China Studies Nuclear Risk in the Context of the Ukraine War

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China Studies Nuclear Risk in the Context of the Ukraine War

What lessons does Russia’s nuclear signaling hold for a prospective Chinese war to force unification with Taiwan?

China Studies Nuclear Risk in the Context of the Ukraine War

An Ilyushin Il-80 of the Russian Air Force flying over Moscow as part of rehearsals for the Victory Day Parade, May 6, 2010.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Leonid Faerberg

In shaping patterns of future warfare, there is little doubt that militaries across the world will be seeking to absorb the key lessons of the Russia-Ukraine War, ranging from the employment of tanks to the use of anti-ship cruise missiles and the ubiquitous drones. For the Chinese military, these lessons might even assume a greater importance, since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) both lacks major, recent combat experience, and has also leaned heavily on Russian weapons and doctrine for its rapid modernization over the last few decades.

Chinese media coverage of the war in Ukraine has been extensive. The close nature of the China-Russia “quasi-alliance” means that Chinese military analysts have not engaged in the ruthless critiques of Russian military performance that have been commonplace in the West. Yet, Chinese military analyses are still probing deeply for lessons to understand the shape of modern warfare. They have taken particular interest in the U.S. employment of novel weapons and strategies. 

To fully grasp the scope and depth of these Chinese analyses it is important to take assessments from a full range of Chinese military media, which is more extensive than is often appreciated in the West. These articles are generally associated with research institutes that are directly involved in the Chinese military industrial complex.

This exclusive series for The Diplomat will represent the first systematic attempt by Western analysts to evaluate these Chinese assessments of the war in Ukraine across the full spectrum of warfare, including the land, sea, air and space, and information domains. Read the rest of the series here.

Few issues are more salient to evaluate than how Beijing views the nuclear shadows surrounding the present bloody conflagration in Eastern Europe. There is some reasonable hope that Chinese pressure could cause the Kremlin to completely rule out nuclear escalation, and this indeed may have been a major theme of Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow back in March 2023.

Just as important is another looming question: What lessons does Russia’s nuclear signaling hold for a prospective Chinese war to force unification with Taiwan? Although China’s nuclear arsenal is nowhere near as large and advanced as Russia’s, a Taiwan scenario could involve war between two nuclear powers, so issues related to nuclear escalation are germane. Moreover, China is rapidly building up its nuclear capabilities at present. Therefore, these questions could become more and more acute in the context of China-U.S. strategic interaction.

The original article in this series cited a January 2023 PLA Daily assessment noting that Russia was relying heavily on its nuclear deterrent to balance against NATO’s superiority in conventional arms. In this piece, we explore the issue in much greater detail through the lens of a spring 2023 Chinese-language article entitled “Will Russia Use Nuclear Weapons?” from the magazine “Ordnance Industry Science and Technology” (兵工科技). While such discussions are reasonably commonplace in Western discourse, such a direct discussion is extremely unusual in the Chinese defense media discourse and so merits closer scrutiny.

This Chinese article says that “the situation is evolving [in the Ukraine War], such that it will not reach the level of requiring Russia to use nuclear weapons.” But at the same time, the article observes, “There is little doubt that the longer the war goes on, the greater the risk of escalation.” It notes recent decisions by the United States and its Western allies to take the major step of providing Ukraine with main battle tanks, as well as longer-range missiles, followed by serious discussions about providing combat aircraft.

At the outset, the piece repeats the ominous nuclear warning issued by the Kremlin on February 24, 2022, at the start of the war, and also Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order three days later that Russian nuclear forces be put on a “special state of readiness.” The Chinese analysis says that despite these warnings, the United States and its allies have provided Kyiv with precision targeting information, aided in the killing of Russian military leaders, and helped to limit Russia’s advantage in airpower.

The analysis goes so far as to say that the U.S. is actually seeking “regime change” in Russia, but notes that American officials have recognized repeatedly that “if Putin’s regime is threatened, then Russia might resort to the use of nuclear weapons.”

