Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

Would China Use Nuclear Weapons First in a War With the United States?

Recent American statements on Chinese nuclear weapons policy merit closer scrutiny.

By Gregory Kulacki for
Would China Use Nuclear Weapons First in a War With the United States?
Credit: YouTube screen capture via CCTV

Admiral Charles A. Richard, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, recently told the Senate Armed Service Committee he “could drive a truck” through the holes in China’s no first use policy. But when Senator John Hawley (R-MO) asked him why he said that, Commander Richard backtracked, described China’s policy as “very opaque” and said his assessment was based on “very little” information.

That’s surprising. China has been exceptionally clear about its intentions on the possible first use of nuclear weapons. On the day of its first nuclear test on October 16, 1964, China declared it “will never at any time or under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons.” That unambiguous statement has been a cornerstone of Chinese nuclear weapons policy for 56 years and has been repeated frequently in authoritative Chinese publications for domestic and international audiences, including a highly classified training manual for the operators of China’s nuclear forces.

Richard should know about those publications, particularly the training manual. A U.S. Department of Defense translation has been circulating within the U.S. nuclear weapons policy community for more than a decade. The commander’s comments to the committee indicate a familiarity with the most controversial section of the manual, which, in the eyes of some U.S. analysts, indicates there may be some circumstances where China would use nuclear weapons first in a war with the United States.

This U.S. misperception is understandable, especially given the difficulties the Defense Department encountered translating the text into English. The language, carefully considered in the context of the entire book, articulates a strong reaffirmation of China’s no first use policy. But it also reveals Chinese military planners are struggling with crisis management and considering steps that could create ambiguity with disastrous consequences.

Lowering the Threshold

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Towards the end of the 405-page text on the operations of China’s strategic rocket forces, in a chapter entitled, “Second Artillery Deterrence Operations,” the authors explain what China’s nuclear forces train to do if “a strong military power possessing nuclear‐armed missiles and an absolute advantage in high‐tech conventional weapons is carrying out intense and continuous attacks against our major strategic targets and we have no good military strategy to resist the enemy.” The military power they’re talking about is the United States.

The authors indicate China’s nuclear missile forces train to take specific steps, including increasing readiness and conducting launch exercises, to “dissuade the continuation of the strong enemy’s conventional attacks.” The manual refers to these steps as an “adjustment” to China’s nuclear policy and a “lowering” of China’s threshold for brandishing its nuclear forces.

Chinese leaders would only take these steps in extreme circumstances. The text highlights several triggers such as U.S. conventional bombing of China’s nuclear and hydroelectric power plants, heavy conventional bombing of large cities like Beijing and Shanghai, or other acts of conventional warfare that “seriously threatened” the “safety and survival” of the nation.

U.S. Misunderstanding

Richard seems to believe this planned adjustment in China’s nuclear posture means China is preparing to use nuclear weapons first under these circumstances. He told Hawley that there are a “number of situations where they may conclude that first use has occurred that do not meet our definition of first use.” The head of the U.S. Strategic Command appears to assume, as do other U.S. analysts, that the Chinese would interpret these types of U.S. conventional attacks as equivalent to a U.S. first use of nuclear weapons against China.

But that’s not what the text says. “Lowering the threshold” refers to China putting its nuclear weapons on alert — it does not indicate Chinese leaders might lower their threshold for deciding to use nuclear weapons in a crisis. Nor does the text indicate Chinese nuclear forces are training to launch nuclear weapons first in a war with the United States.

China, unlike the United States, keeps its nuclear forces off-alert. Its warheads are not mated to its missiles. China’s nuclear-armed submarines are not continuously at sea on armed patrols. The manual describes how China’s nuclear warheads and the missiles that deliver them are controlled by two separate chains of command. Chinese missileers train to bring them together and launch them after China has been attacked with nuclear weapons.

All of these behaviors are consistent with a no first use policy. The “adjustment” Chinese nuclear forces are preparing to make if the United States is bombing China with impunity is to place China’s nuclear forces in a state of readiness similar to the state the nuclear forces of the United States are in all the time. This step is intended not only to end the bombing, but also to convince U.S. decision-makers they cannot expect to destroy China’s nuclear retaliatory capability if the crisis escalates.

