China’s Nuclear Policy: (No) First Use?

Oct 20, 2011


By Stephanie Spies

Despite over a decade of negotiations, U.S.-China nuclear dialogues appear as deadlocked as ever. China maintains a “no first use” of nuclear weapons (NFU) pledge, yet U.S. officials refuse to acknowledge such a pledge as credible and continue to accuse their Chinese counterparts of maintaining secrecy over the country’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, China continues to seek similar reassurances, including an NFU commitment, from the U.S., fearing a decapitating nuclear first strike during a conventional conflict. Intransigence on both sides seems to be rooted in conflicting interpretations and views of nuclear declaratory policy, with one side preferring to evaluate policy based on intentions while the other is focused on operational details.
Many U.S. policymakers and experts believe that declaratory policy is not binding or verifiable, and thus not indicative of actual Chinese operational nuclear policy. In particular, this camp, citing Chinese documents that seem to question the country’s commitment to NFU, fears that China may roll back its NFU commitment in a future crisis that threatens its national interests, and therefore defend that the U.S. should not make a reciprocal assurance that restrains nuclear first use. However, in a recent article in Arms Control Today, Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and the China project manager in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), argues that these beliefs are mistaken, and in fact China remains committed to its NFU pledge and prepares its nuclear forces accordingly. In many ways, the debate over the binding nature of China’s NFU policy is potentially irresolvable without access to classified Chinese military information. However, it does pose interesting questions for the future of U.S.-China nuclear relations and the potential evolution of U.S. nuclear policy.
Distrust of declaratory policy is not confined to China’s NFU pledge. Since the Cold War, states such as the U.S. have been skeptical of other countries’ stated intentions with regards to their nuclear weapons, particularly because they do not necessarily constrain actual nuclear policy or planning. According to Bruno Tertrais, Senior Research Fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research , declaratory policy, or “what states claim they would do”, is distinct from “action policies”, or states’ plans for a conflict, and thus does not necessarily restrict nuclear policy. Such statements about a country’s intentions to use nuclear weapons first may be overridden in a crisis for “preemptive…self defence”, even if “a bolt-out-of-the-blue nuclear strike” was not possible. Moreover, a no-first use pledge is “virtually impossible to substantiate” in any technical capacity, Alexei Arbatov, chair of the non-proliferation program at the Carnegie Moscow center, writes, since the same nuclear weapons which may be refrained for second-strike retaliation capabilities “may also be used in a first strike”, thereby preserving any “disarming nuclear strike capability” against an opponent. If a nation maintains training practices and nuclear capabilities for second-strike retaliation options, the resulting doctrine will appear indistinct from first-strike preparations and planning to potential adversaries, thereby affirming declaratory policy’s role as a political statement of intent rather than a binding operational change.
China’s no-first-use policy in particular is unverifiable, even if the military and government do intend to abide by it. According to Banning N. Garret, Director of Asia Programs at the Atlantic Council of the United States, and Bonnie S. Glaser, Senior Fellow in China Studies at CSIS, Chinese representatives insist that “the political decision to adopt an NFU commitment is significant in itself and that verification is unnecessary”, especially since “a country can change its policy in a crisis”. However, many Chinese analysts and officials stress the “high political costs” of abandoning such a commitment, even if it is inherently unverifiable and easily rolled back, as other countries would “condemn you if you violate it”. In 2008, a prominent Chinese arms control official confirmed this sentiment, stating that an NFU “is a question of declared intent” that can be verified only “through abstention from the use of nuclear weapons”, writes Lora Saalman of the Carnegie Endowment.
Despite Chinese assurances, many experts fear that China will roll back its NFU commitment in a future conflict that threatens its national interests, particularly one over Taiwan. Baohui Zhang, an associate professor of political science at Lingnan University, argues that “China’s vast conventional weakness compared to the United States”, in conjunction with its nuclear modernization efforts, makes it more likely that China will rely on nuclear first use in “a real crisis in the Taiwan Strait” which threatens military defeat by the U.S., since the PRC will take any action necessary to prevent regime collapse or Taiwanese independence. Although many Chinese nuclear experts oppose “the formal renouncement of the no-first-use policy”, they do encourage modifications to the pledge, including making it “conditional” so that “China could use nuclear weapons first when its vital national interests are at stake”. In fact, according to Zhang’s research, “most of China’s nuclear experts”, including officials who have great influence over Chinese defense policy, concur that the country should adopt “a flexible approach to the no-first-use policies”, including “a more offensive-oriented nuclear strategy”.