The article observes that these tensions seemed to become more acute during fall 2022, when the Ukrainian offensive surprised many with its impressive advances. The article highlights Putin’s statement from September 21, 2022, when he said that Russian territory would be defended by all necessary means. The Russian president’s emphatic emphasis, “This is not a bluff,” is duly noted. But taking a reasonably objective approach, this Chinese analysis also reports Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s comment shortly thereafter, suggesting that Russia was not preparing to employ nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

The article discusses how the issue has returned to the fore during 2023, as nuclear signaling continued. A RAND report from January is cited in this assessment as noting the real possibility of nuclear escalation. The article emphasizes warnings from the Kremlin from February 2023, including Putin’s statement that Russia has the means to respond to NATO’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine. Also noted is the threat by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who asserted starkly, “We do not need a world without Russia.”

At the same time, the Chinese analysis also observes that Russia has also tested its new highly advanced ICBM Sarmat and even brandished its Il-80 nuclear command and control aircraft, termed the “doomsday plane,” during the spring of 2023.

A somewhat disturbing theme in this Chinese analysis is the focus on the balance of tactical nuclear weapons. The article reviews available data in some detail and concludes, citing a 2019 estimate from the U.S. intelligence community, that Russia may possess 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. Moreover, that number was projected to be increasing, according to the Chinese rendering. By contrast, the United States is said to have 230 such weapons, of which 100 are deployed in Europe.

The Chinese assessment points to a potentially unstable paradox: “Therefore, if we say that there is a relatively large gap between Russia and NATO in terms of conventional military power, then in terms of the number and types of non-strategic nuclear weapons, Russia may have a considerable advantage.”

Appearing to defend Russia’s nuclear saber rattling, the piece asserts at one point, “Nuclear states have an extremely cautious attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons, and Russia is no exception.” The Chinese assessment does examine the June 2020 Russian doctrinal statement regarding the Kremlin’s conditions for resorting to nuclear use and explains that the final point might be relevant: if “the adversary’s attack with conventional weapons threatens the survival of the Russian state.” The piece also notes that many Western experts have dismissed or at least downplayed Moscow’s nuclear threats.

In addition, the Chinese article discusses various related concerns, including the threat of a “dirty bomb,” the possibility of an attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as well as even a potential use of chemical weapons.

The end of the Chinese article aims to make an overall assessment of possibilities for Moscow’s potential employment of nuclear weapons in the context of the Ukraine War. Its conclusions imply a disturbingly wide scope for Russian nuclear use, unfortunately. The first and most obvious of the conditions concerns a “battlefield reversal that implies defeat.” A second condition cited in the Chinese discussion is a possible “diminishing of the effectiveness of deterrence,” and in this context the much-discussed “escalate to de-escalate” strategy is mentioned. Most disturbing perhaps is the mention of tactical nuclear weapons to “probe the bottom line of U.S. extended deterrence” and thus “break the NATO alliance.”

One should not exaggerate the meaning of the above analysis for Chinese nuclear strategy. Indeed, China’s nuclear forces are hardly mentioned in the article and there is no discussion of the Taiwan issue or any other potential conflict scenarios involving China. Still, the article is noteworthy since such issues have generally not been taken up publicly in Chinese military discourse – at least since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In fact, there are a variety of other hints that Chinese strategists are thinking very hard about the meaning of the Ukraine War for the future of deterrence and concerning China’s nuclear strategy, in particular. For example, a recent Chinese academic study, which incidentally does mention the Taiwan issue explicitly, endeavors to explain how the United States “failed” to deter Russia in the Ukraine situation. Another academic article suggests that recent developments “are pushing China to rethink the relationship between its conventional and nuclear forces.”

As a whole, it is a bit shocking to realize that nobody truly knows whether or not nuclear weapons might be used in a hypothetical Taiwan conflict involving China and the United States. Indeed, a recent and extremely thorough report on a series of war games by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes with respect to the nuclear question: “No one knows what those escalation dynamics would be.” Studying China’s lessons regarding the nuclear shadows in the Ukraine conflict could help, but in circumstances of such startling uncertainty, extreme caution is warranted on both sides of this potentially catastrophic conflict.