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Chickens Talking With Ducks: The U.S.-Chinese Nuclear Dialogue

Gregory Kulacki

Talks between China and the United States on the countries’ respective nuclear weapons programs are going nowhere. Each side expresses frustration and disappointment with the other. The problem could be that the two sides are talking past each other, like chickens talking with ducks, as the Chinese say.

After more than a decade of discussion, the two parties cannot seem to move past the first item on their agenda: declaratory policy. U.S. security analysts and military planners discount China’s pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. Their Chinese counterparts resent this derision of the nuclear taboo. Moreover, they see U.S. incredulity as a way to deflect attention from Chinese questions about why the United States is unwilling to provide the same assurance.[1]

The U.S. participants in these talks do not appear to respect anyone, from either country, who takes a no-first-use pledge seriously.[2] To them, the pledge is an expression of naïveté or mendacity. They suspect, therefore, that the Chinese individuals participating in bilateral talks either cannot or will not speak truthfully about China’s “actual” nuclear weapons policy.[3]

The Chinese participants do not understand U.S. suspicions. They mistakenly ascribe U.S. mistrust to a hegemonic arrogance that has led the United States to use nuclear threats as part of a broader U.S. policy intended to intimidate and contain China. It is difficult for Chinese analysts to appreciate why a country with overwhelming conventional military superiority is unable to make a basic confidence-building commitment that a much weaker China finds acceptable.

The U.S. response to this impasse is to search for a different set of Chinese interlocutors. U.S. security analysts and military planners scour Chinese military literature to look for kindred Chinese authors who view China’s commitment to a no-first-use policy as they do. Some U.S. analysts believe they located strong candidates in authors from the Second Artillery, the branch of the Chinese military that operates China’s land-based nuclear missile forces.[4] Obama administration officials responsible for the U.S.-Chinese nuclear dialogue are pressing to talk directly with the leadership of the Second Artillery in the belief that they will speak with a different and more authoritative voice than the officials sent previously by the Chinese government.[5]

However, the most authoritative Second Artillery source on China’s nuclear operations cited in U.S. publications—a classified textbook used to train China’s nuclear missile forces[6]—suggests U.S. analysts and administration officials are mistaken. The Second Artillery, like its civilian counterparts at the negotiating table, carries out its respective responsibilities under the assumption that China will continue for the foreseeable future to operate a small nuclear arsenal that is kept off alert and is to be launched only in retaliation after a nuclear attack. Contrary to the speculation of some U.S. analysts, there is no discernible departure from China’s declared nuclear policy in the classified operational procedures of the Second Artillery.

U.S. participants in the bilateral dialogue on nuclear weapons should accept that China’s nuclear weapons policy is fundamentally different from that of the United States and that the Chinese policy deserves U.S. attention and respect, despite understandable U.S. doubts about its viability. If the U.S. side would stop trying to choose whom China sends to the table, Chinese participants in the bilateral dialogue may come to see that U.S. doubts about Chinese nuclear weapons policy reflect legitimate differences in beliefs about what is necessary to prevent a nuclear war. Genuine mutual respect, which seems to be in short supply on both sides of the table, could break the impasse.

The Second Artillery’s Textbook

The Second Artillery is sometimes called China’s strategic rocket forces. Created in 1966 to operate China’s nuclear missiles, the Second Artillery added conventionally armed missiles in the late 1980s at the beginning of an accelerating conventional military buildup that continues today. The link between this conventional buildup and the Second Artillery’s role in imagined conventional conflicts precipitated discussions within the Second Artillery about fighting those conflicts under conditions of nuclear coercion.

The U.S. refusal to provide China with an assurance that the United States would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a military conflict with China weighed heavily on Second Artillery deliberations.[7] Language in the 2002 U.S. “Nuclear Posture Review Report” suggesting possible U.S. first use of nuclear weapons against China in a military conflict over Taiwan aggravated the Second Artillery’s anxieties about its ability to manage such a conflict successfully.[8]

As these developments unfolded, the Second Artillery prepared to publish updated new teaching and training materials for the officers and soldiers who operate China’s strategic rocket forces. A series of books entitled The Science of Operations, consisting of a general text and more specialized texts for each branch of the Chinese armed forces, was produced at the request of the Chinese leadership as part of a decades-old process to expand and standardize all professional military education and training.[9] A classified textbook that recently attracted the attention of U.S. analysts,[10] entitled The Science of Operations of the Second Artillery, was a product of this process.

