
We all know that China's been building infrastructure all over the world and lending about a trillion US dollars to the belt-and-road initiative to build infrastructure. So do you think China might be looking for that kind of role in Ukraine after the war has ended, whenever that may be?
If China can invest trillions of dollars in belt-and-road initiative, that actually is around the world. Why can't China help a wartorn country, which is always friendly toward China? So this is possible.
The second thing is about China's next-to-none capability in infrastructure building. So China actually could make... if you look at the world, the roads that China builds, the houses or the buildings that China built... they are much faster in being made, and they are more affordable.
And this is important for a wartorn country like Ukraine. So I believe China doesn't have exceptional capability, but China has unique capabilities in the postawr era for rebuilding a more beautiful Ukraine.
Senior Colonel Zhou, thank you very much indeed for talking to us.