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).
Acton also cites a speech that Xi Jinping gave to party delegates from the Second Artillery in December 2012. In public reporting of his speech, Xi stated that the Second Artillery provides “strategic support for our great power status.” Xi also did not mention the no first-use policy. But Xi did not mention any other elements of China’s nuclear policy, either, or anything related to when and how China’s nuclear forces would be used. Instead, the absence of the no-first use policy in this speech was likely another “false negative” regarding a change in China’s nuclear doctrine.
Furthermore, Xi in his remarks praised the Second Artillery for “resolutely carrying out the policies and instructions of the party center and Central Military Commission.” Given that Hu Jintao re-affirmed no first use at the April 2012 nuclear summit in Seoul, these “policies and instructions” would have included the no first-use policy.
To be clear, Chinese strategists have debated the merits of dropping or altering its no first-use policy. The debate was especially intense during the mid to late 2000s. Some participants in the debate suggested that no first use might not apply in certain situations that would be seen as equivalent of a “first use,” including conventional strikes on China’s nuclear forces or facilities as well as strikes on strategic targets like the Three Gorges Dam or the top Chinese leadership. In the end, however, a high-level decision was made to maintain the no first-use policy and the internal debate concluded without any change to China’s position.
Nevertheless, although no first use remains a central part of China’s approach to nuclear weapons, a certain and perhaps growing ambiguity surrounds the policy. As the Chinese debate indicates, under some set of extreme but nevertheless not implausible conditions, the policy might not serve as a constraint on first use even if China overall postures its forces primarily to deter a nuclear attack. Likewise, in the heat of a crisis, actions taken to deter a nuclear strike against China, such has placing forces on high alert levels, might be seen as indicating a preparations to launch first and invite a pre-emptive strike.
Thus, I agree with Acton’s policy recommendation about the need for a U.S.-China dialogue on nuclear weapons even though I disagree with his argument about China’s nuclear doctrine. More dialogue on strategic issues is needed at the highest levels between the United States and China, an area is prone to misperception and miscalculation. The ambiguity and uncertainty about the no first-use policy should be discussed. Indeed, General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should the issue of nuclear dialogue when he visits China this week.
M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.