Written by James Johnson.

Recent analytical and scholarly coverage on Chinese nuclear capabilities and thinking has tended to emphasise stability and non-belligerence in Beijing’s attitude towards its nuclear weapons and views on deterrence – predicated on its mainstay minimum deterrence, and no first-use policies. However, this status quo bias overstates the static, passive and isolated nature of Chinese thinking, and understates the increasing dynamism, flexibility and integrated features of China’s nuclear posture. To be sure, any radical doctrinal shift of this kind (or even the perception of one) could presage a paradigm shift in China’s long-standing nuclear posture – and the nuclear balance in the Asia-Pacific.

…new flexible options afforded to Beijing, from qualitative improvements made to its nuclear forces over the past two decades, have given it the ability to ‘de-escalate’ regional wars with nuclear weapons.

Barriers preventing a ‘war-fighting’ stance continue to be dismantled

By overemphasising the gradual and passive aspects of China’s ‘official’ nuclear posture during the past two decades, scholars and policy makers risk overlooking (or under-emphasising) the very real possibility that as many of the barriers (i.e. military, technological, political, ideational, and arms control) towards a limited nuclear war-fighting doctrine and force structure are removed, the historical gap between China’s nuclear capabilities and the aspirations of Chinese strategists will finally be reconciled. A ‘formal’ doctrinal shift (or even the perception of one) would closer align Beijing’s nuclear posture and forces with its more (and well-publicised) offensive dominant conventional military stance.

Washington’s quantitative-focused assessments of the PLA’s nuclear arsenal have failed to adequately appreciate (or anticipate) the impact of several recent qualitative changes (e.g. road-mobile nukes with multiple warheads, next-generation nuclear-powered submarines, refitted long-range bombers with deterrence missions, and the possible inclusion of dual-payload ballistic and cruise missiles) on China’s nuclear force structure, and its evolving thinking on ‘deterrence’, i.e. a multifaceted version of ‘strategic deterrence’ combining space, cyber and electronic warfare.

Although only a few Chinese strategists have explicitly advocated a shift in the function of the PLA’s nuclear weapons from minimal deterrence to a war-fighting stance, these minority views, nonetheless, reflect broader pressures to assimilate Western nuclear strategies into traditional Chinese approaches to nuclear thinking.

In short, new flexible options afforded to Beijing, from qualitative improvements made to its nuclear forces over the past two decades, have given it the ability to ‘de-escalate’ regional wars with nuclear weapons. This implies a much broader and discriminate use of nuclear weapons than envisaged by proponents of minimum deterrence – or assured retaliation.

Political and strategic conundrums for US defence planners

Any major modifications to the composition of Chinese nuclear forces to meet the operational requirements of a nuclear war-fighting doctrine (e.g. sizable deployments of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons, missile defence capabilities, or the adoption of a launch-on-warning nuclear posture) would likely be viewed by Washington as a harbinger for a major shift in China’s stable nuclear paradigm – thus posing a potential existential challenge to America’s grand strategy and statecraft in Asia.  If US defence planners’ assessments concluded that Chinese war-fighting capabilities might presage a fundamental shift in the trajectory of China’s approaches to nuclear deterrence (e.g. satellite advancements to enable a launch-on-warning posture), and especially if it was deemed that these capabilities were intended to support Beijing’s aggressive assertions of sovereignty (e.g. in the East and South China seas, or the Taiwan Strait), the implications for nuclear deterrence (and the US extended nuclear assurances) in future warfare in the Asia-Pacific would be severe.

China’s propensity for strategic ambiguity and opacity in the nuclear realm will likely reinforce the Pentagon’s preference for worse-case scenario capacity-based assessments – used by analysts to infer Chinese intentions. Fearful that US security gains could come at China’s expense, the formalisation of a war-fighting posture could become a self-fulfilling prophecy; which could lower the nuclear threshold, and set fragile US-China relations on course for an intense and intractable security dilemma.

These issues raise several (and in many cases imponderable) analytical puzzles that Beltway’s policy wonks (i.e., US officials) will need to consider including:

• Can we identify any specific turning points within China’s ‘strategic community’ to explain a fundamental re-think?
• Who on the Chinese side led this fundamental re-think?
• Was it ever challenged in China over the course of the last few decades, and if so, in what ways and to what degrees of success?
• As many of the so-called ‘new’ nuclear capabilities coming online pre-dated both Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao, how can we distinguish what is genuinely new from what has been enabled by the removal of pre-existing barriers?
• And finally, how will these ‘new’ capabilities likely affect Beijing’s thinking about its nuclear options in future warfare?

On the future modern battlefield, where the boundaries between war and peace and conventional and nuclear capabilities and doctrines are increasingly blurred, and where states accumulate (at a relatively low cost) progressively advanced war-fighting tools, inter-state security dilemmas will become more frequent, intense, intractable and destabilising.

Dr James Johnson is a Post-Doctorate Scholar at the University of Leicester. He has worked in the financial services sector for 20 years, of which over ten years have been spent in the Greater China region. His areas of interest are Security and Strategic Studies; US-China Relations; Nuclear Proliferation; China Foreign Policy; and East Asian Security. James is fluent in Mandarin. He tweets @James_SJohnson . Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.



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