China Has Not (Yet) Changed Its Position on Nuclear Weapons
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China Has Not (Yet) Changed Its Position on Nuclear Weapons


In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, nuclear expert James Acton suggests that China may be changing its nuclear doctrine.  The principal basis for his argument is the absence of a specific repetition of China’s “no first-use” policy in the latest edition of Beijing’s bi-annual white paper on defense.  Acton, however, misreads the recent white paper and draws the wrong conclusion about China’s approach to nuclear weapons.

First, no first use has been a core feature of Chinese defense policy for decades, having been decided by Mao himself in 1964.  If China abandoned or altered this policy position, it would reflect a major change in China’s approach to nuclear weapons – and a major change in China’s international image. This would not be a casual decision by China’s top leaders but rather a radical change precipitated by a major shift in China’s security environment. Although China’s concerns about U.S. missile defense policies that Acton notes are real, these concerns have existed since the mid-1990s and shape China’s current efforts to reduce the vulnerability of its nuclear forces.

To date, China has focused on building a small but potent nuclear force with the ability to launch a secure second strike if attacked with nuclear weapons – what I call “assured retaliation.”  The relatively small size of China’s nuclear arsenal and the doctrinal emphasis on survivability and reliability are consistent with a pledge to not use nuclear weapons first.  Moreover, if China were to abandon or alter the no first-use policy, it would surely want to reap a clear deterrent effect from such an action and likely do so clearly and publicly, not indirectly and quietly through an omission in a report.

Second, the absence of the no first-use policy in the 2012 white paper does not support Acton’s contention that China is changing its nuclear doctrine. Here, Acton overlooks that this edition of China’s bi-annual defense white papers is different from past volumes in one important respect. 

According to Major General Chen Zhou, one of the white paper’s drafters and a researcher at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, the 2012 white paper uses a thematic model (zhuanti xing) and not a comprehensive one. In the past, the comprehensively-oriented white papers all had the same title, such China’s National Defense in 2010.  The title of the 2012 edition, however, reflects the new thematic focus: Diversified Employment of China Armed Forces.  By discussing in more detail the structure and missions of China’s armed forces, the 2012 white paper dropped a chapter found in all previous ones entitled “National Defense Policy.”  In the past editions, this chapter contained the references to China’s no first-use policy (as well as many other defense policies).  Applying Occam’s razor, the lack of a chapter on China’s national defense policies can account for the absence of a reference to the no first-use policy.

In addition, the white paper’s discussion of the use of nuclear weapons is consistent with the no first-use policy.  The white paper refers to “the principle of building a lean and effective force,” repeating language from the 2006 white paper that officially detailed China’s nuclear strategy for the first time.  Second, it states that China’s nuclear weapons will only be used under one condition: “If China comes under a nuclear attack, the nuclear missile force of the [Second Artillery] will use nuclear missiles to launch a resolute counterattack (jianjue fanji).”  Here, the 2012 white paper uses the exact same sentence as the 2008 white paper, which did contain a reference to the no first-use policy.  More generally, a nuclear counterattack is the only campaign for China’s nuclear forces that has been described in authoritative Chinese doctrinal texts, starting with the 1987 edition of the Science of Strategy (Zhanlue Xue).

January 14, 2014 at 01:33

No first use except on Japan.

The American uses of nuclear bombs on Japan were seen as partly racist; don’t forget Japnese look like Chinese and were hated during WWII. If the cowboy could use on Jpan, why not China to do the same on the samurais.

August 30, 2013 at 04:24

Well ,  this is a very interesting discussion.  I feel  that if the United States annexes  China and makes China the 51st State a lot of things could be solve.
China leadership could move to Palm Springs
The money spent for defense could be used to improve the environment and make
it so the Chinese could grow more crops.
China the 51st State would be a part of United States energy policy and would benefit from
all of the resources around the pacific rim, oil, natural gas, mineral.
The millions of members of their military could be deploy as UN Peace Keep throughout the globe.
As the New Chinese UN Peace Keepers stabilize specific countries, the population will be given the option to join the American Democratic Federation.
Once said country joins the American Democratic Federation, it will be a state and the population will have the all of the rights guaranteed under US Constitution.

April 30, 2013 at 09:52

The Chinese view of nuclear weapons is psychological deterent, which is dramatically different from US and Russia's, as already noticed by some US strategists. The minimal deterent strategy allows Beijing to maintain a small nuke arsenal and NFU policy. For the same purpose, Beijing keep the actual size of the nuke arsenal secret, otherwise they have to spend lots money to expand it to achieve the same psychological effect. 

April 29, 2013 at 21:54

China has put itself in a vulnerable position by declaring NFU,as it possess a small and limited number of nukes.
it should learn from the Russian by fielding 5000 ICBM nukes and declaring that any major attack, even with conventional weapons, on it’s mainland could met with a nuclear response.
This is how the Russian deter any potential aggressor and this is how China should very well emulate.
The potential aggressor will have to weigh the possibility of escalation to a nuclear war, and considering the horrendous damage for both sides, will not dare to initiate even conventional warfare.
Net result is Peace On Earth!

April 27, 2013 at 18:50

I had posted a post saying that some Chinese commentator had explained that Chinese leaders have shifted China's position regarding nuclear arms from "reassuring the West" to "perturbing the West".  It seems my post did not meet with The Diplomat's liking and got deleted.  My question is why The Diplomat finds it dangerous to say China has changed its position?

April 27, 2013 at 14:12

It is not China's responsibility to assure no nuclear war will devastate human race.  Why should China give up its nuclear arms to assure the survival of human race?  After all, China is not even the one with the most number of warheads.  Let America and Russia declare NFU first.  Let China deploy as many warheads as they have.  Then we can talk about NFU.  And I don't think you are a Chinese.

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