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Is China Changing Its Position on Nuclear Weapons?

Apr 23 , 2013
  • James Acton

    Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Interpreting any country’s pronouncements about its nuclear weapons can be a study in fine distinctions, but occasionally a state says – or fails to say – something in a clear break from the past. A Chinese white paper on defense, released on Tuesday, falls into this category and now demands our attention, because it omits a promise that China will never use nuclear weapons first. 

That explicit pledge had been the cornerstone of Beijing’s stated nuclear policy for the last half-century. The white paper, however, introduces ambiguity. It endorses the use of nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack but does not rule out other uses. 

With North Korea making overt nuclear threats, the job of deciphering Beijing’s cryptic and mild-sounding statement may not seem a priority. Indeed, it is because the likelihood of nuclear escalation with China is low that most defense experts are likely to focus instead on what the white paper has to say about China’s rapidly expanding conventional military capabilities. 

But all of those developments may be closely connected. 

In 1964, immediately after testing its first nuclear weapon, China promised to “never at any time or under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons.” This “no-first-use pledge” was explicitly and unconditionally included in each of China’s defense white papers, from the first, in 1998, through the sixth and most recent, in 2011. It was among the strongest assurances in the world of no-first-use, a stance that the United States has never taken. 

The change this year is almost certainly not the result of bureaucratic error. No-first-use has been such an intrinsic part of the Chinese nuclear liturgy that the authors of the white paper would have been extremely unlikely to have forgotten it. Besides, other evidence indicates that a broader rethinking of Chinese nuclear strategy may be under way. 

Last December, shortly after being selected as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, who last month became China’s president, gave a speech to the Second Artillery Force, which is responsible for China’s land-based nuclear weapons. In the past, borrowing Mao Zedong’s imagery for China’s adversaries, Chinese officials have generally played down the value of nuclear weapons, describing them as “paper tigers.” But in a significant rhetorical shift, Xi is reported to have said that nuclear weapons create strategic support for the country’s status as a major power. In the speech, Xi did not repeat China’s no-first-use promise. 

Taken together, the speech and the white paper are likely to create concern in the United States and among its allies, particularly Japan. Unquestionably, some of that concern will be stirred up by self-described “China hawks” who have been dismissing China’s no-first-use pledge as pure propaganda for the last five decades. Now, opportunistically, they may make a big issue of the apparent shift. 

But theirs will not be the only voices expressing concern; indeed, even moderates are likely to agree. Only last month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a report by a bipartisan group of American analysts that said China’s no-first-use pledge was “broadly stabilizing and should be sustained.” 

The white paper may also make it more difficult politically for President Obama to carry out his ambitious nuclear agenda, which includes creating the conditions that would allow the United States to declare that the sole purpose of its nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. 

The apparent shift in Beijing’s nuclear doctrine may well be a response to other security trends in the region. Even before the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, issued his latest round of nuclear threats, the Pentagon announced plans to reinforce its missile defenses in northeast Asia. 

The United States has said that those defenses are meant to defend against North Korea, but they also appear to be intended to counterbalance Beijing’s growing arsenal of regional conventional missiles. Chinese defense planners worry that the United States may one day develop those defenses to the point at which they could neutralize China’s long-range nuclear forces as well, a fear exacerbated by American investments in conventional-strike capabilities. 

So China may intend the new language in its white paper to send a signal: that in a future crisis, if it concluded that the United States was about to attack its nuclear arsenal with conventional weapons that were backed up by missile defenses, China might use its nuclear weapons first. The United States should recognize this concern; it was called “use ‘em or lose ‘em” during the cold war. 

A candid, high-level dialogue regarding nuclear deterrence has been needed for some time. The new white paper and Mr. Xi’s speech have made the need urgent. 

While the probability of nuclear escalation is low, the consequences would be catastrophic. The risk of nuclear use is already unacceptably high and, for that reason alone, mutual confidence-building is necessary. In addition, mutual suspicion in the nuclear domain spills over into the conventional domain, complicating efforts to reduce the chance of any kind of conflict. 

Unfortunately, in spite of repeated invitations by the administrations of Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, China has not been willing to engage in a sustained conversation. The presidency of Xi Jinping may, however, present an opportunity. Given that Xi appears to have a personal interest in nuclear strategy, he may be willing to corral China’s military into engaging with the United States. His representatives should explain why China’s nuclear doctrine and posture are evolving. In the meantime, Beijing should avoid actually repudiating no-first-use to make it easier to reinstate the doctrine down the line. 

For its part, Washington could make successful engagement more likely by offering to broaden such talks to include the full range of strategic military interactions between the two countries. Because the conventional arms competition in the western Pacific may be heightening Chinese concerns about the survivability of its nuclear forces, such a dialogue might appear more attractive to China than one narrowly focused on nuclear weapons.

No one can predict whether Xi will accept a renewed offer to talk. But it would be a win-win proposition. 

James M. Acton is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

© 2013 The New York Times

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