China’s Nuclear Option
Image Credit: Unipress Photo

China’s Nuclear Option


Writing in the Liberation Army Daily, a prominent Chinese military newspaper, retired Maj. Gen. Xu Guangyu argued that China needed a limited nuclear force capable of surviving and retaliating against a first strike by any adversary. The article marked another effort by the Chinese leadership to display greater openness in its nuclear declaratory policy, and reinforces other statements and indications that China has adopted a ‘second-strike’ nuclear policy based on a minimal deterrent.

Yet, these and similar statements still might not be enough to overcome the reluctance of some US and Russian officials to reduce their countries’ nuclear forces much further without greater evidence that China will join the nuclear disarmament process.

Unlike the United States and Russia, the Chinese government has yet to adopt legally binding limits on its nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. Beijing’s nuclear policies are an important component of the global and regional balance of power and China is both a rising international power and the only acknowledged nuclear weapons state in East Asia. Constraining China’s nuclear build-up is a prerequisite for achieving further global nuclear arms control and for reassuring China’s anxious neighbours.

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In terms of capabilities, Xu argued that Beijing sought a nuclear arsenal that ‘is able, should a foe launch an initial nuclear strike, to really possess, and to convince the other side that it faces, an intolerable second-strike nuclear capability, thereby deterring an enemy from using nuclear weapons against us.’ Xu, currently a researcher in the government-run China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, explained that his country’s nuclear capabilities ‘must make them grasp, without the least ambiguity, that we possess a deterrent.’

But although China appears to be modernizing its nuclear forces more rapidly than any of the five established nuclear weapons states, Xu sought to downplay foreign concerns, arguing that, ‘The most basic feature of China’s nuclear strategy, in a nutshell, is to be a deterrent but present no threat.’ Xu later told Reuters that his commentary intentionally sought to overcome concerns in India, Japan, and the United States about China’s nuclear modernization program.

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released by the Obama administration earlier this month stated ‘the United States and China’s Asian neighbours remain concerned about the pace and scope of China’s current military modernization efforts, including its quantitative and qualitative modernization of its nuclear capabilities….the lack of transparency surrounding its programs—their pace and scope as well as the strategy and doctrine guiding them—raises questions about China’s future strategic intentions.’

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