Could China’s Nuclear Strategy Evolve?

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Could China’s Nuclear Strategy Evolve?

For half a century, China’s nuclear strategy has been surprisingly consistent. Will it remain so?

Could China’s Nuclear Strategy Evolve?
Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Fifty years ago, at 7:00 GMT on October 16, 1964, China exploded its first nuclear device at the Lop Nur test site, becoming the fifth official member of the nuclear club after the U.S., the Soviet Union, the U.K. and France. This anniversary is an occasion to take stock of fifty years of Chinese nuclear strategy and reflect on its potential evolution in light of the ongoing modernization of the country’s nuclear arsenal. Overall, the analyst is faced with the problem of peering through the fog of Beijing’s nuclear secrecy to assess the credibility of Beijing’s seemingly unaltered nuclear strategy.

Since 1964, China’s declaratory policy has remained surprisingly consistent. Beijing regularly restates that the purely defensive role of its nuclear weapons limits their role to preventing any form of nuclear blackmailing or nuclear strike against China. As such, Beijing claims that it would only use its nuclear weapons in a second strike after having suffered a nuclear attack. This unilateral No-First-Use (NFU) policy is complemented by unconditional Negative Security Assurances (NSA) that commit China to not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states or non-nuclear weapons zones.

China also regularly insists on the fact that the limited size and capabilities of its nuclear arsenal confirm this policy and that it exercises utmost restraint on nuclear weapons development. It thus describes the size of its arsenal as being kept at the lowest level necessary for self-defense only, with very low levels of readiness. This is confirmed by the limited capabilities of China’s nuclear arsenal, especially during the Cold War years. Kristensen and Norris estimate that China only possessed around 200 nuclear warheads in 1990, when the U.K. had around 350, France 550, and the superpowers more than 20,000. Of these 200 warheads, only a handful could reach part of the continental United States when fitted on the liquid-fuelled DF-5 silo-based ICBM. The other warheads could only be assigned to regional deterrence because of the limited range of the missiles and aircraft to which they were assigned.

In addition to these limited numbers, the relative inaccuracy of Chinese ICBMs and the very high yield of most of the warheads (in the megatonnic ranges) confirmed the strategic character of the arsenal and the impossibility of using it for tactical purposes. This didn’t stop China from conducting research and development of various types of nuclear devices, including enhanced radiation weapons and low-yield warheads (that could have been used for tactical purposes), but it seems that they were not deployed. Finally, the levels of readiness of Chinese nuclear forces were and seem to remain very low. Along with the fact that most Chinese ICBMs were liquid-fuelled (and thus required several hours or days to ready for launch), the warheads were and still are generally stored in nearby storage facilities, instead of already being fitted on the missiles. As some Chinese analysts claim, such a low level of readiness strongly contrasts with the launch-on-warning postures of the superpowers that could be used for surprise first strike purposes.

Overall, and although Western typologies might not apply very well to the Chinese case, Beijing is generally seen as having adopted a “minimum deterrence strategy,” relying on a nuclear second strike capability that would punish an aggressor for using its nuclear weapons first. Because of the limited capabilities of the Chinese arsenal, the counter-strike would mainly target the aggressor’s cities (counter-value strike).

Notwithstanding these limited numbers and capabilities, China has been slowly but steadily increasing the size and capabilities of its nuclear arsenal with the stated purpose of ensuring the credibility and reliability of its minimum nuclear deterrent. As already explained in a previous article for The Diplomat, China has focused the modernization of its nuclear arsenal on those factors and technologies that ensure a survivable, reliable, and destructive second strike, such as increased numbers, solid-fuelled missiles, submarine-based missiles, and potentially Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV) and Maneuverable Re-entry Vehicles (MaRV). Additionally, it has also made progress in other areas relevant to nuclear weapons and delivery means, including increased accuracy of the missiles, the miniaturization of warheads, and the control of the yield of the nuclear explosion. As a result, China now operates increasingly modern and capable nuclear forces, with missiles such as the DF-21 (since 1990), the DF-31 (since 2000), the JL-2 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), and perhaps in a few years the new DF-41.

Some of these new capabilities could lead to the broadening of Beijing’s nuclear options in the future and to a more flexible approach to the principles of its minimum deterrence strategy. Indeed, a reduction in yield combined with more accurate delivery systems could permit China to widen the set of targets it could hold at risk, thus allowing the targeting of high-value assets or troops concentrations. This would not necessarily entail the adoption of a so-called “nuclear warfighting strategy,” but it could allow adaptation of the targets used in a deterrence-by-punishment strategy to give a second strike more flexibility, adaptability and proportionality.

The fielding of SLBMs will necessarily entail an increased level of readiness of at least this part of the nuclear forces, because of the impossibility of separating the missiles from the warheads, as can be done with land-based missiles. Similarly, the all-solid-fuelled arsenal would dramatically increase the reactivity of the Second Artillery. This could allow a more flexible approach to NFU with the adoption of a launch-on-warning posture in the case of an incoming nuclear attack. The probability of such a change being adopted would depend on factors such as increased U.S. conventional first strike capabilities. While these developments would represent a more flexible approach to China’s nuclear strategy, they would not challenge the latter’s fundamental principles.

In a different but less likely scenario, China could also fundamentally change its strategy and use its nuclear weapons within the framework of a limited deterrence or deterrence-by-denial strategy. Such a strategy would for example lead to an abandonment of NFU and use limited nuclear strikes in a regional conventional conflict for escalation control or de-escalation forcing purposes. In a more extreme scenario, it could also seek to employ tactical nuclear weapons in order to gain military advantage and make up for certain limitations in conventional military power. The inherent difficulty of strategic forecasting added to China’s secrecy policy make it difficult to assess the credibility of such scenarios, but some broad comments can nevertheless be made. Indeed, if current assessments of the size, structure, doctrine, training and associated capabilities (such as ISR and dynamic C3BM) of China’s nuclear forces are accurate, the latter cannot, at present, be used in an extended nuclear warfighting mode. As such, the policy-capability gap that was pointed out by Johnston in the 1990s has not been completely bridged in the last 20 years. Moreover, the military added-value of nuclear weapons on the battlefield will only decrease with the parallel increase in China’s conventional capabilities (including long-range conventional strikes). Nuclear weapons could then be limited to providing a nuclear umbrella to either an anti-access/area-denial strategy or to offensive conventional operations by deterring the use of tactical nuclear weapons by an adversary who would try to use tactical nuclear weapons to make up for an unfavorable conventional balance of power. Among other determining factors, the likeliness of such a scenario would be dependent upon Chinese ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region, the country’s readiness to use force, and the overall political environment and balance of conventional military power in the region.

Overall, this analysis has shown that although China’s declaratory policy has not changed since 1964, the evolving characteristics of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal are broadening the set of nuclear options for its nuclear strategy. This modernization could very well remain within the framework of China’s strict minimum deterrence strategy, but other less likely scenarios include a more fundamental shift towards a more flexible use of nuclear weapons. Assessing the likelihood of such scenarios could be a topic for future research, and should include such elements as China-U.S. relations, the evolution of the military balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region, and China’s overall grand strategy.

Nicolas Giacometti is a specialist in nuclear issues and missile defense. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institutions he has been affiliated with. The numbers and technical information used in this article are mainly drawn from the publications of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). Follow him on Twitter @NicoGiacometti.