Chinese nuclear thinking remains heavily veiled, but newly available primary sources and recent scholarship yield tantalizing insights. What emerges is a set of contradictions in posture, doctrine, and aspirations clustered around "credible minimum" and "limited" deterrent options, with profoundly different implications for the future of China's nuclear deterrent. Although some of these apparent contradictions may stem from insufficient information, as a whole they appear to be indications of a vigorous internal debate and hence signs of a nuclear posture in flux. As a result of this state of flux, actions by other actors that influence China's nuclear decision making assume particular importance. China has shown itself to be susceptible to both offensive/threatening (e.g., foreign missile defense deployment) and engaging/binding (e.g., arms control) influences. American policy makers in particular should bear China's current "sensitivity" in mind as they consider the impact of both threatening and engaging actions on China's future nuclear doctrine and posture.
A Veiled Posture and Doctrine
Less is known about China's nuclear posture, that posture's underlying doctrine, and the country's nuclear aspirations than those of any of the other declared nuclear weapons states. (1) Despite studied ambiguity on the part of Chinese officials, there is a broad-based consensus among analysts that quantitative and qualitative estimates of China's current nuclear forces can be bounded with reasonable confidence. (2) The same cannot be said of the country's nuclear doctrine. China has long taken strong public stances on a range of nuclear weapons doctrinal issues, in effect defining a public doctrine based on positive and negative declaratory constraints. But the behind-the-scenes stances of its policy makers have remained largely opaque.
Although all nuclear weapon-possessing states maintain considerable secrecy around their nuclear programs, China guards its nuclear secrets even more jealously. As Brad Roberts, Robert Manning, and Ronald Montaperto observe, "China is quite deliberately the least transparent of the acknowledged nuclear powers." (3) Chinese nuclear secrecy has deep-seated roots. There is clearly a tradition of state and especially military secrecy in China. (4) As Michael Chase, James Mulvenon, and Evan Medeiros note, "Chinese strategic thinkers have traditionally placed a great deal of emphasis on secrecy and deception." (5) That said, it is unclear to what extent reliance on quotes like Sun-Tzu's classic "warfare is the art of deceit" comprises meaningful analysis, rather than orientalism or the potentially tautological "uniquely Chinese" approach adopted by some analysts. (6)
Chinese nuclear secrecy runs counter to the Cold War notion that transparency fostered predictability which in turn promoted stability. But that concept was based on large, survivably postured, roughly equal nuclear forces in the hands of the two Cold War superpowers. The radical asymmetry between China's "mini-deterrent" and the overwhelmingly more powerful American and Russian nuclear forces it must face may indeed make nuclear ambiguity the most prudent strategy. This is particularly the case in the context of a minimum deterrent doctrine, which holds that a credible risk of losing a few high value targets is sufficient to deter a potential adversary from launching a full-scale attack. This doctrinal approach appears to have shaped China's current forces.
That said, one widely suggested explanation for China's nuclear secrecy does not hold water. Roberts, Manning, and Montaperto argue that,
... the lack of transparency is intended to sow doubt about the exact nature of China's military capabilities, with the apparent hope that some will overemphasize China's military might (and thus perhaps be deterred beyond what operational factors would imply) while others underemphasize that might (thus helping China to reap the public diplomacy benefits of a military posture based on minimal capabilities, even weakness). (7)
The fact that the authors advance no argument for why both over- and under-emphasis will occur in directions that favor China, rather than in the opposite direction or in unpredictable ways, only emphasizes the flawed or at least incomplete nature of the explanation advanced for China's decision to "sow doubt." It makes more sense to think of China's preoccupation with secrecy as the country's low-budget, far less effective equivalent of the essentially invulnerable American Trident ballistic missile submarine. Secrecy makes a potential enemy less certain that it will be able to evade or minimize retaliation following a first strike on China; hence, secrecy enhances the deterrent effect of China's small nuclear arsenal. Uncertainty rather than over- or under-estimation is thus the essential product of secrecy. Considered from such a perspective, secrecy appears a rational response to the situation in which China finds itself.
