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June 2, 2022
How U.S. Strategic Policy Is Changing China’s Nuclear Plans
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Joanne Tompkins

The extent to which U.S. policy influences China’s strategic decision-making, especially its ongoing nuclear modernization, has been a matter of much debate. But in the past year, the Bush administration has made several significant changes to arms control and nuclear weapons policy that provide an opportunity to gauge Chinese reaction to U.S. plans. During 2002, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty; it signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty with Russia (also known as the Moscow Treaty); it finalized a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR); and it pushed ahead with plans for a national missile defense, culminating in President George W. Bush’s December announcement that the United States would deploy a rudimentary system in 2004.

Each of these decisions signaled that the Bush administration is rethinking the role of nuclear weapons in its broader strategic policies. Experts on U.S.-China relations have argued that, by doing so, the Bush administration is encouraging China to rethink its own approach to nuclear weapons, potentially diminishing its interest in international agreements and perhaps even sparking an arms race.1 With only two dozen nuclear-armed ICBMs capable of hitting the United States and an official policy of not using nuclear weapons first in a conflict, China’s current nuclear posture is considerably weaker than the U.S. posture. But some analysts have speculated that that could change if U.S. policy threatens mainland China or upsets the situation in the Taiwan Strait.

This article is based on more than 60 not-for-attribution interviews with Chinese government officials, arms control experts, military officers, and journalists conducted during the summer of 2002. Their comments clearly indicate that, although the Moscow Treaty and the NPR have not had a significant impact on Chinese thinking about nuclear weapons, U.S. missile defense plans (and the associated withdrawal from the ABM Treaty) could substantially influence China’s ongoing plans to modernize and expand its nuclear forces.

Approach to Nuclear Weapons

The Chinese are quick to assert that they decided to acquire nuclear weapons only as a response to repeated U.S. and Soviet attempts to blackmail China with the possibility of nuclear attack in the 1950s and 1960s. Under Mao Zedong, China realized that a nuclear retaliatory capability was needed to maintain freedom of action in the face of nuclear threats. China assumes that the U.S. fear of nuclear retaliation is an overarching threat that controls Washington’s actions with regard to China and Taiwan. This reactive, or defensive, philosophy underpins the Chinese approach to nuclear planning and force structure.

The Chinese, however, draw a distinction between “Western deterrence” and their policy of nuclear retaliation. One scholar at a university in Shanghai explained that this is partially due to the aggressive meaning of the Chinese characters used to translate the word “deterrence.” China sees its policy as purely defensive and seeks to convey this with its promise never to attack another state first with nuclear weapons. China maintains that its nuclear forces are to be used in retaliation only, and this no-first-use policy is a core tenet of China’s nuclear strategy. Although it can be argued that Beijing could easily reverse its no-first-use policy during a crisis, the vast majority of scholars and officials interviewed rejected the possibility of ever abandoning the pledge because they feel it gives China a great deal of political capital within the international community. China’s retaliatory doctrine is demonstrated by the small size of its nuclear force, which would be most effectively used against enemy cities—a threat that the Chinese believe would prevent any American president from launching nuclear weapons at China.

Uncertainty about the size and placement of China’s nuclear arsenal is considered critical to the effectiveness of this retaliatory policy. China has never officially acknowledged how many nuclear weapons it has. Most Chinese scholars interviewed cited Western reports that China has approximately 24 ICBMs capable of reaching the United States, while other scholars cited possibly 40 and, in one case, as many as 250 Chinese missiles. Without a firm idea of exactly how large the Chinese arsenal is or where the ICBMs are located, the United States could never be confident of launching a successful first strike that eliminated the threat of a Chinese retaliatory attack. The Chinese believe this uncertainty compensates for the vast disparity in the U.S. and Chinese nuclear arsenals and creates what Chinese scholars called a “stable unbalanced nuclear relationship.”

