01 May 2012

Dr. Phillip C. Saunders, Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “Hearing: Developments in China’s Cyber and Nuclear Capabilities”

Dr. Phillip C. Saunders, Director, Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University; Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “Hearing: Developments in China’s Cyber and Nuclear Capabilities,” Manassas, VA, 26 March 2012.



… Although Chinese nuclear doctrine, force structure, and training appear broadly consistent with publicly articulated Chinese nuclear policy, some aspects have raised concerns for Western analysts. One is the emphasis in Chinese military doctrine of the importance of maintaining the initiative, a concept in tension with the retaliatory principle of “strike only after the enemy has struck.” Some Chinese military writers argue that this can justify pre-emptive attacks under some circumstances, such as in cases where China has credible early warning of a pending nuclear attack. Chinese doctrinal materials emphasize the potential for nuclear counterstrikes to shock an adversary into submission in the hopes of de-escalating a conflict, and discuss retaliatory attacks against a range of counterforce, countermilitary, and countervalue targets. Another issue involves the challenges that mobile ICBMs and especially SLBMs may pose for command and control of China’s nuclear arsenal, especially since their technical advantages may erode traditional controls against unauthorized launches (such as the separation of missiles and warheads in China‘s older ICBMs). Some analysts worry that China’s potential deployment of missiles with multiple warheads may create incentives for first strikes that could be destabilizing in a crisis. Finally, some see the potential for greater PLA influence over nuclear doctrine to move China in the direction of nuclear war-fighting strategies and a larger nuclear arsenal.

A final consideration is that much of what we know about Chinese nuclear policy and strategy comes from publicly articulated policies (such as the section of the 2006 white paper quoted above) or study of doctrinal materials (which reflect PLA writings). We know little about what China’s top civilian leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee—the actors who would decide whether China should employ nuclear weapons—think about the employment of nuclear weapons or the role of nuclear weapons in crisis situations. The fact that these leaders have little military experience and have likely not been exposed to academic thinking about nuclear weapons (and nuclear dangers) may be grounds for additional concern. At the end of the day Chinese leaders, like other leaders in other countries, are acutely aware of China‘s vulnerability to nuclear attack and are likely to be cautious in situations with the potential to escalate to an exchange of nuclear weapons. …

For full text of one of the articles cited here, see Michael Chase, Andrew S. Erickson, and Christopher Yeaw, “Chinese Theater and Strategic Missile Force Modernization and its Implications for the United States,” Journal of Strategic Studies 32.1 (February 2009): 67-114.