An undated lecture apparently delivered to a military class in the late 1990s by a senior Chinese People's Liberation Army official and recently translated by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency sheds sufficient light while buttressing the above arguments to justify a lengthy quote:
... we show certain things and do not show certain things ... We vigorously publicize the progress in the development of the Second Artillery and some achievements in it [sic] training launches, but we do not show the performance, quantity and positioning of our nuclear weapons if we can hide them. It is commonly known among foreign countries that the scale of the nuclear force of China is not large, but they are not necessarily very clear just how small it is. There are all kinds of speculations in reports from foreign news agencies, and we take a laissez-faire attitude toward these speculations. Japan says that we have more than three hundred nuclear warheads, and we do not deny this rumor. The United States says that we have more than five hundred nuclear warheads, and we do not refute it, either. Comrade [Deng] Xiaoping once said, we just let others guess, and guess itself is a kind of deterrence. Since the enemy does not know for certain, it does not have the absolute confidence that it will be able to deprive us of nuclear arms through a nuclear first strike. Therefore, it will not venture to go off the deep end. This will enable us to achieve the goal of avoiding nuclear war. (8)
New Primary Sources Provide Tantalizing Insights
Despite China's persistent secrecy, in recent years information on Chinese nuclear doctrinal thinking has begun to be unearthed. A small group of path-breaking scholars have capitalized on newly available primary source material to lift the veil and offer tantalizing insights into Chinese nuclear thinking. This paper draws on much of this recent scholarship as well as directly on a few key primary sources, attempting to synthesize this material to present a coherent, comprehensive picture of what can currently be ascertained and what remains unknown. (9)
Roberts, Manning, and Montaperto have termed China "the forgotten nuclear power." (10) But if the term was ever appropriate to China, in light of the wealth of recent scholarship that no longer appears to be the case. Today Russia, with its vast, poorly secured nuclear arsenal and complex, deserves the sobriquet more than China, which--along with more recent entrants to the nuclear club India, Pakistan, and North Korea--has increasingly been hogging the media and scholarly limelight.
Why Doctrine Matters
China's nuclear doctrinal thinking has particular analytical salience because doctrinal choices, rather than, for example, technological or economic constraints, seem to bear the greatest responsibility for China's current nuclear posture. (11) China has large fissile material stockpiles--the acquisition of fissile material remains the most challenging step in the deployment of nuclear weapons--sufficient to increase its current arsenal substantially, perhaps as much as several times over. (12) And its developing country and aid recipient status notwithstanding, economically booming China also has the financial resources to fund such an increase, if desired, as its burgeoning space program makes clear. As Roberts, Manning, and Montaperto argue, "The small size of China's arsenal can be traced to ... doctrinal concepts." (13) Or, as Chase, Mulvenon, and Medeiros summarize the issue, looking forward, "Doctrinal issues ... are closely intertwined with the modernization of Chinese nuclear forces. Chinese nuclear analysts are engaging in a debate that may redefine Chinese nuclear doctrine which directly affects force structure." (14)
A Chinese Perspective on Nuclear Doctrine
Before delving into the specific contradictions found in Chinese nuclear posture, doctrine, and aspirations, a brief discussion of Chinese analysts' approach to nuclear doctrinal issues is warranted. A recently published Chinese military textbook cogently sums up three doctrinal approaches--maximum, limited, and minimum deterrence--that appear to be widely accepted among Chinese nuclear analysts. (15)
Maximum deterrence seems to describe the arsenals of the United States and Russia--at least vis-a-vis China if not each other--and is characterized as requiring "powerful nuclear superiority" and using "threats of large scale nuclear attacks to contain the adversary." (16) At its logical extreme, this strategy requires sufficient dominance to be able to execute a nuclear "first strike" while minimizing "one's own losses," hence calling for overwhelming force dominance abetted by a "complete missile defense system." (17) This doctrinal approach draws frequent criticism from Chinese analysts, and to some extent may have taken the place of deterrence as the straw man of Chinese nuclear doctrinal debate, now that that previously frequently disparaged term has been widely accepted.