Contrary to many U.S. analyses of open-source Chinese military publications, the authors of this classified textbook do not debate or call into question China’s current nuclear weapons policy. Moreover, the text repeatedly emphasizes that nuclear weapons policy is a political decision that lies with the Chinese leadership, not with the Second Artillery. As the title suggests, the textbook discusses how the Second Artillery will operate China’s nuclear weapons under the conditions set by China’s nuclear weapons policy as determined by the Chinese leadership, including China’s no-first-use commitment.

“Deterrence” Versus “Coercion”

The vocabulary of nuclear weapons policy was created and developed in the context of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. U.S. and Russian arms control negotiators and defense analysts continue to dominate its usage. Chinese arms controllers imported this foreign vocabulary to interact with their peers from abroad.

In 2006, after decades of interaction, U.S. and Chinese arms control experts realized they needed a mutually agreed-on bilingual glossary to help minimize misunderstandings created by “the never-simple translation of one language into the other” and “differing interpretations of terms.”[11] Over the course of 18 months, the two sides were able to reach agreement on approximately 1,000 terms related to nuclear security. Despite extensive efforts, they were unable to reach consensus on some key concepts.

The most important concept lacking a mutually acceptable definition in the glossary is “limited deterrence.” U.S. analysts who argue that the Second Artillery may pursue a different Chinese nuclear weapons policy claim it embraces a policy of limited deterrence as opposed to the policy of “minimal deterrence” supposedly articulated by the Chinese participants in bilateral discussions. The difference, according to U.S. analysts, centers on Chinese preparations to fight and win a nuclear war. Limited deterrence imagines pre-emptive or retaliatory nuclear strikes against enemy forces and victory on the battlefield using “counterforce” targeting. Minimal deterrence imagines retaliatory strikes against enemy population centers, the political leadership, or critical economic infrastructure, otherwise known as “countervalue” targeting.

The etymology of the term “limited deterrence” makes it especially difficult to discuss in a U.S.-Chinese dialogue. Limited deterrence is not part of the traditional vocabulary developed by U.S. and Soviet arms control experts. A member of the U.S. team for the glossary project discovered the term in Chinese military texts.[12] He developed an interpretation of Chinese nuclear weapons policy based on how he believed the term “limited deterrence” was used in these texts. The Chinese participants in the glossary project rejected limited deterrence as a definition of Chinese nuclear weapons policy. Although the term does appear in some Chinese military texts, the Chinese participants informed their U.S. counterparts that it was not authoritative and that the U.S. definition of the term did not accurately describe Chinese nuclear weapons policy.

The assimilation of foreign vocabulary on arms control and nuclear weapons policy by Chinese civilian analysts, officials, and negotiators occurred at the same time the Second Artillery was developing its teaching and training materials on nuclear operations. However, the two groups never engaged in purposeful collaboration on terminology.[13] The Second Artillery materials naturally included descriptions and interpretations of the policy that guided its operations, but it did not use the same vocabulary that the Chinese participants in bilateral and international discussions did. For example, the Second Artillery uses a different Chinese word (ezhi) to describe deterrence. The Chinese word for deterrence used by Chinese nuclear policy experts and included in the glossary (weishe) is used by the Second Artillery to describe coercion. Outside observers, unaware of the difference, could easily become confused, especially if they read the materials in translation, where, depending on the word choices made by the translator, the difference might not appear.

The existence of different Chinese vocabularies does not necessarily mean that China is engaged in an internal debate about its nuclear weapons policy, especially considering the discrete circumstances, motivations, and requirements that precipitated their separate development. It is easy to understand how U.S. analysts could imagine that they were observing such a debate, unaware that the two Chinese groups rarely if ever communicated with each other. Yet, suspicions by some in the United States that the mere existence of these two vocabularies exposes a conscious Chinese effort to project a public policy for diplomatic purposes and keep a different policy secret for military purposes seem unjustified.[14] The following analysis of the classified text the Second Artillery uses to train its officers and soldiers shows that although they may use a different vocabulary, the Second Artillery and the Chinese participants in the U.S.-Chinese nuclear dialogue are describing the same nuclear weapons policy, which assumes a small nuclear force, kept off alert, to be launched only in retaliation.

