Written by David Hamon.

Since 2005, the US Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), organized and supported a private, not for attribution, nuclear weapons dialogue with China at both the Track II and “1.5” level.  The thrust of these dialogues was twofold: to exchange views with Chinese experts on a wide variety of nuclear weapons and strategic issues, seeking insight and understanding on Chinese nuclear thinking (as well as to represent US nuclear thinking to the Chinese), and to inform the Track I process.  These meetings became known as the “US-China Strategic Dialogue,” and was a staple for US and Chinese nuclear hands.

…a growing number of analysts and researchers in the nuclear and strategic spheres that are producing new thinking on Chinese nuclear weapons and posture, some advocating radical (for the PLA) change in how China should think about nuclear weapons.

Although there has never been a US-China Track I dialogue on nuclear weapons; these meetings and tracks have served well as proxies.  In fact, the Chinese Foundation for International and Strategic Studies (CFISS), an organization operated by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, despite a crowded annual program of events, sponsors the Track 1.5 event annually in Beijing.

Among the many goals of the annual talks, avoiding misunderstanding of each other’s nuclear posture and nuclear thinking was uppermost in the minds of the organizers.  Allowing practitioners (civilian and military), current and former government officials, and scholars to discuss nuclear issues and debate strategic intent served to avoid misunderstanding.  Additionally, the talks aided current serving government policy makers (including members of the US Congress) in making foreign policy decisions.

In addition to nuclear posture, the delegations exchanged views on missile defence policy, non-nuclear strategic weapons, nuclear forces, deterrence, space, other weapons of mass destruction, and cyber security.  Debates and discussions were often sharp: one could characterize these meetings as exercises in finger-pointing.  Frequently the US side found the talks frustrating, difficult to understand, and lacking traction.

Over the years and until recently, the US delegation could count on consistency on the part of the Chinese side to reinforce traditional Chinese thinking on nuclear and strategic issues.  Their messaging was clear:

• China does not understand American strategic intent.  China claims this destabilizes the bilateral relationship.
• China believes the US-led international system keeps the US as the dominant hegemon, and this drives US nuclear posture.
• China believes missile defense to be inherently destabilizing.  China sees missile defence as a threat to China.
• Chinese experts annually urged the US and China to adopt a policy of “mutual vulnerability” as declaratory policy.
•  The US seeks absolute security.
•  China’s no first-use policy (NFU) is immutable.
•  China’s alert status reinforces the view that China will dictate the time and place of retaliation, including not mating warheads with delivery systems.
• The Chinese experts see no difference between “deterrence” and “compellence.”
• The PLA does not seek to build new nuclear weapons.

Recently, there was a suggestion that Chinese nuclear thinking has evolved considerably, culminating with the publication last year of “Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking,” (Li-Bin and Tong Zhao, Editors, Carnegie).  The effort was funded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and rolled out with a signature event last November in Washington DC.  According to the co-editors in the opening section:

“Critical differences between Chinese and US thinking about nuclear weapons and deterrence result not merely from differing security environments and levels of military strength [but] they also exist because China and the United States have developed their own nuclear philosophies in implementing their security policies over many years.  A deeper understanding of these differences sheds light on the fundamental drivers of China’s nuclear policies and how such policies may evolve in the future.”

The publication is remarkable for the breadth and depth of nuclear issues addressed, ranging from China’s historical legacy and development of its nuclear arsenal, through to the role of nuclear weapons, NFU, and views on strategic stability, to transparency, disarmament, and non-proliferation.

Most scholars agree that Chinese nuclear posture and thinking is captured by Maoist tradition and history.  Chinese policy was predictable.  Chinese nuclear forces and budgets, however, were not completely transparent.  Open source, semi-scholarly papers on Chinese nuclear issues came from Chinese State think tanks and research organizations, written by a handful of government experts.  It was rare to hear from serving members of the military (with a few notable exceptions), especially officers in the Second Artillery Corps, China’s nuclear force (now called the PLA Rocket Force).  Scholars on the subject were not independent of the government.

One gathers from reading the new edited volume that new voices are creating fresh debates.  It appears a growing number of analysts and researchers in the nuclear and strategic spheres that are producing new thinking on Chinese nuclear weapons and posture, some advocating radical (for the PLA) change in how China should think about nuclear weapons.  What isn’t clear (and a subject too long for this piece) is how prevalent and influential are these new thinkers.  Will the world see a new Chinese nuclear posture?

A sampling of critical issues taken from the chapter’s authors include:

  1. Whilst China will continue to cleave to its NFU policy, for the first time in recent memory there appears to be some calling for re-thinking NFU.  One such group believes China has a role to play by “going beyond NFU” and adopting unilateral disarmament.  This group would set an example to the world and other states.  Also, this faction believes the conflict of the future is economic and not military. Therefore nuclear weapons play no role.  Another group of analysts believes China should abandon NFU and follow the examples of other nuclear weapons states.  These analysts argue for bringing ‘deterrence’ front and center of nuclear weapon use, adopting the US and Russian positions.
  2. China’s limited stockpile has been called into question by those advocating more weapons in the stockpile including new nuclear weapons.  Many writers have argued that other countries’ nuclear weapon strategies are increasingly influencing traditional Chinese thinking and nuclear weapon policy.  The chorus for China to produce new nuclear weapons, as perceived by its understanding of other nuclear weapon states, is growing.
  3. Increased emphasis is placed on so-called “technical lagging.”  Worries over keeping up with changes in conventional weaponry could blur the lines between conventional and nuclear warfighting.
  4. Traditional thinking on China’s low alert status is aggressively challenged by new voices.  The notion of building an early warning system and shortening nuclear response enhances the reliability of deterrence.  In its 2015 White Paper, China called for improving its strategic warning capacity. This view challenges the traditional and historical view (of absorbing a strike and retaliating at a place and time of China’s choosing) and seems a radical alteration of its declaratory policy.
  5. Some scholars believe China’s nuclear retaliation policy is not flexible enough.  Some have gone so far as to assert that China should evolve its posture from “deterrence to strategic deterrence and warfighting.”  China’s nuclear stockpile and gradual modernization efforts have given the country a credible nuclear counterattack capacity against the United States, the “cornerstone of national security.”
  6. Changes to China’s nuclear posture has caused a shift in how China sees itself.  Once believed to be a “special nuclear country” due to its history, views on the role of nuclear weapons in defence and security policy, role as a moral leader within the community of developing nations, and non-proliferation views, many analysts in China now believe China is a “normal nuclear country.”  From China resisting its identity as a nuclear weapon state, it has now shifted to accepting the status.

Whilst some analysts and scholars may come to view these shifts and changes as radical and potentially destabilizing, others will not be surprised to read that a younger, more assertive generation of analysts is coming to the fore, bringing new thinking and alternative views.  Throughout the history of the afore-noted US-China Strategic Dialogue, only those very senior or “empowered” delegates could speak or address the meeting.  The Chinese side used the opportunity to send messages to the US delegation critical of US nuclear hegemony, especially in Asia, calling US nuclear posture destabilizing, threatening, and dangerous.

The encouraging trend for more candid, differing, and realistic views on both the Chinese nuclear posture and recognition that the US nuclear posture may have some inherent logic will continue to bring substantive information, fresh and evolving insights on the strategic relationship, informing US decision-making.

David Hamon is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He currently serves as Vice President, Economic Warfare Institute, and as Director of Strategic Initiatives, Soft Power Solutions Inc. He is a retired US Army Logistician. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

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