Minimum deterrence, a concept widely used in Western literature, is predicated on the notion that states will be reluctant to risk even a modest nuclear attack on high-value targets like population centers. (18) As a result, a modest nuclear arsenal composed of "a small number of one type of weapon" and "targeted at the adversary's cities" is sufficient for deterrence purposes if said adversary would not have high confidence in eliminating the arsenal with a first strike. (19) Such a counter-value-based approach tends to focus on using nuclear weapons only to deter the use of nuclear weapons or similarly large-scale threats to national survival. This is the nuclear doctrine traditionally ascribed to China but is also a doctrine that has consistently drawn criticism from Chinese nuclear analysts as being insufficient for deterrence purposes. (20)
Finally, limited deterrence describes an intermediate approach whose emphasis is on maintaining a deterrent "sufficient to give the other side a certain level of unacceptable damage ... thus containing nuclear war." (21) In some Chinese writings this term seems to describe a doctrine that resembles a robust version of minimum deterrence consistent with the stringent requirements set forth by nuclear theorist Albert Wohlstetter, but in other contexts this doctrinal approach also seems to encompass intra-conflict escalation control and counterforce war fighting. (22) Limited deterrence is the doctrine most widely favored by Chinese nuclear analysts in available writings, as documented most extensively by A. Iain Johnston. (23)
Contradictions in Posture, Doctrine, and Aspirations
China's current nuclear posture, the doctrine underlying that posture, and the country's nuclear aspirations are characterized by a series of contradictions clustered around minimum and limited deterrent options. The distinction between current doctrine and posture and "aspirational doctrine" was recently made by Gill, Mulvenon, and Stokes, who argued that "the evolution over time of China's doctrine and force structure is the story of trying to close the gap between real capability on the one hand, and what one might call 'aspirational doctrine' on the other," a gap they and other scholars have termed the "capabilities-doctrine gap." (24)
It bears emphasizing that contradictions are found not merely between current posture and aspirations, although current posture leans more heavily toward the minimum side and aspirations seem to lean more heavily toward the limited side. Contradictions are also found within current posture and within aspirations, with expressions of both minimum and limited deterrence in the posturing of current forces and in discussion of China's nuclear aspirations.
Current Posture and Doctrine
China's nuclear posture has traditionally been identified as consistent with a minimum deterrence doctrine. Roberts, Manning, and Montaperto, for example, write that "from its start in the 1960s, China's nuclear posture has been one of 'minimum deterrence.'" (25) Such a posture and doctrine are consistent with the public declaratory statements Chinese officials have made about their country's nuclear forces and intentions. Most significantly, Chinese officials have pledged not to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict--a pledge that does appear to have affected force posturing rather than being mere rhetoric. China's public statements amount to a de facto declaratory doctrine, since China has otherwise not articulated a public doctrine for its nuclear weapons, preferring studied ambiguity (see previous discussion, pp. 1-2).
China's long-range or "strategic" nuclear forces--composed of roughly twenty nuclear-armed ICBMs--are postured in a manner essentially consistent with a minimum deterrent doctrine. (26) These weapons are few in number. They are relatively inaccurate and hence must be mounted with powerful multiple-megaton warheads. The missiles are liquid-fueled, requiring hours to fire and making launch on warning or under attack infeasible. And substantial effort has been devoted to enhancing their survivability, for example by basing them in caves and by constructing dummy missile silos.