One Policy, Three Characteristics

The textual evidence that China has one nuclear weapons policy and that the Chinese military relies on that policy to train and operate its nuclear forces is overwhelming. There are scores of references to the three essential characteristics of China’s declared nuclear weapons policy scattered throughout the 409 pages of The Science of Operations of the Second Artillery: a small force kept off alert and used only for retaliation.

A small nuclear force. There are multiple references to the size of China’s nuclear arsenal in the Second Artillery text, and that arsenal is consistently described as “very small” relative to likely nuclear-armed adversaries. The Second Artillery’s awareness of the limited numbers, accuracy, and capabilities of China’s nuclear weapons is articulated in the textbook’s descriptions of China’s “nuclear retaliation strike operations.” The purpose of these strikes is “to create a great feeling of terror in the enemy’s mind that causes the enemy to lose its determination for war.” This is imagined to be accomplished through “centralized retaliatory strikes” against a careful selection of “strategic targets” at a “critical moment” the enemy could not anticipate. Despite its limited arsenal and the presumption of considerable losses after China absorbs a first strike, the Second Artillery assumes an ability to launch multiple retaliatory strikes. This suggests that the authors presume that their relatively small nuclear force is sufficient to accomplish their mission.

The Second Artillery instructs its officers that, in the “glorious tradition” of the People’s Liberation Army, China’s superior command and strategy, not the enemy’s superior weapons, will be the key to the success of its “retaliatory nuclear operations,” with success being defined as a cessation of the enemy’s attack. Throughout the text, the authors emphasize the political and psychological characteristics of nuclear weapons and that the objective of the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons by China is “the creation of a psychological effect” on the enemy that “abates its willingness to continue or start a war.” This suggests that the size and composition of Chinese nuclear forces are calibrated to preserve the ability to inflict enough punishment to force an imagined enemy from continuing a nuclear attack against China, not to deny an enemy the physical means of carrying out such an attack.

There is no discussion in the text of specific strikes and targets presumed to create this psychological effect. Targets are described in general terms and the list includes “command centers, communications hubs, transportation junctions, military bases, political centers, economic centers, industrial bases, etc.”[15] Moreover, targeting is repeatedly described as a product of an “overall strategy” determined by China’s “high leadership,” not the Second Artillery. This suggests that decisions about the size and composition of China’s nuclear arsenal are not within the purview of the Second Artillery, whose responsibility is to operate the weapons, not to develop targeting plans or nuclear strategy.

Kept off alert. The Second Artillery’s organizational structure[16] and operational practices suggest that China’s nuclear warheads are stored separately and not mated to their missiles until they are prepared for launch. The textbook also notes that radiation dangers associated with installing the warheads on the missiles dictate that this should be done as close as possible to an anticipated launch.[17]

The Second Artillery’s nuclear forces are divided into a number of separate units with different responsibilities, including warhead bases at some distance from the missile bases, warhead inspection and installation teams, and missile brigades. The text indicates that a limited number of warheads are co-located at some launch sites but that concentrated retaliatory strikes would require warheads to be transferred from the warhead bases to the missile brigades prior to launch.[18] Separation and scattering of the Second Artillery’s nuclear assets is viewed as having the advantage of increasing survivability, even though it slows their response time.

Timing is a factor in Chinese preparations for a retaliatory nuclear strike, and the text instructs the officers and soldiers of the Second Artillery on the importance of being able to respond quickly to commands to prepare to launch and to a launch order from the “high leadership.” The text makes clear, however, that speed is less strategically important than the ability to strike at a carefully chosen moment. The preparations for launch are described as occurring over an extended period of time and intending to be a coercive or deterrent gesture, meant to compel a cessation of conventional attacks or to demonstrate the will and capability to retaliate after a nuclear attack.

Launched only in retaliation. There are no first-use scenarios for the Second Artillery’s nuclear forces discussed in the text. Specific operations and training for what are consistently referenced as “retaliatory nuclear attacks” are premised on the assumption that the forces of the Second Artillery have been struck first and will need to be able to carry out their “retaliatory nuclear attack operations” under severely degraded, dangerous, and unpredictable conditions. Indeed, the modifier “retaliatory” precedes every instance—and there are many—in which the words for a possible Chinese nuclear weapons strike appear in the text.