China is, however, modernizing and expanding its nuclear arsenal. The majority of those interviewed emphasized that China is not trying to acquire an offensive capability. Rather, they contend that China must make some basic improvements to its obsolete weapons in order simply to maintain the current nuclear balance—a natural modernization of military capabilities. Many in China believe that the West is overreacting to the program, mistakenly interpreting it as an attempt to reach parity with the United States. The nuclear force modernization effort, they say, is focused simply on improving the quality and survivability of these weapons.

Chinese experts repeatedly identified developing a mobile missile force as the primary way China could improve the survivability of its nuclear arsenal, since China’s current silo-based force is considered to be vulnerable to U.S. attack. Most Chinese scholars believe that building sea-based missiles is the most effective approach to mobilizing their weapons. One arms control expert in Shanghai envisioned a fleet of six nuclear submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles. (There was no discussion or acknowledgment of the difficulties China has encountered in the past in trying to build or deploy nuclear submarines.) Some experts also advocated putting multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) on Chinese missiles, although there seems to be some debate in China over what “MIRV” actually means. One influential arms control expert in Beijing argued that most national security experts in China are not really talking about putting multiple warheads on the missiles; rather, they are misusing the term MIRV to refer to missiles with multiple decoys but only one warhead. There are other areas in need of significant improvement as well, including China’s command and control infrastructure, which is almost 20 years out of date.

Although these and other modernization efforts will modestly increase the number of missiles in the Chinese inventory as well as the survivability and reliability of China’s nuclear arsenal, they will not, Chinese analysts say, lead to an arms race. Many Chinese scholars claimed that China has no interest in seeking nuclear parity with the United States—a pursuit that they feel would endanger the economic growth of the country.

Pressures to Change

Changes in the current global security environment could, however, significantly alter the scope and direction of China’s nuclear efforts. There are some specific developments over the past year that caught the attention of Chinese experts: the signing of the Moscow Treaty and the demise of the ABM Treaty, the release of the latest U.S. NPR, and the U.S. national missile defense program.2

Arms Control Developments
The arms control communities in Shanghai and Beijing have decidedly split opinions on the value of the May 2002 Moscow Treaty, but neither feels that the agreement significantly affects Chinese security. Experts in Shanghai, who tend to be less tied to the official government line than their Beijing counterparts, have a fairly positive opinion of the treaty, which reduces U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed warheads. They think that Russian President Vladimir Putin successfully negotiated from a weaker position, trading Russian acquiescence on the ABM Treaty for a formal accord that offered Russia a much-needed reduction in its nuclear arsenal, as well as a way out of START II. The Moscow Treaty perpetuates the nuclear balance between the United States and Russia (in the eyes of the international community, if not in reality), allows Russia to keep its MIRVed missiles (which START II banned and which Moscow could not have afforded to replace), and maintains the perception that Russia continues to be strategically relevant.

The Beijing arms control community, on the other hand, has a pessimistic attitude toward the Moscow Treaty. Although Beijing analysts acknowledged that any disarmament is a good thing, many dismiss this treaty as merely symbolic and without substance. According to the Beijing experts, the Moscow Treaty does not reduce nuclear forces, it merely rearranges them. Russia cannot afford to deploy more than 2,000 warheads anyway, and the United States is avoiding any real cuts in its arsenal by counting only “operationally deployed” warheads and storing many of the others. Beijing experts believe that both the United States and Russia lost with this treaty—Russia because the United States does not have to destroy any warheads, and the United States because the treaty’s lack of verification mechanisms means it will be much harder to track Russian nuclear material.

The U.S. decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty was opposed but not unexpected in China. By withdrawing, many Chinese security analysts argued, the United States has taken a destabilizing action—an aggressive, layered missile defense program will encourage regional arms races. Other nations will not be able to give up their missiles in the face of a U.S. ballistic missile shield. The Chinese further argued that withdrawal is another sign that the United States will ignore any troublesome international arms control agreements in the pursuit of a narrowly defined national security (as previously illustrated by its failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty). The Beijing community is particularly concerned that the demise of the ABM Treaty opens the way to the weaponization of space. Indeed, some analysts in this group believe that this—and not the missile defense program—is the real reason President Bush withdrew from the treaty.

