China’s Strategic Forces in the 21st Century: The People’s Liberation Army’s Changing Nuclear Doctrine and Force Posture
Michael Mazza and Dan Blumenthal, “China’s Strategic Forces in the 21st Century: The People’s Liberation Army’s Changing Nuclear Doctrine and Force Posture,” in Henry D. Sokolski, ed., The Next Arms Race (Carlisle, PA: Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2012), 83-109.
When it comes to its development and deployment of nuclear weapons—China first tested a weapon in 1964—China maintains a narrative in which it holds the moral high ground. According to the Chinese Communist Party line, China detests nuclear weapons, which are inhumane. But because the United States and the Soviet Union were both building large nuclear arsenals during the Cold War and because (China thought) they used those weapons to coerce non-nuclear states, China had no choice but to pursue those weapons itself. China, the narrative goes, would prefer to see nuclear weapons abolished rather than maintain its own arsenal, but reality requires that China arm itself.
Whatever legitimacy this narrative may have once had, it has become less credible. Given China’s complicity in the Pakistani and Iranian nuclear programs—for example, China delivered fissile material to A. Q. Kahn—it appears that China sees a use for these weapons other than simple self-defense. Though China appears to have halted its proliferation activities, those programs suggest a more casual attitude toward nuclear weapons than one of abhorrence. Indeed, actions speak louder than words. That Beijing proliferated nuclear technology, materials, and know-how—and to relatively unstable regimes that may be less cautious about using nuclear weapons—is worrying.
Considered in this context, China’s movement toward an increased reliance on nuclear weapons and shifts in its nuclear doctrine are both unsurprising and of potentially great concern. While China has been growing its nuclear arsenal and fielding new ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines, Chinese strategists have been engaged in doctrinal debates over how those weapons should be used. As a younger generation of military thinkers has come to the fore, the long-held tenets of China’s nuclear doctrine as originally set forth under Mao—namely, the “no first use” policy and minimum deterrence—are increasingly coming under scrutiny. Indeed, some strategists argue that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) should cast these policies aside and adopt a new nuclear doctrine that will grant strategic forces a more prominent role in the country’s defense.
External and internal factors are driving changes in China’s nuclear policy and force structure and will continue to do so in the future. Concerns over what the Chinese see as a U.S. threat have led some to call for a greater reliance on nuclear weapons for deterring Washington. Should South Korea or Japan ever “go nuclear”—and there are growing worries that they might—that would similarly impact China’s nuclear force posture and doctrine. Internally, economic and demographic challenges will make it more difficult for China to maintain a large standing army in the coming decades and may very well lead Beijing to rely increasingly on nuclear forces for its national defense.
Still, the extent of Beijing’s reliance on nuclear weapons in the future is difficult to predict. Old thinking dies hard, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would likely prefer to rely on conventional means to defend China. Yet, even conventional deterrence can complicate nuclear deterrence relationships. To wit, China’s growing medium-range ballistic missile threat to America’s Pacific bases will force the United States to rely on long-range assets for conventional deterrence. Beijing will find this destabilizing, and may rely on its nuclear arsenal to deter America’s use of long-range weaponry.
In short, changes in China’s nuclear weapons force planning, posture, and doctrine are likely to complicate both the Sino-American deterrence relationship and the U.S. military’s ability to operate in the Asia-Pacific region. American military and political leaders must watch these developments closely as they consider changes to America’s own strategic force posture in the years ahead.
For one of the sources cited here, see Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson, eds., China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007).