#51 event report – The Future of China’s Nuclear Weapons


April 20th, 2016 Bridge Cafe (Wudaokou)


ZHAO Tong, 赵通, Associate, Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace




Nuclear weapons still represent, today, the most destructive weapons that states could eventually employ during a military confrontation as well as the foundation of a country’s military power. We often refer to the nuclear relationship between nuclear adversaries during the Cold War with the acronym of MAD, which stands for “Mutual Assured Destruction”. It has been used to clearly reflect the absurdity in using them during a military confrontation, because nuclear weapons are not conventional weapons and their employment could even jeopardize the security and the survival of not only those states that are trying to use them, in order to achieve a specific military objective, but also of the entire humanity. In technical terms, MAD means that a state has enough nuclear weapons that allow it to absorb the enemy’s first nuclear strike, while still having the power to retaliate, therefore creating unacceptable damage for both parties. For this basic principle MAD describes the general idea of nuclear deterrence.


The case of China and the confrontation with the United States


That being said, the case at hand, the Chinese nuclear weapons, and the current political and military frictions in the Asia Pacific region, clearly highlight why nuclear weapons are so important in the overall strategic calculation between China and US. In fact, in order to understand the gravity surrounding this context, it is sufficient to remember that few incidents between China and the US have already occurred, which tended to escalate the situation. The 2009 incident with the USNS Impeccable demonstrates the delicate issue in the area. Another important element is the debate over the defensive or offensive nature of the nuclear weapons, which, because of their destructive power, tend to go beyond this dichotomous relationship. Even if, on paper, one’s posture is defensive, in reality uncertainty over other states’ actions and the fear of preventive attacks could easily turn the defensive posture into an all-out war. For these specific reasons, the US has always been concerned about the possibility of conventional military conflicts getting out of control and escalating into nuclear war with China. The Nuclear Posture Review 2010 illustrates the main elements of the American strategic vision about maintaining nuclear and strategic stability with China. It is the American belief that the Chinese “No First Use Policy” is not unconditional and that it could change according to the circumstances. Moreover, another element that convinces the US over the possibility that China would use nuclear weapons is the idea that autocratic governments usually lack self-restraint in these delicate matters. Needless to say that these elements only increase the American misperceptions over Chinese foreign and military strategy.


The logic of MAD between China and the United States


Among the mainstream American experts, the idea of MAD is progressively becoming a reality, simply for two reasons: on one hand the modernization of Chinese nuclear arsenal, which could increase the overall credibility of Beijing’s nuclear deterrent. And on the other hand the idea that the American nuclear superiority as well as the increasing potential of its conventional weapons could really alter the Sino-US confrontation in the Asia Pacific region. On the other side of the equation, China has been pursuing the “minimum deterrent strategy”, which basically means building a minimum sufficient number of nuclear weapons in order to fulfill the logic of survivability of Chinese nuclear forces. In fact, one important aspect of Chinese nuclear weapons is that the nuclear warheads are reportedly kept detached from the missiles, at least during peacetime. This policy is part of an overall Chinese approach to avoid any possible nuclear incident. However, this logic, which is defensive in nature, would eventually encourage a country like the US to adopt a first strike policy. But China is becoming deeply concerned about this delicate relationship between American and Chinese arsenals, since the United States is relying on two conventional military components which could potentially escalate the arms race: one is the Missile Defense program, while the second is the Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS), which is a sophisticated missile system, mainly developed for the Iranian and North Korean threat, able to act promptly against any target. Moreover, the American belief on the role of technology innovation increases the uncertainty for other states like China, which is progressively modernizing its nuclear arsenal, as attested by the deployment of MIRVs and SSBNs as a clear response to the American missile defense program. In so doing, therefore, China might reach a point where its NFU policy gets challenged by the circumstances.


Technical and strategic issues surrounding the Nuclear environment


Unfortunately, today’s nuclear environment and its conditions do not bring any optimism for the future. This is because China is putting more emphasis on its submarine potential in the South China Sea. This context brings some possible strategic problems. For instance, the increase of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability of the United States and its regional allies in the Asia Pacific can threaten Chinese strategic nuclear submarines, which would increase the possibility of military collisions, which might in turn lead to a potential nuclear escalation. At the technical level, moreover, the situation presents elements of instability because of the loudness of the Chinese nuclear submarines. Unfortunately for China, these submarines lack the advanced technology to make them quiet and therefore difficult to detect. Hence, Beijing needs to adopt any possible survivable strategy towards its submarine arsenal. It seems quite likely that China might adopt the Soviet bastion strategy against possible American military intervention. And the place where to actually implement it could be the South China Sea which, because of its proximity to other states, could easily make the strategic context even worse. Moreover, this is what the US has already been thinking about Chinese military responses, therefore paving the way for an increase of American ASW potential, which, in turn, also contributes to create a progressively unstable situation.


Diplomatic solutions?


In order to solve these strategic and escalatory uncertainties, there have been some important diplomatic meetings at Track 1.5 and Track 2 level in order to establish common patterns of strategic understanding. During the Obama administration, the US have planned for a strategic stability relationship which means creating the environment for a mutual and clear understanding of the Sino-US nuclear potential. This means, in other words, that the US promised not to try to neutralize Chinese nuclear weapons. However, because of the inner weaknesses of these diplomatic agreements, as well as the domestic pressure of other institutional organs which could try to advance their own military policies, we still do not have the certainty that these agreements would translate into concrete actions. In fact, this explains why some US naval officers reacted to the US posture towards China, stating that Chinese NFU policy is not real and that the strategic prevention should be used in the South China Sea, even by encouraging other Asian allies to join into the process. Unfortunately, the situation surrounding the other Asian states’ intentions as well as the Sino-US military modernization is recreating the classical security dilemma between two great powers, where communication problems become the center of the continuous strategic misunderstanding between the two parties.


Written by Sergio Miracola



Related Posts