At the same time, China has put considerable effort into developing non-strategic nuclear forces that appear designed to be used in counterforce, war-fighting roles against U.S. forces and bases in Asia and whose posture therefore cannot be characterized as minimum. (27) Observing that "viewed as an organic whole, the Chinese nuclear force structure defies simple categorization as either a limited or minimal deterrent," Gill, Mulvenon, and Medeiros attempt to resolve this contradiction by disaggregating the various portions of China's current arsenal. (28) They posit that China's nuclear forces can be thought of as three-tiered, with strategic forces postured as a second-strike minimal deterrent, non-strategic theater systems postured in a more offensively oriented limited manner, and non-nuclear but nuclear-capable ballistic missile forces assigned to play explicitly war-fighting-related roles. (29)
This approach is illuminating but unsatisfactory. When seeking to extrapolate doctrine from posture, forces must be assessed in the aggregate--it is precisely the "organic whole" that is the relevant frame of reference. For example, it would be a mistake to conclude that the U.S. nuclear posture is a combination of maximum deterrence counterforce and limited deterrence escalation control merely because the country fields both highly alerted, multiple-warhead intercontinental-range missiles and aircraft-delivered gravity bombs currently maintained at low levels of alert. In fact, it might be more coherent to conclude that China's current posture is consistent with the limited deterrent espoused by many Chinese analysts, with theater forces facilitating counterforce escalation control and strategic forces providing the counter-value last line of defense and ultimate deterrent.
The critical substantive question then may be whether China's non-strategic forces can fairly be characterized as war-fighting-oriented. Although some analysts--most notably Gill, Mulvenon, and Stokes--have characterized them as such, relatively little analytical evidence is offered for that judgment, although some of the Chinese doctrinal discourse related to targeting also buttresses the argument. Nonetheless, the mere existence of shorter-range nuclear-armed missiles need not violate a minimum deterrent approach, particularly given the proximity of potential threat Russia. And China's theater missiles appear sufficiently inaccurate--albeit due to technological constraints rather than by design--to make them effective only against relatively "soft" targets, rather than the hardened or at least semi-hard counterforce targets that a true limited doctrine would require the ability to hold at risk.
Understanding the posturing of China's non-strategic forces should be a research priority for at least one other (admittedly purely speculative) reason. It is possible that non-strategic forces are postured in a manner that strategic forces would be, absent resource-related, technological, or political constraints. This is possible because each of those constraints can be expected to apply more strongly to strategic than non-strategic forces. Strategic forces are more costly to deploy than non-strategic forces, so resource limits would restrict their expansion more strongly than in the case of non-strategic forces. Strategic forces require more sophisticated technological capabilities--additional rocket stages, more powerful fuels, and more robust, miniaturized warheads; hence, technological limitations would constrain strategic deployments more than they would non-strategic deployments. Finally, Chinese policy makers are likely to be most resistant to military advocacy for enlarged strategic forces because of the visibility of those forces, evinced by the fact that many foreign media and think tank references refer only to its twenty-odd ICBMs and ignore the hundreds of other warheads in its arsenal entirely. If accurate, these suppositions might make China's non-strategic nuclear forces harbingers of likely future changes in its strategic force posture if and when existing constraints are lifted or softened.
Aspirational Posture and Doctrine
Among Chinese nuclear analysts, there appears to be overwhelming advocacy for a limited deterrence approach that encompasses larger and more aggressively postured forces. (30) There is also corresponding advocacy of launch-on-warning or launch-under-attack nuclear war-fighting capabilities and intra-conflict escalation control and of the extension of deterrence beyond merely deterring full-scale nuclear or conventional attack.
At the same time, there is some advocacy for the traditional minimum deterrent approach. For example, the previously cited lecture apparently delivered by a senior People's Liberation Army (PLA) official supports a minimum deterrent approach, although with some incongruities that hint at positions more consistent with a limited approach. (31) A number of analysts have concluded on the basis of primary source materials and examinations of China's current posture and modernization efforts that China is in fact seeking a credible minimum rather than a limited deterrent. (32)
And given China's more minimum-oriented current posture, it seems reasonable to infer that non-military officials, whose views analysts know much less about, are more inclined toward a minimum deterrent approach. In fact, there are indications that the political constraints of no-first-use imposed by non-military officials are resented by military officials. (33) As such, their continued imposition speaks to the influence of civilian policy makers, who are apparently overriding their military counterparts on this and likely related issues.
