On April 16, the Chinese Ministry of Defense released the eighth edition of China’s bi-annual white paper on defense since 1998. However, unlike the previous editions, this one does not reiterate China’s long-standing doctrine of no-first-use nuclear weapons. The obvious omission has sparked a debate over whether China is changing its nuclear doctrine. If China abandons its no-first-use nuclear pledge, which has guided China’s nuclear strategy since its first nuclear test in 1964, it would severely undermine the global disarmament process, potentially preventing the U.S. and Russian from further reducing their nuclear arsenals and even encouraging the U.S. to expand its nuclear forces. Is China really changing its nuclear policy?
Colonel Yang Yujun, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Defense, answered this question unambiguously during a briefing on April 25 when he stated: “China repeatedly reaffirms that China has always pursued no-first-use nuclear weapons policy, upholds its nuclear strategy of self-defense, and never takes part in any form of nuclear arms race with any country. The policy has never been changed. The concern about changes of China’s nuclear policy is unnecessary.”
Colonel Yang also explained that all former White Papers (with the same general title “China’s National Defense”) were comprehensive (zonghe xing), and elaborated on China’s nuclear policy in detail in sections on “national defense policy” and “arms control.” But this latest edition for the first time adopts a “thematic” model (zhuanti xing) and focuses specifically on the employment of China’s armed forces; it does not address nuclear policy in detail.
While the new white paper does not explore generally its no-first-use policy, it emphasizes that the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) is “primarily responsible for deterring other countries from using nuclear weapons against China, and carrying out nuclear counterattack.” It also explains clearly how the PLASAF employs its nuclear force during peace and war time:
“[China] keeps an appropriate level of readiness in peacetime… If China comes under a nuclear attack, the nuclear missile force of the PLASAF will use nuclear missiles to launch a resolute counterattack either independently or together with the nuclear forces of other services.”
It should be noted that the term “nuclear counterattack” in the context of China’s nuclear strategy generally means “nuclear retaliation to a first nuclear strike” or “second nuclear strike.”
Many experts and scholars are suspicious of China’s no-first-use pledge, with the Pentagon’s 2013 annual report on the Chinese military calling it ambiguous. But China’s nuclear force posture has all the features of a meaningful no-first-use policy. It has a much smaller and simpler arsenal with a much lower alert status than required for a first-use option.
Some security analysts challenge whether China can maintain its no-first-use pledge for some extreme scenarios, such as if an enemy uses conventional weapons to attack China’s nuclear arsenal. These analysts suggest China might consider a conventional attack the equivalent of a first nuclear strike and consequently initiate a retaliatory nuclear strike. However, in practice, since 1980, when it initiated China's nuclear modernization, the PLASAF has focused on increasing the survivability of its nuclear force by deploying mobile missiles and moving missiles underground, to ensure that the country's limited number of land-based strategic missiles can survive a first strike— nuclear or not.
Since 1985 China has built the tunnels of the underground great wall to protect its smaller nuclear arsenal and assure a reliable second-strike capability. The tunnels are reportedly hundreds of meters underground, deep in mountain areas, and difficult to detect from space. They are designed to withstand nuclear and conventional attacks. If Beijing believes its nuclear arsenal can survive a first nuclear strike, why not a conventional strike?
In fact, the PLASAF has also developed and deployed advanced conventional missiles including DF-21s that can attack aircraft carriers and penetrate regional missile defense systems. These new conventional forces should make Chinese leaders more confident and less reliant on nuclear weapons to deal with conventional attacks.
In fact, there is no evidence that China will change its long-standing no-first-use nuclear doctrine. Since its first nuclear explosion in 1964, China has consistently adhered to a nuclear policy that features a minimum deterrent and a no-first-use pledge, both aimed at avoiding a costly nuclear arms race. This policy has been based on Chinese leaders’ perception of the nature and role of nuclear weapons and has been continuously embraced by top Chinese leaders, from Mao Zedong until today. As Mao stated a few months after China’s first nuclear test: “We don’t wish to have too many atomic bombs ourselves. What would we do with so many? To have a few is just fine.”
China's nuclear policy has proven to be effective and smart, providing savings that can be used on economic development. As its conventional capabilities grow, Beijing should have more confidence to pursue firmly and unshakably its nuclear policy rather than follow the road of U.S. and Russia’s nuclear development. It is unthinkable that China would change its policy to pursue extremely expensive weapons parity with the superpowers.
In fact, to make substantial progress towards President Obama’s goal of a nuclear-free world, each nuclear weapon state must change its strategic doctrine from one based on preemption to a purely defensive one based on a no-first-use policy. This will provide a solid base to promote further reductions of nuclear weapons. A no-first-use policy could also be an important measure to strengthen the nonproliferation regime, as no-first-use pledges would discourage other states from seeking nuclear weapons by removing a basic proliferation incentive while deemphasizing the role of such weapons. If the nuclear weapons states truly intend to take steps toward a nuclear-free world, it is time for them to adopt a global agreement on no-first-use of nuclear weapons.
Hui Zhang, a physicist, is leading a research initiative on China's nuclear policies for the Managing the Atom Project in Harvard Kennedy School' s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.