China’s Nuclear Strategy in a New Geopolitical Environment
Since its first successful nuclear test on October 16, 1964, the People’s Republic of China has maintained a comparatively small and for a long time also technologically underdeveloped nuclear arsenal. While the U.S. and USSR superpowers kept each other in check during the Cold War with constantly growing overkill capacities, the People’s Republic, constantly shaken by internal crises and economically stagnating, was able to stay out of a ruinous arms race. It relied on a nuclear strategy that was as simple as it was cost-effective: to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons and deter the use of nuclear weapons against China – which was in any case unlikely – through the ability to carry out a strategic retaliatory strike with unacceptable costs for the enemy.
The international system has gone through considerable changes since then, bringing new geopolitical power constellations and a number of additional nuclear-weapon states. But to the present day China still officially adheres to its concept of so-called minimal deterrence. This was most recently underlined in its white paper of July 2019, China’s National Defense in the New Era. Nevertheless, China faces global strategic competition, driven mainly by the United States, which in its eyes also necessitates comprehensive military modernization, including the expansion of its nuclear capabilities. Since the 1990s, therefore, China has been working to reinforce its strategic second-strike capability, which for a long time existed only on paper, primarily by developing new delivery systems and platforms.
In a textbook example of the security dilemma, however, Beijing’s armament efforts are in turn prompting the U.S. to take countermeasures to secure its military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. In the American National Security Strategy of 2017 and Nuclear Posture Review of 2018, the strengthening People’s Republic appears as the most important adversary of the United States, and the main reason for the continuing development of U.S. armed forces, including in the nuclear arena. In Chapter III of its 2019 white paper, China counters this by stating that “[n]uclear capability is the strategic cornerstone to safeguarding national sovereignty and security”, and allows China to continue to work on credibly demonstrating to the U.S. its vulnerability to a Chinese retaliatory strike.
Even if neither the U.S. nor the People’s Republic has any interest in a military conflict, such a conflict can by no means be ruled out in view of the “Sino-American World Conflict” (Peter Rudolf) which has been fueled in recent years mainly by the U.S. under President Donald Trump. This would also entail the danger of a nuclear escalation – for example, if the People’s Republic, still conventionally far inferior to the United States, were to deviate from its principle of never using nuclear weapons first.
So what steps and developments can be expected from the People’s Republic in this geopolitical setting? This will be examined below, as we look at China’s nuclear strategy, its basic assumptions and capabilities based on these assumptions, and its weaknesses.
Starting point and basic elements of the Chinese nuclear strategy
China’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities dates back to the early years of the People’s Republic (founded in 1949). In large part, it was motivated by status-seeking. Mao Zedong wanted to see his country equal to the American and Soviet superpowers. But above all, there were also tangible security interests. U.S. General Douglas MacArthur had called for the use of nuclear weapons against the People’s Republic during the Korean War, and this still resonated strongly in China. Mao did not want to remain defenseless against the use of such weapons. Significant support in developing technological capabilities came at first from China’s socialist brother state, the Soviet Union. But under Nikita Khrushchev, the USSR grew farther apart from the People’s Republic over questions of the inevitability of a nuclear war with the West, fell out with China over the disastrous industrialization strategy known as the “Great Leap Forward”, and finally put a stop to cooperation in nuclear matters in June 1959.
China immediately began to develop its own nuclear weapons program (see Cheng 2006). As a result, with its successful test on October 16, 1964 in Lop Nur / Xinjiang, China became the fifth nuclear-weapon state alongside the United States, the USSR, France and the United Kingdom. While the first test device had a relatively low yield of around twenty kilotons, in June 1967 the People’s Republic detonated a hydrogen bomb with an explosive force of three megatons. China had caught up technologically with the established nuclear powers. Unlike the U.S. and USSR, however, China did not develop a differentiated nuclear force of land, sea and air-based delivery systems for its warheads – the so-called triad. Instead, it focused mainly on ballistic ground-to-ground missiles with different ranges that could reach targets in the U.S. or its bases in the Pacific. As tensions with the Soviet Union mounted during the second half of the 1960s, weapons systems were also deployed along the border with the former ally.