Even in a section of the text discussing an intentional “lowering of the nuclear coercion threshold,” the “lowest possible threshold” is not an actual strike. It is merely a public announcement of intended enemy targets.[19] The text dictates that if this final threat to use nuclear weapons fails to stop the enemy from further military activity, in order to maintain credibility—specifically, that “China’s words can be believed and that it will do what it says”—the Second Artillery must “in the midst of high-level nuclear coercion, complete preparations for a retaliatory nuclear attack.”[20] Crossing the threshold is demonstrating they are preparing a retaliatory strike, not, as widely reported, threatening to strike first.[21]

Most importantly, the text specifically states, “In accord with our national principle not to be the first to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances, the Second Artillery’s strategic nuclear forces can carry out a retaliatory nuclear attack against the enemy, following the command of the ‘high leadership,’ only after the enemy has first attacked us with nuclear weapons.”[22] Discussion of the implications of China’s no-first-use pledge appears in several places in the text; one example is a discussion of the requirements of China’s “active defense” strategy, which some U.S. analysts interpret as an expression of China’s intent to strike first. The text makes clear that “active defense” dictates that the Second Artillery’s nuclear forces are to be launched only in retaliation after a nuclear attack.[23]

This classified military textbook was not intended for external audiences, but for the officers and soldiers of the Second Artillery who operate China’s nuclear forces. These internal instructions could not be more explicit or more consistent with Chinese statements to the United States over the past 50 years.

Parsing the Differences

Russian and U.S. arms control experts are birds of a feather who can talk for hours and with great enthusiasm about nuclear arms control. The recent negotiations over the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty showed that although it still is very difficult for them to reach a binding agreement, discussions, at least, proceed with a high degree of mutual appreciation and respect. This is largely because the two sides have a common language, common assumptions, and a common objective that emerged from their shared experience as nuclear rivals during the Cold War.

U.S.-Soviet arms control talks proceeded from the assumption that left unimpeded by negotiated limitations, both sides would continue to be highly motivated to seek the ability to launch a disarming first strike against the other. The two sides also shared the belief that the nuclear arms race created by these motivations continually generated new and intolerable uncertainties that could precipitate a large-scale nuclear exchange. The purpose of bilateral arms control negotiations was to establish an assurance that neither side could obtain a decisive first-strike capability.

The principal means to establish this assurance were agreements that fixed the number of deployed weapons, limited the deployment of defenses, and provided reliable verification that these obligations were met. The substance and art of the negotiations was deciding which weapons and defenses to limit and to what degree. There was intense disagreement over these questions, which continues between the United States and Russia today, but the objective for both sides remains the same: diminishing mutual fear of a disarming first strike.

China does not have a first-strike capability that could disarm the United States, and there is no evidence that Beijing is seeking such a capability. The goals of the U.S.-Chinese bilateral nuclear dialogue, therefore, are as different as the size of their respective nuclear arsenals. China’s goals are clear: it seeks assurances that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons or attempt to launch a disarming first strike, conventional or nuclear, against China’s nuclear forces. The United States is unwilling to provide China with the assurances it seeks.

The United States, on the other hand, continues to request greater Chinese transparency about its capabilities and its intentions. Unfortunately, this is a request China finds difficult to oblige. The Second Artillery text makes clear that the objective of its nuclear operations is to create uncertainty and confuse the United States. According to this logic, providing more detailed information about its nuclear arsenal would only leave less to chance and thereby increase the U.S. incentive to launch a pre-emptive first strike in a moment of crisis. China’s nuclear forces are small enough to make such a strike a tempting choice. Moreover, some Chinese worry that advances in U.S. conventional capabilities make it conceivable that such a strike could succeed without resorting to nuclear weapons. U.S. faith in ballistic missile defenses, however misplaced, creates an additional worry.

Presumably, one shared goal of the participants in the bilateral dialogue is to find a way to prevent the other from crossing the nuclear threshold in the event of a conflict. China’s assurance that it will not cross it first, under any circumstances, appears to be genuine, based on the guidance given to the officers and soldiers of the Second Artillery in its text on nuclear operations. Moreover, China’s adamant insistence on a similar assurance from the United States suggests it believes it would be a genuine constraint on U.S. behavior. U.S. negotiators might make more progress with China if they used the talks to explore why China places such a high value on a no-first-use assurance and believes it contributes to stability.

