China Holds Firm on No First Use of Nuclear Weapons

July 24, 2019
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

“Enthusiastically celebrate our country’s successful test launch of a nuclear missile” (1966)

Ever since I took this job 17 years ago US 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. Yesterday, the Chinese Ministry of Defense released a much-anticipated new white paper on China’s national defense policies. Here’s what it says about nuclear weapons:

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. China advocates the ultimate complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons. China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security. China pursues a nuclear strategy of self-defense, the goal of which is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

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 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 US president believes China can retaliate if the United States strikes first.

That’s not a high bar to meet, which is why China’s nuclear arsenal remains small and, for the time being, off alert.

China sees its comparatively modest nuclear modernization program as a means to convince US leaders that a few Chinese ICBMs can survive a US first strike and that these survivors can penetrate US 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. US experts and officials consistently refuse.

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. Chinese experts know US efforts to develop a working ballistic missile defense system are not going well, but they still feel the need to hedge against continued US investment in the system with incremental improvements in the quality and quantity of China’s small nuclear force.

Given the impassioned attack on constructive US-China relations currently sweeping US elites off their feet, along with the continued proliferation of misinformation about Chinese nuclear capabilities and intentions, many US 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 US story about a new Cold War. That’s unfortunate, especially as the US Congress threatens to ramp up a new nuclear arms race its supposed adversary has no intention to run.