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Nuclear Retrospect and Prospect

Jun 09, 2020
  • Fan Jishe

    Professor, the Central Party School of Communist Party of China

China’s unique nuclear policy

Of the five nuclear weapons states defined by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), China’s unique policy is manifest in a number of ways:

It has conducted few nuclear tests, and it maintains a small nuclear arsenal with limited deployment. China did not follow either the United States or Soviet Union’s example on nuclear policy. Never has China defined its security relations with other countries from a nuclear perspective, and it has even downplayed the nuclear component in its foreign policy, committing itself and calling on other four states to adopt a “no first use” policy. China’s emphasis on transparency of strategic intent rather than capabilities is also significantly different from other nuclear weapons states.

Equally important, China’s nuclear policy has remained largely unchanged for more than half a century, despite sea changes in its external and internal environment, such as the split with the Soviet Union, the rapprochement and establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States, the end of the Cold War and China’s economic rise and transformation from an outsider to an insider of the international community. China was expected to adjust its nuclear policy, but it chose not to do so.

What makes China’s nuclear policy unique? Will future pluralistic security challenges and increasingly complicated and competitive great-power relations drive China to adjust its nuclear policy? This is the biggest question mark for many China observers. 

What makes China’s nuclear policy unique?

China’s nuclear policy was very much shaped by the first generation Chinese leaders’ philosophy and understanding of the shape of future war, the role of people and weapons in war and their experience in fighting conventional wars.  China believes that there are just and unjust wars, that people play a bigger role than weapons and that weapons alone cannot determine the result. If a war involving nuclear weapon is similar to the wars China fought against the Japanese invasion in World War II or with the United States on the Korean Peninsula, China could drown an enemy in “a sea of people.”

Chinese leaders strategically downplayed the importance of nuclear weapons, even as they tacitly attached much more importance to them. As a result, they understood that on one hand that a nuclear weapon is a “paper tiger,” but on the other that this tiger could turn into “real tigers, iron tigers and tigers that can devour people when others have them and you don’t.”

Meanwhile, Chinese leaders were pragmatic in not following either the United States or Soviet Union’s example in nuclear development. They believed that nuclear weapons “are expensive and useless things meant to scare people. ... When it comes to the development of sophisticated weapons, we have to win with quality, not quantity, as too many of them will be a big burden for us.”

A certain quantity, quality and variety constitute the guiding principle for China’s nuclear development. In China’s national defense white papers, these principles were generalized into the term “lean and effective.”

So, China has long had a clear answer to the classic question “How much is enough?” For China, numerical superiority or inferiority in nuclear weapons does not make a significant difference because, under “no first use,” a nuclear weapon can only be used to retaliate against a nuclear attack.

For China’s nuclear arsenal, to be lean is important, and to be effective equally so, if not more. A small nuclear arsenal means that China is vulnerable to a large-scale nuclear strike. How to make it survivable? Keeping the nuclear force secret and opaque is the early answer to this question. For this purpose, a network of hardened tunnels that stretch into the depths of huge mountains was dug to store nuclear weapons. 

What are the prospects for China’s nuclear policy?

Over the past several decades, China’s nuclear policy has been fairly consistent and stable. However, speculation about possible changes in the country’s nuclear policy arises time and again. Some have challenged China’s "no first use” pledge; others have questioned the size of China’s nuclear arsenal. The inexplicable doubts, groundless guesswork and outrageous speculation have not been able to shake China’s confidence in its nuclear policy.

The overall consistency of that policy is not in conflict with the minor changes that have taken place over the past several decades. For example, China joined in all the universally accepted international instruments on nuclear issues, and it began to play a bigger role in tackling regional nonproliferation challenges. It improved its nuclear transparency in a subtle and gradual way by regularly promulgating national defense white papers.

Military parades are also a way for China to improve nuclear transparency. Also, like other nuclear states, it has made efforts to improve the safety, security, reliability and survivability of its small nuclear force.

With China’s rise and given the changes in its external security environment, is building up a nuclear arsenal really necessary? Before answering this question, another should be asked first: What is the role of nuclear weapons in China’s national security strategy?

According to a recent white paper, China’s National Defense in the New Era, the country’s nuclear policy was confirmed again as no first use, no nuclear arms race, nuclear capabilities maintained at minimum level required for national security and an overall strategy of self-defense. If the fundamental role of China’s nuclear weapons remains unchanged, then it would not be necessary for China to change its nuclear policy.

Some lessons can be learned from the nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Union in the Cold War era. Fierce competition in both quantity and quality brought no positive change in either the United States or Soviet Union’s security environment. At times, the competition and confrontation was potentially catastrophic — for example, the Cuban Missile Crisis or  the NATO military exercise Able Archer 83. They built up their nuclear arsenals rapidly and then deployed them in many places through different delivery means and put them on hair-trigger alert.

The result was that a huge amount of money was spent, but a smaller proportion went for development and manufacture of the weapons themselves. What cost big money was the delivery means, command and control and defensive measures — all at the expense of ordinary people’s welfare.

Maintaining a large numbers of nuclear weapons increases a nation’s economic burden while risking accidents, unauthorized launches and even terrorist attacks. Given the money spent and the inherent risks, nuclear weapon could not be easily used, and many are not usable at all. Even at a most critical and challenging time, such as the Korean War, the Taiwan Strait Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, the use of nuclear weapons was considered and abandoned.

And then, they started to tear down their nuclear arsenals, lower the alert level, exchange information, conduct dialogue, and develop confidence building measures with their adversaries.

History clearly demonstrates that Chinese nuclear policy is rational, reasonable and pragmatic. China did not take the of the United States and Soviet Union with regard to nuclear matters during the Cold War era, and it is not likely it will choose to do so any time soon.

With that said, we cannot deny that there are some matters that might have some impact on China’s future nuclear policy. They include whether the role of nuclear weapons can be further narrowed, whether the momentum of nuclear disarmament can be maintained, whether the development and deployment of missile defense can negate other countries retaliatory capabilities and whether the development of cyberspace will affect nuclear deterrence.

China will not engage in arms races with other countries, nor will it forgo its no-first-use policy. When it has confidence in its moderate nuclear capabilities, China will likely be more willing to accept asymmetrical mutual vulnerability. If the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrence is challenged and weakened, the country will certainly take measures necessary to restoring strategic stability.

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