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China’s Nuclear Strategy in a New Geopolitical Environment

By Sven Bernhard Gareis

China's nuclear strategy has always been defensive and is aimed at minimal deterrence. However, China is increasingly competing with the United States in security issues. In the Indo-Pacific region there is a risk of a new Cold War including a nuclear arms race between these two major powers. The increasing tensions have led China to modernize its nuclear arsenal. The defensive nature of the Chinese nuclear strategy could also be put up for discussion.

In order to prevent a dangerous escalation, both countries are tasked: The United States should not force China into a corner, and China, in turn, should combine its minimum deterrence with one-sided transparency of its nuclear capabilities so as not to further aggravate the already tense security situation.

China’s National Defense in the New Era, published in 2019, keeps in line with strategic cornerstones of its nuclear strategy despite fundamental changes in China’s geopolitical situation. With a strategic second strike capacity, the US should only be made aware of its own vulnerability through a possible retaliatory strike. In principle, China does not want to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. In order to maintain this minimal deterrent, a qualitatively and quantitatively manageble small nuclear arsenal has been sufficient for a long time. Strategic parity or even superiority are therefore not necessary, neither is a first strike capacity. The modernization of the Chinese nuclear arsenal in order to maintain its second strike capacity must be considered against the backdrop of the security guarantees given by the U.S. to Chinas neighborhood, combined with the installation of modern missile defense systems.

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