China’s Evolving Approach to Nuclear War-Fighting

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China’s Evolving Approach to Nuclear War-Fighting

China is dismantling the barriers impeding a war-fighting posture. Does that spell the end of No First Use?

China’s Evolving Approach to Nuclear War-Fighting

Military vehicles carrying DF-10 ship launched cruise missiles drive past Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing (Sept. 3, 2015).

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong, Pool

For decades, minimal deterrence, de-mated nuclear warheads, and a no-first-use pledge have formed the bedrock of China’s nuclear posture. China’s conventional deterrence posture, in contrast, has been characterized by war-fighting, pre-emption, asymmetry, and the development of offensively configured conventional capabilities. Recent evidence indicates that these postures are far more integrated, flexible, and dynamic than Beijing’s official rhetoric suggests, and that during the past decade a de facto shift toward a limited nuclear war-fighting (or the use of nuclear weapons for victory denial purposes at all stages of warfare) posture has already taken place.

The closer alignment of these postures would accomplish Beijing’s regional military objectives articulated in its defense strategic concept — including the use of asymmetric and pre-emptive tactics during future “informatized” high-intensity warfare — and link geographically dispersed military forces for joint operations.

If Beijing modified its nuclear forces to meet the operational requirements of a war-fighting doctrine (e.g., sizable deployments of low-yield nuclear weapons and missile-defense capabilities, or the adoption of a launch-on-warning nuclear posture), Washington would indubitably view it as a radical shift in China’s longstanding nuclear posture, and thus, a fundamental challenge to the military balance in the Asia-Pacific region.

In a forthcoming article in The Non-Proliferation Review, I argue that the existing literature has painted a relatively benign, static, and isolated (from China’s conventional war-fighting capabilities) picture of the evolution of Chinese thinking on strategic deterrence, which risks underestimating the increasingly dynamic, integrative, and flexible features of this shifting security paradigm. In particular, I argue that China’s increasingly commingled and diversified strategic missile forces have already been incorporated into a limited war-fighting military posture.

By overemphasizing the gradualist and passive aspects of China’s formal nuclear posture, policymakers risk overlooking the very real possibility that as many of the barriers (technological, military-organizational, and arms-control) to adopting a nuclear war-fighting doctrine are dismantled, the gap between China’s nuclear capabilities and the modest war-fighting ambitions of Chinese strategists will be reconciled.

Unimpeded by these restrictions, therefore, Beijing’s strategic thinking in future regional conflicts will likely reflect more accurately the new options it has amassed in both the nuclear and conventional domains; to maximize the synergies that exist between these domains for local high-intensity “informatized” warfare.

Above all, China’s increasingly commingled and diversified strategic missile forces have already been incorporated into a war-fighting military posture. Furthermore, China’s renewed interest in developing tactical theater weapons and ballistic-missile defense systems has, in conjunction with its conventional forces, enhanced its nuclear deterrence, and enabled the kinds of early and pre-emptive strike tactics consistent with a war-fighting posture.

Simply put, this approach increasingly strains the credibility of Beijing’s official rhetoric that depicts China’s nuclear posture as inherently restrained, in contrast to its conventional forces. As a result, Beijing’s characterization of its declaratory nuclear posture has become increasingly out of step with China’s evolving force structures and military writings. The lip-service paid to this stance by most external observers needs to be adjusted to reflect the more nuanced realities.

Admittedly, only a few Chinese strategists have explicitly advocated a shift in the function of nuclear weapons from minimal deterrence to war-fighting; these minority views, however, reflect broader pressures to assimilate Western nuclear strategies into traditional Chinese approaches to nuclear thinking. Recent evidence suggests that, far from fading into obscurity or being eschewed by Beijing’s official rhetoric, Chinese strategic thinking on war-fighting has continued to shape and inform Beijing’s nuclear modernization efforts.

Chinese Strategists’ Pent-up Interest in Nuclear War-Fighting

Chinese military writings intimate a pent-up interest in an expanded role for China’s nuclear weapons, which has yet to be integrated into China’s formal doctrine. In short, over the past two decades qualitative improvements to China’s nuclear forces have given Beijing the ability to use nuclear weapons (and pre-emptively) in regional wars. This implies a much broader and discriminate use for nuclear weapons than the proponents of minimum deterrence or assured retaliation envisaged.