Interpreting the Contradictions
In some cases, apparent contradictions or tensions within and between China's nuclear posture, doctrine, and aspirations may simply be a result of a lack of information. For example, relatively little is known about process issues--how debates on doctrine and posture are conducted and how decisions that affect ongoing development and deployment efforts are made on the basis of those debates. To the extent that apparent contradictions result from limited information, scholars are largely hostage to the passage of time and the gradual release or leakage of information.
One possible interpretation is that China is engaging in the same kind of vigorous debates that semi-independent, government-funded research institutes (e.g., the Institute for Defense Analyses or the National Defense University) do in Washington, while China's internal doctrinal policies are in fact far more consistent than they appear. But the Chinese debate is qualitatively different than the vigorous think tank debate in the United States. Primary sources make clear that officials at the highest levels of the military are considering these issues. That said, it is not clear whether officials at the highest levels of the central government are considering them, and that is arguably more important. So there is room for debate and disagreement here
It is also difficult to judge whether this debate is a new development--certainly, elements of Mao Zedong's thinking were equally contradictory. Serious doctrinal debate dates back only to the mid-1980s, and some have argued that until recently China has not had a true nuclear doctrine at all. (34) So the apparent contradictions may be not so much signs of a newly contentious doctrinal debate as indications of an emerging debate.
But the key question is whether China's doctrine and posture are currently in flux, regardless of the novelty of that development. And the overall pattern strongly suggests that the contradictions discussed above are inherent to China's current posture, doctrine, and aspirations and not just a result of incomplete information or a debate with little bearing on actual nuclear policies. China appears to be at a crossroads, with a nuclear doctrine and posture in flux.
China at the Crossroads
China's nuclear deterrent is at a crossroads, with two paths its current and future modernization efforts could take. These paths have dramatically different implications for the future of China's nuclear forces. China does not yet appear to have chosen a path, but given the rather different requirements and implications of each path, it will have to choose. One path, credible minimum deterrence, is closer to China's current nuclear posture. It calls for an emphasis on concealment and secrecy, on operating in a post-attack environment, on developing and fielding more survivable mobile missiles, and on developing and fielding ballistic missiles submarines, if feasible. All of these would be emphasized over the quantitative size of future forces. The other path, limited deterrence, calls for the development of war-fighting capabilities that would allow calibrated responses short of a full nuclear attack, a move toward a launch-on-warning or launch-under-attack posture; the development of a broader spectrum of capabilities ranging from a robust nuclear triad of land-, sea-, and air-based forces to the deployment of enhancing space-based assets; the deployment of substantially larger nuclear forces; and even the possible incorporation of missile defense capabilities.
At the same time, it is important to emphasize that the two paths are not entirely mutually exclusive. For example, mobile systems and submarines--both more survivable platforms--would be an asset under both minimum and limited postures. Nonetheless, which doctrinal vision wins the argument has huge implications for the direction China takes. Johnston has argued compellingly that among military analysts, the limited vision is winning the argument. (35) But to date, analysts have far less insight into the nuclear doctrinal thinking of non-military policy makers, those responsible for the public doctrinal commitments and current nuclear posture more consistent with a minimum deterrent doctrine.
Implications for Engagement
If China's approach to nuclear weapons is currently in flux, that implies that the country will be particularly sensitive to other actors' actions that affect China's nuclear decision-making calculus. Admittedly China is likely to use actions taken by the United States and other countries to justify the steps it takes, but those actions will also have direct effects--China's justifications will be more than mere rhetoric. As Johnston has argued, "The pace and scope of Chinese nuclear weapons modernization is in large measure dependent on what happens outside China's borders, in international institutions and in American decisions about strategic policy over the next few years." (36)
One possible counterargument is that China is on an incremental, inexorable modernization path on which external developments have little bearing. For example, the U.S. intelligence community projects that by 2015 China will have seventy-five to one hundred warheads on long-range ballistic missiles. (37) China's nuclear modernization has been and is likely to continue to be gradual. But that need not imply insensitivity to external impulses. The consequences of U.S. actions now may not be seen for years to come, but the very gradualism of the process makes it all the more important to anticipate possible effects now because by the time consequences are evident, it will be too late to modify the actions that triggered them.