Yet, despite strong early objections, China’s reaction to the official withdrawal was unexpectedly mild. In the end, the Chinese were realists. According to intellectuals in Shanghai, China’s overall approach to international arms control is very much shaped by the belief that it is important to conform with international opinion. One influential analyst in Beijing argued that China does not think it is strong enough to confront other, more powerful countries: since China is dependent on the help of other nations to build up its economy, it must conform to the will of the international community to avoid harming its overall interests. This results in a “follower” mindset in the Chinese approach to international arms control, according to the experts interviewed. Once Russia and the European nations abandoned their objections to the program, China had no choice but to follow.

Nevertheless, the Chinese continue to argue that the withdrawal will have a negative impact in the long term and that the United States should not view this issue as settled. There is an expectation that Putin is merely buying time to recover and that Russia will renew its opposition to the U.S. missile defense program down the road. The Chinese believe that Russia’s withdrawal from START II is only the beginning of the fallout from the international community.

The Nuclear Posture Review
Not surprisingly, the Chinese had a very negative reaction to the U.S. NPR, which was officially presented by the Bush administration in January 2002. Even though many Chinese believe that the NPR was not representative of official U.S. doctrine, they are disturbed because the document directly contradicts several tenets that are strongly held in the Chinese security community: that nuclear weapons are becoming less relevant in the modern world; that nuclear weapons can never be used; and that a conflict with the United States over Taiwan would not involve nuclear weapons.3 Chinese analysts are particularly focused on two sections of the NPR: the specific mention of the conditions for the use of nuclear weapons over a conflict in the Taiwan Strait and the possible pursuit of earth-penetrating tactical nuclear weapons.

Portions of the NPR that were leaked to the press in March 2002 indicated not only that the United States is prepared to use nuclear weapons against China, but also that the United States would consider the use of nuclear weapons during a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.4 Experts in China were not surprised that their country is reportedly on the U.S. nuclear target list, acknowledging that this has been the case for many years (despite Chinese Foreign Ministry claims of being “deeply shocked”). The reference to the Taiwan Strait, however, did surprise them. Many argued that the United States is again attempting to blackmail China with nuclear threats. The Chinese are increasingly worried about the Bush administration’s Taiwan policy, which they believe could encourage Taipei to declare independence. They fear that, if American rhetoric and arms sales give Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian a false sense of security, a conflict in the strait is more likely.

The Chinese also feel that the NPR is raising the profile of nuclear weapons by giving them new war-fighting roles and by proposing new types of weapons. Chinese analysts in both Beijing and Shanghai vigorously objected to the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons to attack deeply buried or hardened targets, as suggested by the NPR. Placing nuclear weapons in a conventional role, several senior Chinese arms control experts in Beijing argued, would lower the threshold for their use and blur the distinction between conventional and strategic weapons. It would become easier to think about fighting and possibly winning a nuclear war, and nuclear conflict would therefore become more likely. The call for new types of and uses for nuclear weapons has also opened a new debate in China about the possibility of a U.S. attack with low-yield nuclear weapons in a conflict over Taiwan. Most experts agreed that any use of a nuclear weapon in the strait, no matter how small, would trigger a nuclear response by China.

The new U.S. emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons also indicates to many Chinese experts that the Americans are considering restarting their nuclear tests. Several experts in Shanghai warned that, if the United States were to conduct nuclear tests, then China, which has yet to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, would have no choice but to follow the U.S. example.

Finally, the NPR is also forcing Chinese strategic thinkers to look at their response to conventional attack on the Chinese mainland. Currently, the consensus in China is that conventional attacks, no matter how destructive, would not trigger a nuclear response. But a small community of experts, primarily located at universities and think tanks in Shanghai, is beginning to argue that China must have more flexibility in the face of overwhelming U.S. military power. Some argue that China should abandon its no-first-use pledge if China’s national security is seriously threatened, no matter the means.

