What role is played by the atomic weapon in Chinese defense strategies? How has nuclear doctrine changed since 1964?
The historical root of Chinese nuclear doctrine dates to the traumatic experiences of the Taiwan Strait crises during the 50’s when the United States, then politically and militarily bound to Taiwan, kept on the table a nuclear attack option against Beijing. Meanwhile, the unbalanced nuclear partnership of PRC with the Kremlin got stuck in a dead end when the USSR abandoned the cooperation in June 1959.
Before the first nuclear weapon was tested in 1964, two major theorists had given their contribution to the future Chinese nuclear approach, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. The former elaborated the concept of “people’s war” that, coherently with the Marxist-Leninist war theories, gave very little relevance to the atomic weapon. Mao used to utterly disparage atomic weapons, “paper tigers” in his words. Nuclear capacities could be a part, but not the core of PRC’s strategies. The latter supported a more active nuclear approach with his concept of “existential deterrence.” China had to join the nuclear and thermonuclear clubs on its own terms to ensure its survival in a world of “mass destruction.”
Given these assumptions, it’s easier to understand the nature and scope of the first Chinese A-bomb test in the southern Xinjiang in October 1964. The Chinese leaders attending the test would have told that, given the power of annihilation, ‹‹China will not at any time or under any circumstances employ nuclear weapons first››. True or not, this affirmation witnesses how the No First Use (NFU) policy is congenitally rooted in China’s nuclear doctrine.
A NFU policy focuses the resources on the later moment of a nuclear confrontation: the second-strike. Given its pledge not to attack first, China could only develop counter-value second strike capabilities to deter rivals to take the big step toward nuclear aggression. A second strike capability would ensure China’s need for resiliency to survive a hostile counter-force strike and effective to be a credible deterrent and, eventually, to hit the target.
Moreover, a clear and solid division between nuclear and conventional capabilities was in effect within Beijing strategies. At least until the 90’s, Chinese atomic weapons were meant to be used only after a hostile atomic first strike while the conventional force was in charge of defense from all the other attacks. Coherently with Maoist stance, nuclear deterred nuclear, conventional deterred conventional and, consequently, Beijing committed not to use atomic weapons against Non-Nuclear Weapon States and in Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones.
Until the end of the Cold War, given these precepts and the series of constraints and limitations, China’s nuclear deterrent could be correctly defined as “minimum” and “defensive.”
Since the 90’s, despite a formal adhesion to NFU policy, some important exceptions were introduced, mitigating the nuclear-conventional division and, apparently, tempering the weight of No First Use in Chinese strategy-making. Some important clues can be found in the Second Artillery Corps (SAC) text “Science of Second Artillery Campaigns” (2004) where a Chinese nuclear strike is considered possible not only after a hostile first strike but also when Beijing feels to be under the threat of it. This addition takes Chinese nuclear decision-making onto a totally different level, but one perception. In the following lines, SAC explains how the nuclear threshold can legitimately be lowered in case of “threat of conventional attack on nuclear facilities, on important strategic targets and against political or economic centres›› (mainly Beijing and few others large cities) and in case of ‹‹sustained escalation of conventional war” that critically compromises national security. Besides that, obviously, any real or expected attack against the nuclear architecture that makes the second strike possible has to be considered a valid reason for threatening atomic retaliation.
The combined provisions of the aforementioned exceptions and the ongoing nuclear modernization make the whole situation far more ambiguous and nuanced than before. Indeed, the emerging technologies and dual-use systems deployed by China (both for nuclear and conventional capabilities), such as C4 infrastructures, satellites, submarines, or even theatre and short/intermediate range missiles mounting both atomic and conventional warheads, may provide the slippery slope from conventional to nuclear war. Any attack or harm against these systems could be considered as a potential threat to its second strike capabilities by China, that could opt for nuclear retaliation.
Thanks to its long and solid economic rise, China is increasing its power projection in the global political arena, and nuclear capabilities can prevent other actors to damage Chinese interests across the world. As Xi Jinping put it in December 2012, atomic weapons serve not only as the "cornerstone of strategic deterrence" and, therefore, of Chinese "national security," but also as "support for the country's great power status."
The main concern in for the U.S. and its allies in Asia is whether China is modernizing the nuclear arsenal solely to secure a credible and effective second-strike capacity or if it is overhauling the nuclear policy toward a completely new approach. Anyhow, two main problems seem to arise: Beijing never joined any nuclear-related agreement or understanding with Washington or with other Western Nuclear-Weapons States to reduce first-strike incentives and the risks of misperception and escalation; the overlap of nuclear and conventional capabilities is likely to increase the disastrous consequence of an error or a limited war option.