One of my main findings is that military-technological advancements across a range of capabilities has meant that China’s aggregate nuclear posture should no longer be conceptualized independently of the PLA’s capabilities and concepts. Rather, these military domains (especially space, cyber, and missile defense) are being synthesized into a force structure that incorporates war-fighting tools, designed to deter both conventional and nuclear wars.

In other words, Chinese offensive-dominant space, cyber, and conventional precision strike capabilities have been inexorably fused into China’s nuclear deterrence posture (for integrated strategic deterrence), a trend that is likely to continue as new and increasingly sophisticated capabilities are fielded. During a military parade in 2015, for example, Beijing revealed its new intermediate-range ballistic missile (Dongfeng 26) a dual-payload weapon capable (albeit untested) of targeting land and maritime targets in ranges out to Guam.

In short, several recent technological innovations will likely expedite China’s emerging generation of strategic missiles across the entire nuclear triad, which will have profound implications for the trajectory of its nuclear posture and policies. These military-technological advancements have enhanced the accuracy, speed, precision, ranges, maneuverability, and survivability of Chinese nuclear weapons in a manner that appears incongruous with the requirements of minimum deterrence.

As a corollary, even in the absence of formal changes to China’s nuclear doctrine the integration of its nuclear weapons and operations with non-nuclear capabilities in offense-dominant domains, together with the ongoing qualitative advances associated with China’s nuclear modernization, risks exacerbating U.S.-China security dilemma dynamics, including most worryingly in the nuclear domain itself.

Beijing’s most recent defense white paper touched on planned enhancements to the PLA’s strategic early warning and command and control systems, “to deter other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China” (emphasis added). This official statement implies that, at a minimum, Beijing is contemplating a first-strike nuclear capacity to enhance China’s deterrence — a view that resonates within China’s strategic community.

Chinese strategists have often ambiguously declared their general commitment to minimum deterrence, whilst simultaneously arguing in favor of first strikes and pre-emptive warfare in both the nuclear and conventional domains. This apparent contradiction can be explained by the confluence of Chinese conceptualizations of conventional and nuclear war-fighting and deterrence, which contrasts with external observers’ overly passive and static perceptions of Chinese deterrence.

It appears President Xi Jinping has also embraced the notion of a war-fighting doctrine for the newly promoted Rocket Force, which is responsible for China’s strategic missiles. According to Xi, the core mission of this new service is to build a powerful modernized missile force to enhance China’s nuclear and conventional war-fighting tools for “full-area war deterrence.”

In short, the promotion of Chinese strategic forces, together with significant qualitative enhancements to its capabilities, has finally aligned China’s nuclear and conventional war-fighting tools and the aspirations of its military leaders with a command structure and the political will necessary to formalize a doctrinal shift.

An Evolving, Multifaceted Version of Deterrence

Chinese evolving conceptualization of “strategic deterrence” reflects a multifaceted cross-domain version of deterrence, which lends itself to the blurring of traditional conventional-nuclear and offensive-defense distinctions. This inexorable clouding by shortening the decision-making timeframe during crisis, and compressing the nuclear escalation ladder, will likely negatively affect U.S.-China strategic stability, and in turn, increase the incentives (on both sides) for pre-emptive tactics.

This assessment does not, however, posit that Beijing has adopted or will formalize an actual nuclear war-fighting doctrine; rather that the trajectory of China’s military modernization and integration are taking them to a place with many of the same risks and strategic implications.

How Chinese thinking evolves to reflect the linkages that have formed between its increasingly commingled conventional and nuclear capabilities and reorganized military structure remains, however, unknown. Although Chinese strategists frequently discuss cross-domain warfare (to deter adversaries and control escalation), they seldom discuss the inherent risks associated with these tactics.