Apart from the high costs involved in developing a sophisticated triad, Mao Zedong’s and his military strategists’ vision of war also played a role in this decision: an invasion was expected, which would then be ended deep in Chinese territory with a people’s war. Tactical nuclear weapons for limited strikes had no part to play in this scenario; the focus of defense was on conventional land warfare.
Based on this thinking, the People’s Republic never developed or presented a proper nuclear strategy. Instead, it shrouded its nuclear capabilities in the utmost secrecy, but has always spoken out in favor of disarmament steps and ruled out a first use of nuclear weapons. On March 17, 1992, the People’s Republic became the fourth nuclear-weapon state – before France – to accede to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). (The NPT had originally been signed by the Republic of China [Taiwan] and ratified in 1970.) China signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on September 24, 1996, the date on which the treaty, having been adopted two weeks earlier by the UN General Assembly, opened for signature, but refuses to ratify it until the U.S. is ready to do so. After carrying out a total of 45 nuclear tests since 1964, China has observed a moratorium on testing since signing the CTBT.
In December 2006, in chapter II of its sixth national defense white paper, China for the first time published an outline of its “self-defensive nuclear strategy”. The stated fundamental goal is to deter other states from using nuclear weapons against China or threatening to do so. At the same time, the People’s Republic reaffirms its policy of no first use of nuclear weapons “at any time and under any circumstances”, declares unreservedly that it will never use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states or nuclear-weapon-free zones, and advocates a comprehensive ban on and the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. However, in pursuing its national security interests, China adheres to the principles of counter-attack for self-defense and the limited development of nuclear weapons, and strives for a lean and effective nuclear force. The white paper states that China’s nuclear capabilities are under the direct command of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest leading organ of the People’s Liberation Army, chaired by the head of state and party. China emphasizes its great reluctance to develop its nuclear capabilities and declares that it has never entered into a nuclear arms race with any other country and will not do so in the future.
Then, in its white paper presented in 2019, the People’s Republic declares its continuation of this concept in principle, but at the same time refers to a security environment that has become more difficult from the Chinese perspective, which also requires adjustments in the nuclear arena. In addition to efforts to strengthen the safety management of its nuclear weapons, China seeks to “maintain the appropriate level of readiness” and “enhance [its] strategic deterrence capability to protect national strategic stability.”
Basic strategic assumptions and adjustments
With its nuclear strategy, the People’s Republic tries to deter a nuclear strike against its territory using the least possible resources. It does not need strategic parity with or superiority over a potential adversary in order to ensure minimal deterrence. Nor does it need a first strike capability that could completely or at least largely destroy a potential enemy’s nuclear arsenal and make them unable to respond. China does, however, need to maintain a credible second-strike capability so that it can threaten a potential adversary with unacceptable losses in response to the use of nuclear weapons. It is easy for China to renounce first use insofar as nuclear weapons do not play a significant role in Chinese military strategy except for deterrence.
The idea of a second-strike capability is part of the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was instrumental in developing in the early 1960s, and which subsequently made a significant contribution to maintaining strategic stability between the superpowers. The concept was given practical form in the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty concluded in 1972 between the U.S. and the USSR. The ABM Treaty contained an extensive renunciation of defense systems against incoming missiles, thus ensuring mutual vulnerability and consequently reducing the risk of a nuclear strike to zero for both sides. China benefited from this treaty in that the vulnerability of the superpowers required the Chinese to have only a small and also technologically not very sophisticated deterrent force of warheads and delivery systems.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States sought to develop new defense systems against “weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems in the hands of terrorists and rogue states”. In April 2002, the U.S. withdrew from the ABM Treaty. At this point, President George W. Bush immediately offered to hold talks with the Chinese side to prevent a possible arms race in the Asian region. Nevertheless, China perceived the nuclear partnership that was initiated soon after, in July 2005, between the United States and India – which had become a nuclear power in 1998 – to be part of an American containment strategy. This also applies to the “pivot to Asia” proclaimed by the Obama administration in 2011, via which the U.S. wanted to support its allies and partners in the region, but also assert its regional hegemony over an economically, politically and militarily strengthened China. As the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea developed its nuclear weapons and missile program, which China did not support but nevertheless accepted as being in its own interests (see Gareis 2020), the United States supported its regional allies Japan and South Korea with the state-of-the-art sea-based and land-based missile defense systems Aegis and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense). In conjunction with U.S. efforts to develop their own homeland missile defense system, this was seen by Beijing as an attempt to undermine its second-strike and hence strategic deterrence capability. This challenge is all the more serious from China’s point of view because after turning away from the idea of a people’s war in its own country and focusing on locally limited wars under modern conditions in areas claimed by China (such as Taiwan and the East/South China Sea), it is critically important to be able to fend off a U.S. intervention.
