Like a chameleon, the dragon, very predictably is changing its colors with regards to its often stated nuclear doctrine of “no first use” (NFU). Since 1964 when China conducted its first nuclear weapon test, China has repeatedly and vociferously insisted that it would not be the first nuclear power to use a tactical or strategic nuclear weapon in pursuit of its strategic objectives. This NFU pledge was explicitly and unconditionally included in each of China’s defense white papers from the first in 1998 through the seventh one in 2011.
Recently, there is some international debate about possible changes in China’s NFU doctrine following publication of China’s biannual 2013 Defense White Paper. However, it appears that China may have moved beyond its so-called NFU doctrine and its duplicitous pledges do not hold any sincere meaning. Strategic deception has been an important part of China’s military DNA since the times of Sun Tzu who wrote in his treatise the Art of War: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away. Since achieving a great economic success and flush with $ 3.4 trillion foreign exchange reserves, China has increased its list of core national issues and has adopted a more belligerent strategic posture and hegemonic attitude towards international community in general and its neighbors in particular. Disregarding the Deng’s advice of lying low and bidding your time, the current (5th) generation of China’s leaders are adopting aggressive postures militarily though the transformation into visibly hardened strategic claims started really during the reign of the 4th generation leaders (Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and Wu Bangguo).
The last time a Chinese paramount leader reaffirmed the so-called NFU pledge was on March 27th 2012 in Seoul Nuclear Conference when Hu Jintao mentioned it in his address. However, in December 2012, the new 5th generation Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping failed to mention about the so-called no first use pledge in a speech given to Second Artillery Force of the PLA which manages China’s land-based nuclear weapons. Apparently, he also stated that nuclear weapons create strategic support for China’s status as a major world power. This is a significant departure from the previously stated public positions citing Mao Zedong’s ideas about the use of nuclear weapons as a taboo and labeling the nuclear weapons essentially as “paper tigers”.
Fundamentals of NFU Commitment
Out of the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons currently, only two, China and India had explicitly stated “No First Use” as the guiding principle of their strategic nuclear doctrine.
An absolute and unconditional NFU commitment would have four following components:
- Not to use nuclear weapons first against countries that possess nuclear weapons
- Not to threaten use nuclear weapons first against countries that possess nuclear weapons
- Not to use nuclear weapons first against countries that do not possess nuclear weapons
- Not to threaten to use nuclear weapons first against countries that do not possess nuclear weapons
NFU policy has been a core feature of the Chinese defense policy having been decided apparently by Chairman Mao himself in 1964. Critics of the Chinese NFU commitment claim that it is completely unverifiable and is mere rhetoric. Self-described “China hawks” in the West have derisively dismissed the Chinese NFU pledge as pure propaganda for the last five decades. Chinese strategists have debated the merits of dropping or altering the NFU policy. This debate was reportedly very intense from mid to late 2000s. There are assertions from Chinese officials that Chinese NFU commitment is not applicable to perceived claims on territories. China has territorial disputes with multiple neighbors including India. Presumably since China continues to claim that Arunachal Pradesh is its own territory, in a hypothetical scenario, it may use tactical nuclear weapons in a war with India in eastern sector because China will consider this use not against any other country but in its own perceived territory. Similarly, China will not be bound by its NFU if the US were to intervene in Taiwan in case of a Sino-Taiwanese war as it considers Taiwan as a renegade province. Chinese NFU is not applicable if it apprehends annihilation of its top leadership by conventional means. Similarly, a conventional attack on strategic target like the Three Gorges Dam would be an exception to the NFU pledge. More recently, Chinese have discussed other possible exceptions from their NFU commitment including a massive precision guided conventional attack on their intercontinental ballistic missile silos or their strategic facilities. As China moves away from minimal credible deterrence to “limited deterrence”, a more sophisticated delivery mechanism and an exponential increase in its nuclear stockpile, it has also moved towards greater flexibility and continued opacity in its nuclear operational doctrine. It is pertinent to say that the so-called Chinese NFU commitment has never been taken seriously by both the US and Russia at any time in their policy matrix.
Chinese Nuclear Arsenal
China can be considered the largest nuclear power after the US and Russia. China’s nuclear capability is apparently stronger than those of the next six nuclear states combined. According to Russian estimates, since early 1960s China has generated 40 tons of enriched weapons grade uranium and 10 tons of plutonium which would be enough to produce 3,600 nuclear war-heads. It is probable that half of this fissile material is kept in stocks whereas the rest half has been used up to produce 1500-1800 warheads, half of which may be in storage. This would leave 800-900 warheads that could be available for operational deployment on various types of delivery vehicles. Therefore, the real motives for China’s complete secrecy about its nuclear forces lie not in their “weakness” and “small size” but in much larger strength of China’s actual nuclear arsenal that is much higher than the commonly cited number of 300-400 warheads by the western analysts. There is also a great degree of international uncertainty about the hundreds of tunnels being built in China as their purpose has not yet been officially explained.
