No first use
The absence of a standard formulation on the no-first-use of nuclear weapons in the latest Chinese defence white paper issued last week has raised questions about a likely evolution in Beijing's nuclear doctrine. The previous white paper, issued in 2011, had reaffirmed Beijing's well known position that China adheres to a policy of "no-first-use of nuclear weapons at any time and in any circumstances". It also underlined Beijing's unequivocal commitment that "under no circumstances will it use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states or nuclear-weapon-free-zones".
China watchers picked up the disappearance of this phraseology that has remained essentially unchanged ever since Beijing declared itself a nuclear weapon state in 1964. Given its centrality to China's declared nuclear canon, its absence is considered significant by many. To be fair, in its few references to the nuclear doctrine, the latest edition of the white paper emphasises deterrence and nuclear counterattacks. There is no hint of an explicit shift to a strategy of nuclear first-use. It is also important to note that the 2013 paper is not a comprehensive summary of China's defence strategy, conventional or nuclear. It focuses on a specific theme — the diverse roles envisaged for China's armed forces.
Some analysts, however, insist that potential changes in China's no-first-use pledge might be linked to growing doubts, at home and abroad, about the credibility of Beijing's current nuclear doctrine. They point to the fact that at the heart of any no-first-use pledge is a robust nuclear force capable of absorbing the attack by an adversary and responding with a retaliatory strike. Given the relatively small size of its strategic nuclear forces, these analysts say, Beijing can't bet that they will survive a first strike and be available for a riposte. China must either significantly expand its nuclear arsenal or switch to a posture that calls for first use of nuclear weapons under certain circumstances.
The one big impulse for a possible change in China's nuclear doctrine is Beijing's growing concern about US missile defences deployed close to China in the Asian theatre. The US insists that its missile defence deployments are directed at the threat from North Korea and are meant to reassure its treaty allies South Korea and Japan. Beijing is not convinced and points to the danger of US missile defences degrading the deterrent capability of China's strategic nuclear forces.
At an international conference on nuclear issues in Washington earlier this month, a Chinese delegate Gen. Yao Yunzhu vigorously articulated China's objections. American deployment of missile defences in East Asia is a "very, very disturbing factor having implications for the calculation of China's nuclear and strategic arsenal".
The Chinese general blamed the US missile defence collaboration with Japan and South Korea for North Korea's determined pursuit of a nuclear weapon programme. Yao also dismissed speculation in the Western and Russian media that China has a large undeclared arsenal of nearly 3,000 nuclear weapons. While emphasising China's commitment to "minimum deterrence", Yao said, "A certain amount of opaqueness is an integral part of China's no-first-use policy".
Accurate missiles armed with powerful conventional weapons add another layer of complexity to China's nuclear doctrine and its dynamic interaction with the US forces forward deployed in Asia. The Second Artillery Force, the white paper says, is at the core of China's strategic deterrence and is "mainly composed of nuclear and conventional missile forces". "It is primarily responsible for deterring other countries from using nuclear weapons against China and carrying nuclear counterattacks and precision strikes with conventional missiles".
The US, too, is developing advanced conventional missiles to counter the China's growing capacity to target American forward military bases and aircraft carriers. The difficulties of differentiating between conventionally armed and nuclear-tipped missiles mean a rapid lowering of the nuclear threshold in a crisis involving the US, its Asian allies and China.
Given the new emerging instability in the US-China nuclear equation and its profound interconnection with the shifting conventional military balance in Asia, many American think tanks are calling for a substantive arms control dialogue between Washington and Beijing. Beijing has resisted those calls, at least until now. If and when those talks occur, they are likely to be on Chinese terms given the American eagerness for such an engagement.
This post was originally published at The Indian Express