Furthermore, ambiguities caused by Chinese internal debates relating to China’s “no first use” policy will continue to undermine the credibility of China’s adherence to this stance, keeping the option open for Beijing to formalize its de facto war-fighting posture. To be sure, issues of this kind will become more pressing as China’s military services synthesize and diffuse its cross-domain war-fighting capabilities, especially in space and cyberspace, for future cross-domain warfare.


The inexorable blurring of the PLA’s conventional and nuclear, and offensive and defense capabilities by shortening the timeframe for crisis decision making, and compressing the (albeit poorly defined) U.S.-China nuclear escalation ladder will pose increasing existential risks to U.S.-China strategic stability in the Asia-Pacific. Under crisis conditions, these risks could exacerbate existing Sino-American misperceptions and misunderstandings that in turn will likely increase the incentives for early and pre-emptive attacks, which are already baked into the competing operational concepts on both sides, e.g. the U.S. Air-Sea Battle Concept (renamed Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons), and China’s anti-access, area-denial strategy.

In short, the mere possibility of China using its nuclear-capable war-fighting tools in limited and tactical missions to deter the United States in nuclear or conventional conflicts and in a manner, timing, and purpose that Washington would unlikely anticipate could harbinger a fundamental shift in Sino-American strategic relations.

If U.S. defense planners concluded, therefore, that China’s war-fighting capabilities could presage a fundamental shift in trajectory of China’s approach to nuclear deterrence intended to support Beijing’s aggressive assertions of sovereignty (e.g. in the East and South China seas, or the Taiwan Strait), the implications for U.S. forward force postures, extended nuclear assurances, and nuclear deterrence would be profound. Moreover, China’s propensity for strategic ambiguity and opacity in the nuclear domain (especially the intended purpose for its war-fighting capabilities) will likely reinforce the Pentagon’s penchant for worse-case scenario (and zero-sum) assessments of Beijing’s strategic intentions.

Several implications and future research topics follow from the findings of this research:

First, research would be beneficial on how the Chinese security community views the U.S.-China relationship in the nuclear domain. In particular, who on the Chinese side is leading this fundamental re-think, is it being challenged, and if so, in what ways and to what degrees of success? How are these views changing in response to U.S. military policies and posture in Asia? Finally, how are the PLA’s “new” capabilities likely to affect Beijing’s thinking about its nuclear options in future warfare?

Second, defense analysts will need to closely monitor the development of Chinese commingled capabilities that might increase Beijing’s future war-fighting options, and especially indications of any changes to the PLA’s operational doctrines because of these developments.

Finally, it is unknown whether the PLA emerges from its recent major overhaul as a stronger and more coordinated joint war-fighting force, and many unknowns exist. What, for example, will be the precise responsibilities of the new Rocket Force for China’s overall nuclear assets?


Recent evidence indicates that Chinese thinking on war-fighting, rather than being eschewed in favor of a minimal deterrence posture, has continued to influence China’s nuclear modernization efforts. Chinese military writings include positions that favor a more flexible and robust nuclear posture than has yet been endorsed in official documents or reflected in China’s formal doctrine, which indicates an underlying receptivity for innovation in this domain.

In sum, unimpeded by many of the constraints imposed on previous generations of Chinese strategists, and driven by the ongoing qualitative changes to the PLA’s force structure, China’s incongruous nuclear posture will likely be reconciled, aligning China’s nuclear forces with its offensively configured conventional stance for high-intensity (or asymmetric escalation), and pre-emptive future warfare.

Several unknowns remain including: How closely will China’s nuclear and conventional domains be aligned, and at what levels? In addition, how will hypersonic weapons and glide vehicles affect this dynamic, especially if they are deployed to enhance both conventional and nuclear missiles?

On the future modern battlefield, where the boundaries between war and peace and conventional-nuclear and offense-defense lines are increasingly blurred; where an aggressor is likely to resort to early and pre-emptive tactics to assert escalation dominance; and where states rapidly accumulate, synthesize, and diffuse progressively advanced war-fighting tools, interstate security dilemmas will become more frequent, intense, intractable, and destabilizing.

Dr. James Johnson is Visiting Fellow with the School of History & International Relations at the University of Leicester. He is the author of the forthcoming book The U.S.-China Military & Defense Relationship During the Obama Presidency with Palgrave Macmillan.