Asia Defense

Is the US Finally Taking China’s NFU Seriously?

Recent Features

Asia Defense | Security | East Asia

Is the US Finally Taking China’s NFU Seriously?

The U.S. is open to considering a proposal by China that nuclear weapons states negotiate a treaty on the no-first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons.

Is the US Finally Taking China’s NFU Seriously?
Credit: Depositphotos

In an interview with the Arms Control Association on April 23, Assistant Secretary of State Mallory Stewart of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Deterrence, and Stability stated for the first time that the United States is open to considering a proposal by China that nuclear weapons states negotiate a treaty on the no-first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. 

Stating that she “would love to ask” Chinese officials about the idea, and how such a declaration can be credible and consistent with developments in certain strategic capabilities, Stewart raised the possibility that the U.S. and China could have a conversation about the proposal. In that same conversation, she said, both sides could also discuss methods for reducing strategic risks, including a missile launch notification system, which the U.S. has repeatedly proposed. 

Stewart’s statement is a significant shift in the Biden administration’s ongoing effort to engage both China and Russia on issues of nuclear arms control was. First outlined in a major speech in June 2023 by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the strategy had been, in essence, to declare the U.S. was willing to begin talks at any time and “without preconditions,” separate from any other bilateral issues. Yet, with Russia rejecting U.S. overtures both privately and publicly, and China continuing to resist engaging substantively on issues important to the U.S., this added inducement could serve as the basis for substantive dialogue on nuclear issues.

China’s NFU and Nuclear Buildup

China established its NFU stance immediately after its first successful test of an atomic bomb in 1964, promising that “China will never at any time be the first to use nuclear weapons, and under any circumstances.” Based on the thinking of Chairman Mao ,who famously said “the atom bomb is a paper tiger,” the NFU has served as a key internal constraint on China’s nuclear forces and a guide for China’s nuclear strategy. Rejecting the nuclear arms race of the United States and Soviet Union, China instead pursued a strategy based on maintaining a “minimum deterrent,” or a “lean and effective” arsenal of approximately 200 ICBMs, whose only requirement was to give its leaders an “assured retaliation” capability.

While also avoiding many of the various arms control arrangements initiated by other countries, China has consistently advocated for other nuclear weapons states to follow its lead and make similar NFU declarations. This was its official position when China first began entering into nuclear disarmament talks in the 1970s, for example, and later on was its chief contribution to negotiations on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in the 1990s. More recently, in February, Sun Xiaobo, the director-general of the department of arms control in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, once again called on nuclear-weapon states “to negotiate and conclude a treaty on ‘mutual no-first-use of nuclear weapons’ or issue political statements in this regard.”

The United States, for its part, has arguably never taken seriously either China’s NFU or its various proposals for an NFU treaty. This is because China’s small nuclear arsenal and limited capabilities essentially rendered them non-issues. But this situation has begun to change in recent years amid reports, beginning in 2021, that China was engaged in a “rapid” and “unprecedented” nuclear expansion. The Pentagon’s annual reports on Chinese military power estimated that China has produced approximately 100 new warheads per year, for a total of around 500 today. At the same time, the reports detail the development of a viable “nuclear triad” with new strategic bombers and sea-launched missiles meant to augment its land-based ICBM force. 

This has led many top military leaders in the U.S. to all but conclude China has abandoned its traditionally defensive strategy. According to then-head of U.S. Strategic Command Admiral Charles Richard in 2021, “These capabilities bring into question China’s stated ‘No First Use’ policy declaration and implied minimum deterrent strategy.” This judgment was reiterated recently by his successor, Admiral Anthony Cotton, who said it was “hard to believe” that China continues to adhere to its stated NFU and minimum deterrent strategy.

A New Basis for Dialogue

Presumably, it is for all of the same reasons that Stewart expressed similar skepticism in her interview with Arms Control Today, when she said she “would love to ask [Chinese officials] to explain how you can have a no-first-use policy if you just declare it and when everything you’re doing or developing seems inconsistent.” But this statement also carries with it the unmistakable signal that the United States is ready to take China’s NFU seriously, and to establish the basis for a bilateral dialogue on the issue to better understand Beijing’s intentions. 

For the U.S., the benefits from holding a good-faith discussion would provide the opportunity to gain insight into China’s otherwise opaque nuclear decision-making. This insight might even validate the arguments put forward by independent experts that China’s strategic developments may in fact be consistent with its traditional strategy of assured retaliation, and be explained by perceived threats posed the United States’ increasingly sophisticated precision-strike conventional missiles missile defense systems. 

In addition, it could be an opportunity to understand what weapons are, from China’s point of view, either consistent or inconsistent with an NFU policy. This would enable policymakers to better predict what type of capabilities China is likely to develop and field in the future. A deepening of discussions on this issue and more positive references by the U.S. on the topic of an NFU treaty, moreover, may lead to progress on issues of priority to the U.S., like a bilateral missile launch notification system. 

For China, the benefits of such a discussion would be to reassure the U.S. of its benign intentions while demonstrating its commitment to its NFU policy. Chinese arms control experts may also view such a dialogue as an opportunity to socialize their American counterparts into thinking more constructively about how to declare a workable NFU policy. Such a high-level discussion, even if it does not lead to the U.S. declaring its own NFU policy, may also serve Chinese interests by helping advance the prospects for a multilateral NFU treaty more broadly among the international community.

Interestingly, the publication of Stewart’s remarks came as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken began three days of meetings in China. While previous reporting noted that topics including Russia, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and people-to-people relations would included on his agenda, it is likely that this new development provided an opportunity for both sides to gauge each other’s sincerity ahead of what might lead to a new series of talks on arms control and strategic stability.