Whether China used nuclear weapons would depend on the nature of the U.S. attack. According to a security analyst in Beijing, a conventional attack against Chinese cities likely would not trigger a nuclear response, unless Beijing and Shanghai were attacked. Those cities are critical to China’s security, and an overwhelming conventional attack on either one might justify a nuclear response. Advocates of nuclear flexibility also hold that any conventional attack against Chinese nuclear facilities or its command and control capabilities could also invite nuclear retaliation. This extreme view has so far not gained a large following, and many think it unlikely that the United States would ever attack the mainland, even in a conflict over Taiwan, but the debate is underway.

Missile Defense
Beyond question, the U.S. missile defense program is having a significant impact on the internal Chinese debate regarding nuclear modernization. It is important to note, however, that Chinese experts do not know the ultimate size and capabilities of a U.S. national missile defense, and several analysts argued that it is not possible for China to formulate a response until there is a clearer picture of what sort of system the Bush administration will develop. The president’s deployment decision in December provides the Chinese with better insight into the current approach, but during the past summer most discussions of missile defense cited the Clinton system of 100 interceptors as the basis for analysis.

The Chinese government has consistently argued that the U.S. pursuit of ballistic missile defenses undermines global strategic stability by making all other nations insecure. With a successful national missile defense, the United States could become the first nuclear state to be able to protect itself from retaliation in kind—at least from the smaller nuclear states. Several Chinese intellectuals argued that this would give the United States greater freedom of action and a false sense of security that could encourage it to mount pre-emptive attacks. They argue that other nations will be forced to build up their nuclear and missile arsenals to counter the proposed U.S. shield, which will in turn spark regional arms races.

Most importantly, though, even the previously expected minimal system of 100 interceptors would negate the Chinese nuclear deterrent and render it vulnerable to nuclear attack—an unacceptable development that would reopen China to nuclear blackmail. Very few Chinese scholars interviewed believe U.S. assurances that the missile defense system is not aimed at China. At best, they maintain, this is merely a declaratory policy that can be reversed at will. The capability to intercept Chinese missiles will be inherent in any deployed system.

The Chinese are also concerned about the possible deployment of theater missile defenses on Taiwan. China’s missile deployments along the Fujian Coast opposite Taiwan serve, Chinese experts contend, as the only effective deterrent against Taiwanese independence. Any move to negate this deterrent would be viewed as extremely provocative. Even if missile defense could not effectively defend the island, as many in China believe it cannot, deployment of advanced missile defense systems requires an integrated command and control system that in Chinese eyes would equal a de facto military alliance. Chinese experts said this would be a definite violation of China’s sovereignty and would prompt a faster buildup of both conventional and nuclear weapons on the mainland.

Finally, there are indications that missile defense is also prompting some among China’s senior leadership to address the contradiction of denying deterrence as an acceptable strategic concept while relying on nuclear weapons to deter an attack. A Chinese scholar who has studied the Chinese understanding of Western deterrence asserted that the U.S. national missile defense system is prompting senior leaders in China to pay more attention to the Western concept of deterrence, issues of credibility, and the gap between U.S. and Chinese military capabilities. Significantly, the Chinese government has stopped criticizing the term “deterrence,” which hints at a new willingness to re-examine the concept.

All of these concerns are encouraging debate on how to respond to missile defense. A clear consensus exists in China that, although U.S. missile defense plans did not inspire the original modernization effort, they definitely will influence the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal. The extent of this influence is a point of considerable debate. The majority of Chinese scholars interviewed argued that the missile defense program is a trick to convince China to spend more money on defense, thereby causing the growing economy to collapse. They see significant parallels between China’s current situation and the Soviet overreaction to President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program, which contributed to the downfall of the U.S.S.R. The Chinese say they will not make the same mistake. Also, there are a significant number of scholars in China who argue that missile defense simply will not work. The current U.S. testing program is structured in such a way, they say, as to favor success—it does not simulate realistic scenarios. These criticisms could moderate the Chinese reaction.

