First Strike

China omission of no-first-use nuclear doctrine in defense white paper signals policy shift
Chinese President Xi Jinping / AP

Chinese President Xi Jinping / AP


China omitted a reference to its no-first-use strategic nuclear weapons doctrine in a recently published government white paper, indicating Beijing shifted the policy as part of its large-scale nuclear arms buildup.

The omission, along with recent comments by a senior Chinese military officer, is raising new concerns among Pentagon officials about China’s nearly opaque strategic arms buildup.

Chinese Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu, a senior researcher at China’s Academy of Military Science, revealed earlier this month that China is considering expanding its growing nuclear arsenal in response to U.S. missile defense deployments and upgrades.

“The current development, especially the deployment of missile-defense systems in East Asia would be, in Chinese eyes, would be a very, very disturbing factor having implications for the calculation of China’s nuclear and strategic arsenal,” she told a conference April 8 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The statement was initially viewed as the general seeking to exploit U.S. concerns about China’s nuclear buildup as a way to force the Pentagon to scale back missile defenses, which China regards as undermining its large missile force.

Yao then stated that China’s long-held no-first-use nuclear policy requires “a certain amount of opaqueness.” Some U.S. officials and private experts said the comment undermines China’s long-held strategic nuclear policy. The no-first-use policy states China will not be the first to use nuclear arms in a conflict, and it would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.

If China abandons the policy, the United States will need to expand its aging nuclear forces to better maintain deterrence against both China and Russia.

The white paper omission follows periodic statements and writings by Chinese officials since the late 1990s that are undermining U.S. intelligence estimates, which for several decades have predicted China’s stockpile of strategic nuclear arms will remain relatively small, limited to around 240 warheads.

Russian and private U.S. analysts recently disputed the U.S. assessments and have said the Chinese nuclear arsenal could be far larger, possibly a stockpile of as many as 1,500 to 3,000 warheads.

The Pentagon’s 2010 annual report on the Chinese military said the no-first-use nuclear policy is ambiguous and Chinese officials have not clarified it.

“There is some ambiguity over the conditions under which China’s [no-first-use] policy would apply, including whether strikes on what China considers its own territory, demonstration strikes, or high altitude bursts would constitute a first use,” the report said.

“Moreover, some PLA officers have written publicly of the need to spell out conditions under which China might need to use nuclear weapons first; for example, if an enemy’s conventional attack threatened the survival of China’s nuclear force, or of the regime itself. However, there has been no indication that national leaders are willing to attach such nuances and caveats to China’s no-first-use doctrine.”

Additionally, China is known to engage in Soviet-style strategic deception regarding its nuclear forces. U.S. officials have said the deception efforts include masking nuclear forces as part of a calculated effort to undermine foreign nations’ assessments of its strategic forces and the forces that are required to deter or counter them.

Larry M. Wortzel, a former military intelligence official who worked in China, revealed in an article published last year that China appears to have circulated a suspect “top secret” document affirming its announced plan to maintain a small nuclear weapons force. The document appeared aimed at bolstering “everything that the arms control community would advocate about building down U.S. nuclear forces toward ‘nuclear zero,’” Wortzel stated.

A Chinese U.N. official once said the no-first use policy wouldn’t apply to a Chinese response to a foreign invasion of Taiwan, and in 2005 a general said China would use nuclear weapons against the United States in response to conventional-tipped cruise missile attacks on China.

Chinese military writings also call for using all weapons, both nuclear and non-nuclear, in conflicts to assure victory.

Yao’s comments suggesting a shift in the no-first-use policy were magnified a week later with the release of the annual Chinese defense white paper. The paper omitted all references to the no-first-use nuclear arms policy. The annual white paper is considered the most authoritative statement of policy by the ruling Communist Party of China on military affairs and doctrine.

A U.S. official familiar with strategic arms doctrine said several key Obama administration policymakers favor the U.S. adoption of a Chinese-style no-first-use policy for the United States. The official said such a policy would severely undermine global and regional deterrence and likely trigger several allies that currently do not have nuclear arsenals to build their own.

China opposes U.S. plans to expand missile defenses in Asia by adding 14 new long-range missile interceptors to the 30 currently deployed in Alaska and California.

Uncertainty about the number of nuclear arms in the Chinese stockpile increased last year with the disclosure that China may have hundreds more nuclear warheads hidden in tunnels than the approximately 240 warheads estimated by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Richard Fisher, an expert on China’s military with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the white paper omission is evidence that China “quite clearly has eroded the no-first-use policy.”

“The simple fact is that there is no verifiable body of official documents or consistent data that assures us of China’s nuclear posture,” Fisher said in an interview. “We cannot say we know China’s nuclear order of battle or their nuclear doctrine.  This non-transparency is further sustained by a body of conflicting statements by Chinese officials.”

After the defense white paper was published, Chinese spokesmen sought to play down the omission of the nuclear doctrine.

Yao on Wednesday published an article asserting that the new white paper did not change the no-first-use nuclear policy.

She did not seek to clarify the policy in the article. However the general used an op-ed in the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum to attack congressional legislation passed last year that requires the Pentagon to more accurately assess China’s nuclear forces. She also said the legislation would undermine calls in China to jettison the no-first-use policy by hardliners. The article was later published in the state-controlled China Daily newspaper.

“All of this only serves to reemphasize the importance of the administration complying with the congress’s requests for information about the nuclear forces,” Fisher said.