Other security experts express similar concerns about China’s commitment to its NFU pledge. According to Justin Hastings, a visiting research associate at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University, China’s NFU is not credible to countries like the U.S. who are more focused on Chinese nuclear “capabilities rather than its intentions”. While the threats of a militarily weak country are not credible, “a country with a greatly increased capacity to wage war can credibly change its intentions quickly”, Hastings argues. Such a situation may emerge for China, which according to recent intelligence discussed in an earlier post is steadily increasing its nuclear modernization efforts and the role of nuclear weapons in its defense policies. According to Hastings’ logic, if a China which feels more confident in its nuclear capabilities is threatened in a future military conflict, particularly one which threatens its core national interests, it may roll back its NFU pledge. Statements by Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, dean of China’s National Defense University, affirm this view, as he stated that “China would have no choice but to respond with nuclear weapons if the United States attacked Chinese territory with conventional (non-nuclear) forces during such a conflict”, even if this violated its NFU commitment. Bruce Blair, President of the World Security Institute, argues that Zhu’s statements implicitly indicate that preventing Taiwanese independence “is an inviolable principle that overrides everything including China’s No-First-Use Declaration”, consistent with stated Chinese policy to “risk everything” in a conflict over Taiwan. According to some analysts, such as Scott Moore of the East Asia Nonproliferation program at CNS, “hyper-nationalism may come to exert a significant influence on national policy” in such a conflict which threatens Chinese sovereignty and survival, perhaps inducing pressure on President Hu to use nuclear weapons to ensure a Chinese military victory.
This belief that China’s military actively plans for such contingencies which require abandoning its NFU promise, however, is highly contested. In his recent article, Kulacki analyzes classified Chinese military documents, including the Second Artillery’s Textbook “used to train China’s nuclear missile forces”, in order to demonstrate that “there is no discernible departure from China’s declared nuclear policy in the classified operational procedures of the Second Artillery”. In particular, he found that this branch of the military conducts its nuclear operations as if China will continue to maintain a “small nuclear arsenal…kept off alert…to be launched only in retaliation after a nuclear attack”. Not only do the authors of this book never discuss scenarios under which China would use nuclear weapons first, but “the modifier ‘retaliatory’ precedes every” mention of potential Chinese nuclear use. Moreover, the textbook continuously stresses “that nuclear weapons policy is a political decision that lies with the Chinese leadership, not with the Second Artillery”, and thus China’s NFU policy dictates operational nuclear procedures rather than the other way around.
If accurate, these quotations and statements, which were intended only for Chinese military officials who conduct the country’s nuclear forces, seem to indicate that China does not plan for contingencies which would violate its NFU pledge. Why, then, does China consistently reject U.S. calls for greater transparency in its nuclear program if its operational policies are identical to its declared intentions? Kulacki’s analysis of the Second Artillery text, which “makes clear that the objective of its nuclear operations is to create uncertainty and confuse the United States” , proposes that China fears a U.S. first strike and therefore revealing any information which would incentivize or aid such an attack. While China does not, and will not for the foreseeable future, possess the capability to execute a disarming first-strike on the U.S., its own small nuclear forces, in conjunction with increasingly capable U.S. conventional capabilities and ballistic missile defenses, could be vulnerable to a disarming U.S. first strike, he argues. Under this view, China emphasizes declaratory policy because it believes such political commitments can credibly constrain a country’s options in a crisis, even if it possesses the operational capability to otherwise execute such options. Meanwhile, the U.S. believes the opposite: political commitments are by definition unrestrictive and unverifiable, and thus operational capabilities should be the primary focus of nuclear policy.
These conflicting views on the importance of capability and credibility create somewhat of a dilemma for the future of Chinese and U.S. nuclear relations and policy. Even if the U.S. does not adopt an NFU pledge of its own, its inability to trust Chinese declaratory policy mandates planning as if China could use nuclear weapons first, which in turn exacerbates Chinese fears of a disarming U.S. first strike, particularly in light of U.S. refusal to politically commit not to execute such an attack. These policies ensure a cycle of mutual distrust that undermines nuclear relations between the two countries and could increase the likelihood of miscalculation in a future crisis.
However, there are steps both sides can take to improve nuclear stability, even if the current political and security environment preclude a formal treaty. While thus far U.S. attempts to engage China in a dialogue concerning nuclear issues have failed, it is nonetheless worthwhile to make a concerted effort to revive these negotiations for the sake of strategic stability and overall bilateral relations between the two countries, especially given the increasing need for US-Sino cooperation on other important policy issues. The U.S. should particularly engage China in a discussion over why it chooses to emphasize declaratory policy, particularly its NFU pledge. In order to be effective, this strategy must include a dialogue about the potential situations which would cause China to use nuclear weapons first, thereby violating its declared commitment. While the U.S. should not be accusatory or hostile in this form of discussion, it also must be realistic in its conduct of nuclear policy, and thus must at least discuss potential worst case scenarios with another nuclear power like China. Similarly, China too must be willing to admit that there are some situations which may prompt the adoption of a “conditional” NFU pledge.
China will inevitably continue to press the U.S. to adopt an NFU pledge of its own, and, although the benefits of such a strategy go beyond the scope of this post, the U.S. must be willing to engage in a discussion about this policy, even if it doesn’t ultimately adopt it. The U.S. will likely be more successful in encouraging Chinese nuclear transparency if it is also willing to discuss its own nuclear policy. If there is any hope for success or rapprochement, bilateral negotiations and nuclear relations cannot be a one way street in which the U.S. expects Chinese concessions but will not offer any operational or declaratory ones of its own. More broadly, the Obama administration’s nonproliferation credibility, and its attempts to encourage other nations to reduce the role of nuclear weapons globally, will suffer if the U.S. is unwilling to at least discuss or consider similar changes to its own nuclear policy.


Stephanie Spies is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.