Chinese Nuclear Posture and Track II Interactions
Personal interactions with various Chinese academicians and officials during policy conferences suggest that China will continue to add to its nuclear arsenal and will not participate in any nuclear disarmament program till it reaches a certain level. This analyst has interacted with Professor Shen Dingli, Associate Dean of the Institute of International Studies from Fudan University, Shanghai over the last four years with very consistent and candid answers regarding Chinese national nuclear posture. Professor Shen Dingli claims to have independent (but sometimes more hawkish views) from those of the Chinese Government. In 2009 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington, DC, he expressed absolute ignorance about Chinese proliferation activities and the fact that Chinese weapons designs were turned in by Libya to the International Atomic energy Agency (IAEA) when Libya folded up their clandestine nuclear program. He was totally unaware of China’s both vertical and horizontal proliferation activities as late as April 2009. During the 2009 Carnegie International Non-proliferation Conference, Washington, DC, he agreed that Chinese government will continue to increase its number of nuclear war-heads. In a more recent Carnegie Endowment meeting on India-China dialogue in Washington DC on January 10th 2013, he again reiterated that China will continue to modernize its nuclear arsenals and the delivery systems till a perceived parity is achieved with the two great powers (US and Russia). China will certainly not agree to cut the number of nuclear arsenals as it wants both the US and Russia to implement further reductions in their respective nuclear arsenals.
Interactions with another Chinese academician Dr. Shulong Chu, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the School of Public Policy and Management and the Deputy Director of the Institute of International Strategic and Development Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China in a session on China-US Strategic Stability on 4/6/2009 during the Carnegie International Non-proliferation Conference, Washington DC revealed very interesting Chinese perspectives. Chu explicitly stated that since China has accepted US supremacy, analogously both India and Japan should accept Chinese supremacy in the Asia-pacific region. China is a bigger country than Japan and India. It has bigger military requirements. Japan, India and other Asian countries should understand that and should be willing to accept China’s ongoing modernization of its military and strategic (read nuclear) assets. Chu further went on saying: “Russia and the US have too many nuclear war-heads. They can afford to have deep cuts. China cannot do that because China has too few. China wants more and its agenda is to have more nuclear weapons”.
Major-General Yao Yunzhu, Director of the Center on China-America Defense Relations of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, Beijing in a session on Deterrence, Disarmament and Non-proliferation during the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, held in Washington, DC on April 8-9th 2013, artfully deflected all the questions on China’s growing number of nuclear arsenals with a cute smile, stating again that the onus for nuclear warhead reduction lies on both US and Russia because China has very limited, small number of nuclear weapons. General Yao while doing routine lip-service to the NFU doctrine explicitly admitted that, "A certain amount of opaqueness is an integral part of China's no-first-use policy". She persistently refused to quantify the number of warheads China needed for a credible and effective nuclear deterrence. She officially expressed Chinese Government‘s serious concern at the US shifting its ballistic missiles interceptors in the Pacific island of Guam to deal with DPRK nuclear threat, thereby degrading the quality of the Chinese nuclear deterrent. She enumerated three essential characteristics for the Chinese nuclear deterrent: it has to be survivable against first strike; it has to be credible enough in numbers and in delivery system, and lastly it has to have an effective and punitive second strike retaliatory capability. She was asked about recent BMD tests by China on January 22nd 2013 and she categorically confirmed that China will, from now on, indeed develop its own BMD system as the US is not willing to commit to cease its BMD system.
Professor Li Bin from the Department of International Relations, Tsinghua University, Beijing and also a Senior Associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC admits formally in his writings that China’s non-proliferation posture has evolved over a period of time and now is an important and essential part of its nuclear theology. However, in private discussions he passionately justified Chinese horizontal proliferation activities outside the scope of the Nuclear Suppliers Group by providing Chashma-3 and Chashma-4 nuclear plants to Pakistan on grounds that China had helped India also with nuclear fuel supplies for the Tarapore Atomic Reactor when India was under the US nuclear embargo. He assertively implied that China will continue to provide nuclear materials and technology to its all-weather friend Pakistan analogous to US-India civil nuclear deal though the latter deal was approved by the NSG. Interestingly a younger researcher Zhu Jianyu from the Center for Strategic Studies of the China Academy of Engineering Physics during the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, held in Washington, DC on April 8-9th 2013 candidly admitted that Chinese press and academicians usually toe the government line because the government controls their funding and hence independent viewpoints are not possible.
In private discussions with Major General Yao, it became quite clear that China will now vigorously pursue development of its national ballistic missile defense system; something which China had vociferously denounced earlier. She also stated that China will continue to develop its ASAT weapons till a legally binding multi-lateral treaty banning weaponization of the space is signed and ratified. Major General Yao attributed to and categorically linked this shift in Chinese strategic thinking to the recent US decision to deploy 14 long-range ballistic missile interceptor batteries in the Pacific Island of Guam ostensibly in response to threats posed by the DPRK thereby potentially degrading the Chinese nuclear deterrent. Changes in the Chinese nuclear posture are also linked to the US development and deployment of advanced precision guided conventional warheads in the Asian theatre capable of destroying Chinese multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV) ballistic missile silos thereby degrading the Chinese minimum nuclear deterrent. China is focused on modernizing and its strategic survivability and beefing up its effective second strike capability and therefore will continue to develop more nuclear warheads and will keep its nuclear capabilities fully opaque.
