China’s Nuclear Forces Feeling U.S. Pressure

March 20, 2015
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

A new UCS white paper on Chinese nuclear strategy indicates China’s military may increase alert levels in response to U.S. investments in missile defense and conventional prompt global strike technologies.  Chinese military strategists believe the combination of these two technologies could permit a disabling U.S. first strike against China’s comparatively small nuclear force. Chinese military planners intend to counter this perceived U.S. threat with new early warning systems that would permit Chinese nuclear forces to launch on warning of an incoming U.S. nuclear attack.

The UCS paper examines the key references to nuclear weapons and policy contained in the recently updated edition of The Science of Military Strategy, an authoritative text published in December 2013 by the Chinese Academy of Military Science (AMS).  The book presents the Chinese military’s views on nuclear deterrence, nuclear war, and nuclear arms control with unprecedented clarity, especially compared to previous editions. It provides an internal Chinese assessment of the effectiveness of China’s nuclear forces and how the Chinese military intends to use them. The book also discusses the influence of U.S. policies on China’s nuclear strategy.

Constructive Reaffirmations in Chinese Nuclear Weapons Policy

The Science of Military Strategy reaffirms that nuclear weapons continue to play a very limited role in Chinese military strategy. Their sole purpose is to deter other nuclear-armed states from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China. In the words of the authors:

As it has been for a long time, the objective of China’s development and utilization of nuclear weapons is concentrated on preventing enemy nations from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against us.

The text also clarifies Chinese military views on three key aspects of Chinese nuclear weapons policy relevant both to neighboring non-nuclear weapons states concerned about the possibility of China using its nuclear weapons to influence the outcome of territorial disputes and to U.S. military planners worried about a Chinese nuclear response to a conventional U.S. attack. It states that:

1. China will not use nuclear weapons to attack or threaten non-nuclear states,

2. China will not use nuclear weapons to respond to conventional attacks; and

3. China will use nuclear weapons only after it has confirmed an incoming nuclear attack.

A  Destabilizing Change in Chinese Nuclear Weapons Policy

Chinese military strategists are increasingly  worried about potential losses in a first strike from a less restrained adversary with a larger nuclear arsenal. The text indicates the Chinese military plans to address that anxiety, if necessary, by launching its retaliatory nuclear strike upon warning of an incoming nuclear attack:

When conditions are prepared and when necessary, we can, under conditions confirming the enemy has launched nuclear missiles against us, before the enemy nuclear warheads have reached their targets and effectively exploded, before they have caused us actual nuclear damage, quickly launch a nuclear missile retaliatory strike. This is in accord with our guiding policy of no first use of nuclear weapons and can effectively avoid having our nuclear forces suffer great losses, raising the ability of our nuclear missiles to survive and retaliate.

The text does not specify how the PLA plans to confirm an incoming nuclear attack, although it does indicate the PLA intends to field new early warning capabilities. There is no discussion of the strategic challenges associated with a decision to launch on warning, particularly the risk of an accidental or erroneous launch either due to false or ambiguous warning, technical problems or damage to the early warning systems, or poor judgment.

Obama’s “Rebalance” Impacted Chinese Nuclear Strategy

The Science of Military Strategy indicates the Chinese military now sees itself as the target of a major adjustment in U.S. national security strategy. It characterizes the Obama administration’s use of the term “rebalance” in the harshest possible terms:

The United States is strengthening traditional military alliance relationships and establishing new strategic partnership relations with the aim of building around the land mass of Asia a massive naval alliance system to realize the strategic need to contain China’s rise.

As a consequence, the Chinese military identifies the United States as the most important factor in China’s nuclear security environment:

The United States is making China its principal strategic opponent and is intensifying construction of a missile defense system in the East Asia region, creating increasingly serious effects on the reliability and effectiveness of a Chinese retaliatory nuclear attack.

Missile defenses are not the only concern. Chinese strategists also believe new U.S. conventional military capabilities could significantly weaken China’s nuclear deterrent:

The United States is currently putting into effect a plan for a conventional “rapid global strike” which, as soon as it becomes an actual combat capability, used to carry out a conventional attack against our nuclear missile forces, will put us in a passive position, greatly influencing our nuclear retaliatory capability, weakening the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent.

Implications for U.S. – China Strategic Relations

The Obama administration’s positive public characterization of the U.S. – China Strategic Security Dialogue is at odds with the deep-seated anxieties about the anticipated trajectory of U.S. – China relations expressed in The Science of Military Strategy.  While nuclear weapons continue to play a marginal role in Chinese military planning, perceived U.S. efforts to negate China’s nuclear deterrent are pushing the Chinese military to adjust its nuclear strategy in ways that appear to be destabilizing. The most alarming is a Chinese decision to rely on early warning technologies that increase the possibility of an accidental or erroneous Chinese launch of a nuclear missile in a crisis.

The negative impact  of current U.S. policies on U.S. – China relations, especially continued U.S. investments in  ballistic missile defenses and conventional prompt global strike, may be higher than the Obama administration is willing or able to recognize. The U.S. “rebalance” in Asia appears to be dangerously out of balance, and a source of increasing strategic instability with China.