There are three schools of thought regarding improvements needed to respond to a U.S. missile defense program. The first school, comprised of a small community of intellectuals and some military officers, argues that, because missile defense is merely a devious ploy, China should not alter its nuclear posture whatsoever. This school feels that China should not redirect valuable resources to counter a missile defense system that will never work. There is also an expectation that the next U.S. president will most likely cancel the missile defense program. China instead needs to keep its focus on economic development. This group is not large and does not seem to have a particularly vocal presence in the debate.

Another small group of scholars, based in Shanghai, advocates a robust response to missile defense. This second school believes that the Chinese economy can absorb a buildup to as many as 1,000 ICBMs. China’s rapid economic growth is only increasing the revenues that could be spent on nuclear weapons development and modernization. Building to saturation of the missile defense (and beyond) is viewed as a reliable method to defeat the planned shield that would not require any further weapons testing. These scholars also argue that China should seriously consider abandoning its no-first-use policy, which only further undermines its already weak nuclear posture. This approach reportedly has gained the support of many in the military, but there are no indications that it has broader support throughout the government. A major buildup would represent a radical departure from past Chinese policy, and the majority of those interviewed dismissed it as unlikely.

The third school, which reflects the majority view, believes that the U.S. missile defense program requires a response, but a more moderate one. This centrist group encompasses a broad spectrum of professionals, including arms control experts, members of the media, academics, government officials, and military officers. China, they feel, cannot stand idly by while the United States develops a system to negate its retaliatory capability. They firmly believe that China needs to maintain a credible minimal deterrent to control the Taiwan situation. This group sees no reason to panic, however. Its members believe that missile defense will not pose a serious threat until at least 2008, allowing China time to wait and see before pursuing a more aggressive response. They argue that China should carefully monitor the direction of the Bush program and take some preliminary steps now to counter it.

The moderate response would focus on three courses of action. First, China should increase the total number of warheads deployed to a level just beyond the saturation point for whatever missile shield the United States plans to deploy in order to maintain the required uncertainty about retaliation. This means that China must have a clear idea of how many interceptors are planned and what the firing doctrine will be, which is currently impossible because the Americans themselves do not yet know what the system will comprise. This “moderate” level of buildup, however, allows for a lot of leeway as long as it does not adversely impact China’s economy. Several experts said that building to 100 or even 200 missiles would be considered reasonable—a step that would represent a significant increase in Chinese nuclear capability. Second, this school advocates China’s pursuit of MIRVs, which would be more effective at penetrating a ballistic missile shield. Finally, countermeasures are gaining a lot of attention among Chinese analysts, several of whom believe the government has already started developing them. The Chinese are very confident that countermeasures can be successfully employed against a U.S. missile defense. They point out that the United States will have to devise methods to defeat a whole range of countermeasures, while those wishing to penetrate the system must only find one countermeasure that works. Effective countermeasures may mean that China can build fewer warheads to maintain its retaliatory nuclear capability. By pursuing these options, the moderate school believes China can maintain the status quo: a stable if asymmetric nuclear relationship with the United States.


It is obvious from the research gathered during these interviews that the U.S. missile defense program will have the largest impact on Chinese thinking about nuclear weapons. Any adjustment in reaction to the Moscow Treaty was routinely rejected by the Chinese because even 1,700 U.S. warheads would overwhelm the Chinese deterrent, and China cannot afford to build to parity with such a high number. Therefore, few in China expect it to have any impact on the modernization effort. The dismissal of the impact of the NPR is primarily due to a Chinese assumption that any war with the United States over Taiwan will not escalate to nuclear war, despite the language in the NPR. There is a firm belief that civilized nations would not take this step and that the American public would not support launching nuclear weapons against China. Therefore, the NPR is, in the view of many Chinese scholars, simply another Pentagon “think piece” that will not be implemented as policy. The subsequent publication of the new U.S. National Security Strategy, which incorporated some elements from the NPR, may change this view slightly, but it is unlikely to prompt the Chinese to make any substantial changes to their nuclear planning at this time.