In view of these challenges, the People’s Republic has not undergone a paradigm shift in security policy, but has taken steps as part of its existing nuclear strategy to enlarge and improve the quality of its nuclear arsenal. It is likely to continue along this path in the future. China’s primary objective is to demonstrate credibly to the United States, its most important adversary, that it has the capability to overcome its missile defense systems.
Current arsenal and further developments
As mentioned above, the People’s Republic built up a nuclear force that mainly comprised land-based delivery systems in the former 2nd Artillery. (In 2016, the 2nd Artillery was renamed in the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force.) In addition, in the 1960s atomic bombs had been dropped from Hong-6 (H-6) Air Force bombers for the Lop Nur tests, and there were also sea-based components in the form of (one or two) nuclear-weapon-capable and nuclear-powered Xia-class submarines (Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear, SSBN) with sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). However, these systems were not sufficient to establish a true strategic triad owing to their lack of range (H-6) and technical shortcomings (submarines). The Changzheng 6 (Long March 6) submarine was probably the only boat of this class that was actually put into service. Since its launch in 1981, it has not made any armed patrol trips, and has not fired any of its potentially twelve medium-range Ju Lang 1 (Giant Wave 1, JL-1) missiles for test purposes.
The Dong Feng 4 and 5 (East Wind 4 and 5) land-based ballistic intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) had sufficient range to reach targets in the Pacific such as Guam (DF-4) or the U.S. mainland (continental United States, CONUS) (DF-5). But because they were silo-based and had liquid-fueled delivery systems, they were easy to detect, took a long time to fuel, and were therefore very vulnerable and hardly viable for a rapid counterattack. In view of ever more accurate satellite reconnaissance and ever more precise cruise missiles (even conventional ones), especially those of the United States, these systems did not really constitute an effective second-strike capability.
To expand or rather maintain such a strategic capability, the People’s Republic is pursuing a two-pronged approach: better protection of its arsenal and increasing the number of warheads. As for protective measures, with the land-based systems the mobility of the launchers and a switch to solid-fuel rocket propulsion systems has made a decisive difference. The most important modern systems with regard to ICBMs are the DF-31/31A and the newly developed DF-41, which are replacing or set to replace the silo-based DF-4 and DF-5 missiles. With regard to medium-range missiles, the DF-21, which has been in service for some time, has been modernized and a new missile with a longer range of up to around 4,000 kilometers, the DF-26, has been introduced. According to the report by Kristensen/Norris in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in 2018 the People’s Republic had an estimated 280 nuclear warheads, which can be transported by 120 to 150 land-based delivery systems. The People’s Republic expects greater protection as well as shorter missile flight distances from its current total of four submarines in the enhanced Jin class, each of which is equipped with twelve of the more modern JL-2 missiles (see Zhao 2018).
In increasing its number of warheads, China has for some time been using Multiple Independently targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology. In a MIRV system, multiple (smaller) warheads are used with one carrier missile. As it flies through space, they detach from the missile and after re-entering the earth’s atmosphere they seek out their pre-programmed targets. The respective carrier missiles can each transport a different number of warheads; Kristensen/Norris assume an average configuration of three warheads.
Also under consideration is the development of a new generation of submarines (Tang class), an SLBM (JL-3), and a long-range bomber to replace the H-6, which is over fifty years old and has only a very limited nuclear weapon capability.