Chinese Miscalculation

Unfortunately, alerting Chinese nuclear forces at such a moment could have terrifying consequences. Given the relatively small size of China’s nuclear force, a U.S. president might be tempted to try to limit the possible damage from a Chinese nuclear attack by destroying as many of China’s nuclear weapons as possible before they’re launched, especially if the head of the U.S. Strategic Command told the president China was preparing to strike first. One study concluded that if the United States used nuclear weapons to attempt to knock out a small fraction of the Chinese ICBMs that could reach the United States it may kill tens of millions of Chinese civilians.

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The authors of the text assume alerting China’s nuclear forces would “create a great shock in the enemy’s psyche.” That’s a fair assumption. But they also assume this shock could “dissuade the continuation of the strong enemy’s conventional attacks against our major strategic targets.” That’s highly questionable. There is a substantial risk the United States would respond to this implicit Chinese threat to use nuclear weapons by escalating, rather than halting, its conventional attacks. If China’s nuclear forces were targeted, it would put even greater strain on the operators of China’s nuclear forces.

A Slippery Slope to Nuclear War

Chinese military planners are aware that attempting to coerce the United States into halting conventional bombardment by alerting their nuclear forces could fail. They also know it might trigger a nuclear war. But if it does, they are equally clear China won’t be the one to start it.

Nuclear attack is often preceded by nuclear coercion. Because of this, in the midst of the process of a high, strong degree of nuclear coercion we should prepare well for a nuclear retaliatory attack. The more complete the preparation, the higher the credibility of nuclear coercion, the easier it is to accomplish the objective of nuclear coercion, and the lower the possibility that the nuclear missile forces will be used in actual fighting.

They assume if China demonstrates it is well prepared to retaliate the United States would not risk a damage limitation strike using nuclear weapons. And even if the United States were to attack China’s nuclear forces with conventional weapons, China still would not strike first. In the opening section of the next chapter on “nuclear retaliatory attack operations” the manual instructs, as it does on numerous occasions throughout the entire text:

According to our country’s principle, its stand of no first use of nuclear weapons, the Second Artillery will carry out a nuclear missile attack against the enemy’s important strategic targets, according to the combat orders of the Supreme Command, only after the enemy has carried out a nuclear attack against our country.

Richard is wrong. There are no holes in China’s no first use policy. But the worse-case planning articulated in this highly classified military text is a significant and deeply troubling departure from China’s traditional thinking about the role of nuclear weapons.

Mao Zedong famously called nuclear weapons “a paper tiger.” Many assumed he was being cavalier about the consequences of nuclear war. But what he meant is that they would not be used to fight and win wars. U.S. nuclear threats during the Korean War and the Taiwan Strait Crisis in the 1950s – threats not followed by an actual nuclear attack – validated Mao’s intuition that nuclear weapons were primarily psychological weapons.

Chinese leaders decided to acquire nuclear weapons to free their minds from what Mao’s generation called “nuclear blackmail.” A former director of China’s nuclear weapons laboratories told me China developed them so its leaders could “sit up with a straight spine.” Countering nuclear blackmail –  along with compelling other nuclear weapons states to negotiate their elimination – were the only two purposes Chinese nuclear weapons were meant to serve.

Contemporary Chinese military planners appear to have added a new purpose: compelling the United States to halt a conventional attack. Even though it only applies in extreme circumstances, it increases the risk that a war between the United States and China will end in a nuclear exchange with unpredictable and catastrophic consequences.

Adding this new purpose could also be the first step on a slippery slope to an incremental broadening the role of nuclear weapons in Chinese national security policy. Americans would be a lot safer if we could avoid that. The United States government should applaud China’s no first use policy instead of repeatedly calling it into question. And it would be wise to adopt the same policy for the United States. If both countries declared they would never use nuclear weapons first it may not guarantee they can avoid a nuclear exchange during a military crisis, but it would make one far less likely.

Dr. Gregory Kulacki focuses on cross-cultural communication between the United States and China on nuclear and space arms control and is the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @gkucs.