China’s Smart Nuclear Policy

China’s latest defence white paper shows it is sticking to its no-first-use nuclear policy. Very wise.

China’s Defence Ministry held a press conference last week to make public its White Paper on National Defence 2010. To its credit, not only did the move seek to showcase Chinese transparency in defence-related issues, but it also made all the right noises, on matters nuclear matters at least.

China has maintained its adherence to the policy of no-first-use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, a strategy that Mao first articulated soon after a Chinese test in 1964— around the height of the Cold War, when both superpowers were engaged in a ferocious build-up of their nuclear stockpiles. Mao carved a distinct nuclear path for the Chinese strategy—few nuclear weapons (for him, six were enough) and a policy of no-first-use.

Since then, China has consciously avoided the path of massive nuclear stockpiling and stuck to the principles of effectiveness and sufficiency.  It has also continued with its position of no-first-use, which makes great strategic sense. It not only earns China the moral high ground, but also is actually more conducive for national security and deterrence stability.  It seems unlikely, therefore, that China will want to abandon this principle. Instead, it has put the other nuclear weapon states on the back foot by suggesting that the universal acceptance of NFU would be an effective step towards nuclear disarmament.

Ironically, about two weeks before the Chinese reiteration of the NFU, a demand for a reconsideration of Indian NFU came up in the Indian Parliament. Interestingly, the call was made by an opposition lawmaker who was foreign minister when the draft Indian nuclear doctrine was made public in 1999. He argued that the NFU had been ‘overtaken by events’ such as the increase in the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan. Current Foreign Minister SM Krishna, however, was quick to shoot down the need for any reconsideration of the NFU.

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This was indeed a judicious move. Any need that India feels for a change in its NFU stance should arise not from the change in the nuclear capabilities of an adversary, but from a change in the role that had been designated for its nuclear weapons. As long as India sees nuclear weapons only as a nuclear deterrent, and not as a way of deterring conventional warfare (with Pakistan or China) or a tool for aggression, it doesn’t need to change to a first use posture.  The NFU bestows on India the same benefits that China derives from its NFU policy.

In fact, there’s a doctrinal congruence between India and China on the NFU, and this greatly enhances stability between the two. Meanwhile, both could try to synergise their efforts to bring about a global acceptability of NFU by all states armed with nuclear weapons. Such a step would indeed go a long way toward reducing the dangers associated with the possibility of unintended nuclear launches.