On Jan. 20, China issued its biennial defense white paper, which explained for the first time how its nuclear force would respond to different situations in line with its policy of "no first use of nuclear weapons." The paper, entitled "China's National Defense in 2008," is the sixth Beijing has issued since 1998.
China's primary strategic nuclear force is maintained by its Second Artillery Corps, which Beijing states "takes as its fundamental mission the protection of China from any nuclear attack." Although the paper's description of the role of the Second Artillery Corps focused on its nuclear forces, the corps also has a conventional precision-strike missile capability.
China outlined in broad terms three phases of readiness for the nuclear forces of its Second Artillery Corps. In peacetime, the paper asserts that China's nuclear missiles "are not aimed at any country." Other nuclear-armed states, including the United States, have made similar assurances regarding not targeting their nuclear arms.
If threatened by a nuclear attack, Beijing states that its nuclear missiles "go into a state of alert and get ready for a nuclear counterattack" to deter the use of nuclear weapons. Lastly, in the event of a nuclear attack against China, the paper indicates that the Second Artillery Corps will launch a nuclear counterattack "either independently or together with the nuclear forces of other services."
China's navy has maintained a small sea-based nuclear missile capability since 1983. It has been developing a new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine and is believed to be working on a more advanced submarine-launched nuclear missile. China has an estimated stockpile of 100-200 nuclear weapons.
Although China has consistently claimed that it would only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack, the United States has questioned the credibility of that assurance. A 2008 annual Pentagon report on China's military power stated that "doctrinal materials suggest additional missions for China's nuclear forces include deterring conventional attacks against [Chinese] nuclear assets or conventional attacks with [weapons of mass destruction]-like effects." The report notes, however, that Chinese officials have offered public and private assurances that its no-first-use pledge would not change and that the policy has support in China's military.
In addition to describing China's nuclear force planning, the paper appears to provide a limited explanation of the country's strategic nuclear modernization efforts. It states that the Second Artillery Corps "strives to raise the informationization (sic) level of its weaponry and equipment, ensure their safety and reliability," and enhance a variety of missile capabilities. In particular, it states that the development of the Second Artillery Corps' nuclear and missile forces has allowed it to deploy solid-fueled and liquid-fueled missiles of varying ranges and with "different types of warheads."
China does not indicate the nature of the types of warheads it has developed. It is unclear if such an explanation helps to assuage concerns expressed by the United States and its allies regarding China's lack of transparency in its military modernization efforts, including its nuclear forces and delivery systems. The 2008 Pentagon report asserted that Chinese leaders have not yet explained the rationale and objectives behind its strategic modernization, increasing the risk of "misunderstanding and miscalculation."