At present, there does not seem to be any intention to increase the operational readiness of the nuclear weapons by permanently equipping the delivery systems with nuclear warheads. The latter are stored centrally in depots in the Qinling Mountains, in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi. There is also no sign that the People’s Republic wishes to expand its arsenal, which until now has been geared primarily to strategic retaliation, with tactical weapons for smaller and more limited forms of use. China continues to keep its arsenal small and therefore continues to accept the qualitative and quantitative nuclear superiority of the United States (and Russia). However, this focus on strategic deterrence is also accompanied by specific risks for crisis stability, which are discussed in the following section.
China’s nuclear arsenal may be small, but it can still be used with devastating effects – for a potential enemy, but also for China itself. This could be the case if a crisis or conventional war suddenly gets out of control and a nuclear escalation occurs. There are several reasons to be concerned: as Cunningham/Fravel convincingly demonstrate, Chinese perspectives on the problem of nuclear escalation differ markedly from those of the United States. While the U.S. assumes that a limited use of smaller nuclear weapons may be capable of de-escalating or ending a conventional war (escalate to de-escalate), Chinese strategists are highly skeptical in this regard. Most of them see the path to a strategic use of weapons as being inevitable once the nuclear threshold has been crossed, and trust that, for this reason, neither side will use nuclear weapons first. They also trust that the fear of an exchange of nuclear blows will prompt the U.S. to exert a de-escalating influence on its regional allies in the event of a conflict, and also pursue non-nuclear approaches itself. This would allow China to take action against Taiwan, for example, and keep U.S. forces at a distance using conventional means. But it is precisely this view that the United States opposes, with reference to its Alliance obligations, by considering the possibilities of a first use of tactical nuclear weapons against conventional targets (see Colby). In some ways, Chinese thinking here is similar to the Western strategy of massive retaliation during the Cold War of the 1950s, which proved to be a useless response to limited attacks by the Warsaw Pact, and was then replaced in the second half of the 1960s by the flexible response strategy. But the Chinese do not have the necessary equipment to carry out a flexible response to a tactical nuclear strike (see Ji).
Another problem is that China’s nuclear weapons can also be attacked by conventional means, especially because SSBNs, for example, can be armed not only with nuclear but also with conventional weapons. The question is whether China would keep its promise never to use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances, if it were faced with a use-it-or-lose-it decision. On closer inspection, therefore, the strategic stability that China expects from its minimal deterrence by having a second-strike capability is very deceptive.
Great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region has reached a remarkable level. China and the United States are facing each other with growing distrust – in the belief that only the other side can threaten their own position of power. There is a real danger of a new Cold War, along with an arms race, despite the possible consequences that would result from a further deterioration of relationships between the two extremely closely intertwined powers, not just for themselves, but also for the region and the world. A security dilemma like this can ultimately be alleviated only through diplomacy, greater transparency and growing trust. However, in view of the substantial and purposeful worsening of bilateral relations brought about by the U.S. administration under President Trump, there is currently little hope of this happening – especially since Beijing is hoping to benefit from the many uncertainties that Washington’s policies have created among its allies in the region.
If the omens are not good for military and nuclear confidence-building measures, both sides should reflect on their economic interests, which after all are still closely intertwined, and also on their responsibilities as major powers. As a minimum, these include refraining from further exacerbating the tense situation. For the U.S. as the stronger actor, this would mean not trying to push China into a corner. For China the rising power, strategic restraint should be advisable – including in the military sphere – with respect not only to the United States, but also India and other neighbors in the Indo-Pacific region. As explained above, China claims to pursue a defensive nuclear strategy of minimal deterrence, yet this carries a residual risk of massive escalation – even if unintended. It is China’s political responsibility to keep this risk as low as possible and, even unilaterally, to declare its willingness to be more transparent about its nuclear capabilities.
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Sven Bernhard Gareis works with the NATO International Staff, Brussels, where he is responsible for the Defence Education Enhancement Programs (DEEP) in Eurasia and Central/Northeast Asia. Since 2007 he has been teaching as a professor of political science at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster. Prior he served, among others, as a Deputy Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at the Command and Staff College of the German Armed Forces (Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr), Hamburg. His major interest is on international security policy with a special focus on International Organizations and on China and its role in Asia and the world. He is the editor of “International and Security Studies” (Budrich Academics)