Is Xi Jinping Changing Chinese Nuclear Weapons Policy?

December 8, 2012
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Newly appointed Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping may have broken new ground in Chinese nuclear weapons policy this week. Xi, who is also the new chair of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), gave what China’s Wenhui Bao characterized as a “major address” to a delegation from China’s Second Artillery during a meeting in Beijing on 5 December. Retired PLA Major-General Wang Haiyun, presenting an “explanatory reading” of the speech for Hong Kong media, is reported to have said Xi’s speech marked the “first time the mission and status of China’s strategic nuclear forces were articulated in a public setting.” The full text of the speech has not yet been made available.

Wang, who once served as a military attaché to Russia and now works with several Chinese think tanks, indicates that Xi spoke about nuclear deterrence in a way that may represent a departure from past Chinese statements about the purpose of China’s nuclear arsenal. Wang claims China’s new commander-in-chief believes that “deterrence is not the same as a threat” and that it is “a means for China to seek peace, not a means for war.”

Speaking for himself, Wang compared China’s nuclear deterrent to that of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, claiming that the experience of multiple crises between the two nuclear powers “shows that strategic deterrence is an important means of preserving the peace under nuclear conditions.” Somewhat ominously, Wang linked the Obama administration’s new Asia policy to nuclear deterrence issues. He described current U.S. policy as a “containment strategy” that “itself is a type of deterrence” meant to keep China from challenging U.S. global primacy.

Notably, none of the Chinese press reports on Xi’s speech to the Second Artillery mention—as is standard practice when Chinese nuclear weapons policy is discussed in the Chinese media— China’s pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons.

Traditionally, Chinese declaratory policy emphasizes that the sole purpose of China’s nuclear arsenal is to prevent “nuclear blackmail.” U.S. declaratory policy, which does not eschew first use, is seen by many Chinese analysts as an example of nuclear blackmail. This uniquely Chinese characterization was preferred over the concept of “deterrence,” which older Chinese nuclear policy hands generally interpreted as a threat to use nuclear weapons. Wang’s commentary on Xi’s remarks to the Second Artillery suggests China’s new leadership may now be more accepting of the traditional U.S. concept of deterrence.  As a result, they may also be beginning to broaden the purpose of China’s nuclear arsenal to include deterring conventional conflicts as well as achieving vague geopolitical objectives.

However, Wang’s “explanatory reading” of supposed changes in China’s view of nuclear weapons may not represent official policy.  The Chinese Ministry of Defense website report on Xi’s speech contained none of the explanations of possible changes in Chinese nuclear weapons policy offered by Major-General Wang to the Hong Kong media.

The Chinese Communist Party website report on Xi’s speech to the Second Artillery focused on Xi’s reiteration of the need to “study the spirit of the 18th Party Congress” and to “place the building of political thought in the first place.” This fits with the political boilerplate Xi has been presenting to other groups in the wake of assuming his new role as General Secretary of the CCP last month. Xi’s speech also emphasized PLA loyalty to the CCP central leadership, the need to clean up corruption and the importance of preserving continuity with China’s long term objectives of becoming a fully mechanized and information savvy military by 2020.