Chinese negotiators should make a better effort to understand why the United States places so little trust in a no-first-use assurance, instead of assuming the U.S. refusal to discuss it is an expression of a hegemonic ambition to dominate and contain China. They might make more progress with the United States if they acknowledged the difficulty U.S. participants have in setting aside their own experience with the Soviet Union’s no-first-use pledge, particularly when discussing a Chinese nuclear strategy that relies on secrecy and deception to maintain an effective deterrent.

Both sides should be more aware that miscommunication and misunderstanding are subtle, persistent, and nontrivial issues that should not be overlooked and cannot be easily addressed. ACT




Gregory Kulacki is a senior analyst and the China project manager in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Since joining the UCS in 2002, he has focused on promoting and conducting dialogue between Chinese and U.S. experts on nuclear arms control and space security.





1. For a Chinese characterization of U.S. attitudes about China’s no-first-use declaration from a Chinese participant in the bilateral nuclear dialogue, see Li Bin and Nie Hongyi, “Zhong-Mei zhanlüe wendingxing de kaocha” [An investigation of Chinese-U.S. strategic stability], Shijie jingji yu zhengzhi (2008), pp. 13-19. For an English language translation, see


2. Jeffrey Lewis and Gregory Kulacki, “Meiguo jujue ‘bu shouxian shiyong’ zhi yuanyin ji Zhonguo de yingdui” [Why the United States objects to the phrase “no first use” and how China might respond], Meiguo Yanjiu [American Studies Quarterly] (forthcoming).


3. For U.S. doubts about China’s no-first-use assurance from a U.S. participant in the bilateral nuclear dialogue, see Brad Roberts, “China-U.S. Nuclear Relations: What Relationship Best Serves U.S. Interests,” Institute for Defense Analyses, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, August 2001.


4. For one of the earliest and most influential analyses, see Alastair Iain Johnston, “China’s New ‘Old Thinking’: The Concept of Limited Deterrence,” International Security, Vol. 20, No. 3 (1995-1996): 5-42. For a more recent articulation of the same argument, see Michael S. 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, Vol. 32, No. 1 (February 2009): 67-114.


5. In March 2011, Chinese participants in semiofficial bilateral nuclear talks complained that the Obama administration was preventing U.S. officials from participating in future semiofficial talks, even though U.S. officials had regularly participated in past talks. Moreover, the Obama administration rejected official talks led by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, insisting instead on talks with the Second Artillery. Chinese officials, interviews with author, Beijing, March 2011.


6. Yu Jixun, ed., Dier paobing zhanyixue [Second Artillery operational studies], (Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 2004). The author was given the opportunity to review this text extensively, and the analysis in this paper is based on that examination.


7. Yu, Dier paobing zhanyixue, p. 59.


8. Shen Dingli, “China’s Evaluation of the Adjustment to U.S. Security Policy Since September 11, 2001,” Defense & Security Analysis, Vol. 19, No. 4 (December 2003): 319–326.


9. Yu, Dier paobing zhanyixue, pp. 15-28.


10. “China Shifting Nuclear Rules of Engagement: Report,” Defense News, January 5, 2011.


11. Committee on the U.S.-Chinese Glossary of Nuclear Security Terms, National Research Council, English-Chinese, Chinese-English Nuclear Security Glossary (Washington: National Academies Press, 2008).


12. Johnston, “China’s New ‘Old Thinking.’”


13. Chinese participants, interviews with author, Beijing, September 2010, March 2011, and June 2011.


14. Michael Mazza and Dan Blumenthal, “China’s Strategic Forces in the 21st Century: The PLA’s Changing Nuclear Doctrine and Force Posture,” Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, April 6, 2011.


15. Yu, Dier paobing zhanyixue, p. 300.


16. Ibid., p. 162 (organizational chart).


17. Ibid., p. 202.


18. Ibid.


19. Ibid., p. 295.


20. Ibid., pp. 295-296.


21. “China Shifting Nuclear Rules.” The news story, originally published by Kyodo News but now removed from its website, was based on an analysis of the Second Artillery text examined in this article. See Jeffrey Lewis, “China and No First Use,” Arms Control Wonk, January 14, 2011,


22. Yu, Dier paobing zhanyixue, p. 59.


23. Ibid., p. 93.