Missile defense is another story, and the majority of Chinese interviewed for this study have clearly concluded that missile defense poses a significant threat to their nuclear deterrent. They made it clear that China will increase the size of its nuclear arsenal in response to missile defense; the group advocating a moderate response to U.S. missile defense represents the dominant view in China. At the same time, the prevailing opinion is that China should not panic and overreact. An extreme missile buildup is unlikely given the conviction in China that the United States is trying to trick the Chinese government into spending itself into a collapse. This concern will restrain the scope and acceleration of China’s modernization program. Even a “moderate buildup,” however, could result in the Chinese ICBM force growing to 5 or 10 times its current size.

It is important to note that the public debate in China regarding the role of nuclear weapons remains relatively immature. The study of specific nuclear doctrine is a limited field; most scholars prefer to focus on the broader implications of nuclear questions for the U.S.-China relationship, rather than focus on specific details. This can result in a rather surface-level discussion. There are contradictions in the Chinese conceptualization of the role and uses of nuclear weapons that indicate the broader security community in China has not had a truly robust discussion of these issues. It remains to be seen if President Bush’s December deployment decision will change this, but the current confusion and uncertainty may prevent U.S. experts from drawing concrete conclusions about China’s nuclear modernization for some time.

The United States may be able to clarify China’s position by altering its own rhetoric. It is very clear to most in China that the proposed U.S. missile defense system will adversely impact their nuclear force, despite American assurances that the system is not aimed at them. A U.S. acknowledgment that missile defense could negate China’s deterrent and significantly affect its nuclear decision-making could make it possible for the two countries to have a true strategic dialogue. That, in turn, could provide the United States greater insights into China’s goals for modernization.

1. See Senator Joseph Biden, “Missile Defense Delusion,” The Washington Post, December 19, 2001; Evan S. Medeiros and Jing-dong Yuan, “The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review and China’s Responses,” http://www.cns.miis.edu/pubs/week/020401.htm; the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Position Paper on National Missile Defense,” www.ucsusa.org.
2. Notably, the recent escalation of nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan did not seem to have much impact on Chinese analysts’ thinking. The possibility of a nuclear exchange on China’s border was surprisingly dismissed as having little impact on Chinese nuclear planning. Only one intellectual in Beijing stated that China is worried about India surpassing the size of the Chinese arsenal. Although the Chinese readily acknowledge that nuclear tensions on the subcontinent are a concern, the majority believes that there is no need to change China’s nuclear posture in response.
3. Critics of China frequently point to the famous statement by Chinese General Xiong Guangkai that the United States would not trade Los Angeles for Taipei as an example of China’s willingness to use nuclear weapons against the United States, particularly due to tensions concerning Taiwan. This quote is widely dismissed by experts in China as a misunderstanding. Several interviewees firmly believe that the general never made the comment at all, and others maintain that the statement has been taken out of context and the meaning has been twisted. No one thought that the statement was indicative of China’s intention to launch its nuclear weapons over issues surrounding Taiwan.
4. See William M. Arkin, “Secret Plan Outlines the Unthinkable,” The Los Angeles Times, March 10, 2002; Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Nuclear Plan Sees New Weapons and New Targets,” The New York Times, March 10, 2002. For China’s official reaction, see “China ‘Deeply Shocked’ Over Pentagon Secret Report: FM Spokesman,” March 11, 2002, available at http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/26489.html.

Joanne Tompkins is a senior analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy. She conducted the research for this article while she was the Henry L. Stimson Center’s fellow in China during the summer of 2002.