China’s 2013 Defence White Paper
For the first time, the 2013 edition of China’s defense white paper entitled: “Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces” conspicuously fails to mention re-adherence to and re-affirmation of China’s often-stated “No first use pledge”. This is significant departure from the 2011 version of China’s Defense White Paper. The absolutely deafening silence in the 2013 version on NFU is deliberate and is very significant for its reverberating eloquence. The new white paper introduces ambiguity as it endorses the use of nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack but does not rule out other uses. In the last few years, Chinese analysts and officials have done an excellent job of qualifying the original Chinese “NFU” pledge with myriads of qualitative exceptions so as to render it effectively meaningless. This carefully contrived departure is strategically significant for the international community.
Following a vigorous international debate on China’s departure from the NFU policy, Major General Yao floated a trial balloon in an op-ed piece in Asia Times Online on April 24th 2013 when she called for a legally binding multi-lateral NFU agreement. She wrote a point by point rejoinder while still defending the reasons as to why China should depart from the often stated NFU policy and acknowledged that domestic discussions happening in China regarding junking the NFU policy. She has tried to invoke new exceptions to China’s so-called NFU commitment linking it to a new US law (2013 National Defense Authorization Act) that seeks a report from the Commander of the US Strategic Command by August 15th 2013 to describe the Chinese underground tunnel networks and to review the US capability to neutralize such networks with conventional and nuclear forces. Ostensibly, with a view to creating more confusion and more opaqueness about China’s intentions, she explicitly states: “To alleviate China's concerns, a constructive approach would be to assure the policy through nuclear policy dialogues, to establish a multilateral NFU agreement among all the nuclear weapon states, and to consider limiting or even prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons in a legally binding international agreement.” Li Bin, in bilateral context, has previously suggested that India and China should begin their nuclear engagement with mutual reassurance of NFU and should work together in advocating NFU in global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation efforts.
China very well knows such a legally binding international agreement will not be negotiated for several decades owing to US dogmatic postures. The US is already spending $10 billion to upgrade its nuclear weapons despite Obama’s initial call for a global zero goal. This gives a window of opportunity for China to increase its nuclear warheads exponentially while keeping its so-called NFU pledge under suspended animation and even junk it de facto. Interestingly, China refuses to enter into an official government to government nuclear weapons dialogue with India on the grounds that India is non-signatory to the NPT. At the same time, China has shrewdly refused to engage in bilateral dialogue with the US on nuclear arms reductions on grounds of asymmetry of nuclear forces of respective countries. China does complain of discrimination and nuclear asymmetry while discussing US-China relations but fails to address genuine Indian concerns on similar grounds.
Implications for India
Western debate on the perceptible change in Chinese nuclear posture has focussed only on its narrow impact on the strategic environment of the US and its allies including Japan. India should not behave like an ostrich burying its head in the sand. Perhaps, time has come for India to review her own strategic nuclear doctrine revising the no-first use pledge. Robust evidence has come cumulatively over a period of time from multiple sources reflecting the new nuclear reality in our neighborhood. Totality of the evidence available convinces this analyst that China has indeed changed its nuclear posture from defensive to offensive and is on a large-scale nuclear build-up. China is indeed willing to consider first strike capability to preserve its core national issues though vehemently denying such intentions at the moment. Predictably, China will continue to obfuscate this change in nuclear posture using ambiguous, turgid and opaque language while simultaneously blaming the US for failing to negotiate a legally binding multi-lateral agreement on NFU. Indeed, this gives the dragon a fig-leaf of deniability. Certainly, India should not countenance being the only nuclear weapon state pledging “no first use” while the global nuclear posturing has become indeed hardened. One has to take into factor Pakistan’s accelerated development of tactical nuclear weapons and its stringent refusal to negotiate and sign a multi-lateral Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) and continued Chinese help to Pakistan in and outside the NSG. While Pakistan has never subscribed to an NFU commitment and its nuclear arsenal is specifically India-centric; the recent change in China’s nuclear posture is definitely of concern to India. The writing is on the wall as China does not have good track record of strategic comfort and reliability vis-a-vis India. The current incidence of Chinese incursion into Indian territory in Daulat Beg Oldie region in the Ladakh sector should be an eye-opener. While India must focus on its economic, infrastructure and social development and must not waste her meager fiscal resources in a costly nuclear race, she needs to be prepared for all strategic options. Given the aggressive behavior of China in recent years appropriate and credible policies need to be adopted including having a re-look at evolving nuclear posture of China.