Key point: Beijing is confident in its nuclear deterrence and so doesn't need to threaten to use nukes first.
China has reaffirmed its policy of never being the first in a conflict to use nuclear weapons. Experts refer to this policy as “no first use,” or NFU.
The NFU policy reaffirmation, contained in Beijing’s July 2019 strategic white paper, surprised some observers who expected a more expansive and aggressive nuclear posture from the rising power.
Notably, the United States does not have a no-first-use policy. “Retaining a degree of ambiguity and refraining from a no first use policy creates uncertainty in the mind of potential adversaries and reinforces deterrence of aggression by ensuring adversaries cannot predict what specific actions will lead to a U.S. nuclear response,” the Pentagon stated.
Chinese state media posted the government’s white paper in its entirety. "Nuclear capability is the strategic cornerstone to safeguarding national sovereignty and security," the paper asserts.
“This is standard language,” explained David Santoro, a nuclear expert with the nonprofit Pacific Forum. “China's nukes serve to prevent nuclear coercion and deter nuclear attack.”
Then the surprise. “China is always committed to a nuclear policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally,” the white paper adds.
This NFU clause surprised Gregory Kulacki, a nuclear expert with the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. “Ever since I took this job 17 years ago, U.S. colleagues of all political and intellectual persuasions have been telling me that sooner or later China would alter, adjust, amend or qualify the policy that China will never, under any circumstances, use nuclear weapons first,” Kulacki wrote.
It would be difficult to compose a more emphatic rejection of claims that China’s no-first-use policy is changing. The statement also indicates it is not Chinese policy to use nuclear weapons first to forestall defeat in a conventional military conflict with the United States. China does not have an “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear strategy.
China is not preparing to fight a nuclear war with the United States. It does not have “battlefield” or “tactical” or “non-strategic” nuclear weapons. Chinese nuclear strategists don’t think a nuclear war with the United States is likely to happen. And they seem sure it won’t happen as long as the U.S. president believes China can retaliate if the United States strikes first.
China sees its comparatively modest nuclear modernization program as a means to convince U.S. leaders that a few Chinese ICBMs can survive a U.S. first strike and that these survivors can penetrate U.S. missile defenses.
Chinese nuclear planners might be willing to slow or scale back their nuclear modernization efforts if the United States were willing to assure China’s leaders it would never use nuclear weapons first in a military conflict with China. Chinese experts and officials have been asking the United States to offer that assurance for decades. U.S. experts and officials consistently refuse.
While China has not adopted a more aggressive nuclear policy, it does continue to upgrade its small nuclear arsenal and its command systems. Kulacki explained that modernization in the context of America’s own refusal to commit to no-first-use.
“In the absence of a no-first-use commitment from the United States, Chinese nuclear strategists believe continued improvements to their nuclear arsenal are needed to assure China’s leaders their U.S. counterparts won’t take the risk of attacking China with nuclear weapons,” Kulacki wrote.
Chinese experts know U.S. efforts to develop a working ballistic missile defense system are not going well, but they still feel the need to hedge against continued U.S. investment in the system with incremental improvements in the quality and quantity of China’s small nuclear force.
Given the impassioned attack on constructive U.S.-China relations currently sweeping U.S. elites off their feet, along with the continued proliferation of misinformation about Chinese nuclear capabilities and intentions, many U.S. commentators are likely to brush aside the new white paper’s reiteration of China’s longstanding nuclear no-first-use policy.
It doesn’t fit in the emerging U.S. story about a new Cold War. That’s unfortunate, especially as the U.S. Congress threatens to ramp up a new nuclear arms race its supposed adversary has no intention to run.