If we accept that China's nuclear posture and doctrine are currently in flux and that modernization is indeed likely to be affected by the actions of other states, what are the possible state actions that might be relevant? There are at least two types: 1) offensive or threatening actions, such as the deployment of missile defenses or advanced conventional weapons, the enunciation of preemption or prevention policies, or the adoption of unwelcome political positions with regard to Taiwan; and 2) binding or engaging actions, such as incorporating China into multilateral or bilateral arms control commitments, such as a ban on nuclear testing, a fissile material production cap, or nuclear-weapon-free zones. (38)
China has shown itself susceptible to offensive/threatening influences. A classic realist approach to international relations, with its focus on power, particularly of the military variety, has potential explanatory power in this area. Although such approaches have limitations in explaining certain phenomena--why a state might subject itself to certain arms control commitments, for example--realist approaches do a good job explaining longer-term, broaderbrush responses to shifts in power. The Realpolitik world view that appears to have widespread currency among Chinese policy makers buttresses the analytical validity of this approach. As Johnston has pointed out in the Chinese context, "Realpolitik world views are associated with a keen sensitivity to relative power capabilities." (39)
Other analysts have echoed this conclusion. Although Roberts, Manning, and Montaperto argue that China "will continue to [modernize its nuclear arsenal] regardless of the actions of other nations," they also point out that
external developments will influence the final contours of China's nuclear modernization program. In fact, Western actions have already had some effect, and not for the better. The Gulf War and the air war over Kosovo, for example, reinforced Chinese worries that precision-guided conventional weapons could destroy China's existing nuclear second-strike capability. (40)
The authors also point out that "Beijing will almost certainly regard the plans for the deployment of [national missile defense] as a challenge to its own nuclear deterrent. As a result, Chinese decision-makers may even now have begun worst-case planning to offset what they perceive to be an emerging threat." (41) Of course missile defenses are far from new on the international scene. Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan proposed the deployment of very substantial defenses in the early 1980s, and U.S. efforts to deploy limited missile defense systems date back even farther than that. Nonetheless, recent moves in Washington to begin deploying limited national missile defense capabilities that are intended to be precursors of far more extensive systems are likely to be deeply threatening to China. (42) Missile defense is particularly threatening to China in the context of scenarios related to Taiwan, which in recent years have become a focus for Chinese military planning. Both national missile defenses that China perceived as giving the United States greater freedom of action in a potential crisis over Taiwan and, perhaps even more importantly, local or regional defenses that affected China's ability to threaten Taiwan or U.S. forces in the region would be profoundly threatening to China and hence would likely spark a significant response.
China has shown itself to be particularly vulnerable to binding or engaging influences. Classic realist approaches do a poor job explaining why a state like China would limit its ability to modernize its nuclear forces by signing the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), for example. (43) International relations theories that focus on norms and state identity or self-image are more potent analytical tools in this regard. Such approaches may have less currency in explaining long-term, broad-brush developments around the globe, and their contingent nature may make meaningful generalizations across states more difficult. But identity- or image-based approaches are of particular value in understanding China, which has exhibited notable susceptibility to identity-related constraints in the context of international agreements. China's decisions to join both the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and, more recently, to sign the CTBT are arguably less than rational from a classic realist perspective, but are consistent with what appears to be a longstanding Chinese desire not to be viewed as a pariah state in the international system.
At the same time, it is easy to exaggerate the potential causal relationships between U.S. attempts to engage China and future nuclear force modernization. An example of what might be termed a "dis-engaging influence" is illustrative. Gill, Mulvenon, and Stokes write that "[The CTBT's] defeat in the [U.S.] Senate should prepare us for the likelihood of a resumption of Chinese testing and thus the possible conquering of important developmental hurdles in the area of smaller warheads." (44) China is admittedly likely to be particularly sensitive to the actions of other states (most notably the United States), but absent renewed U.S. testing and/or the collapse of the test ban treaty globally, China appears unlikely to begin testing again in the near future, as Gill, Mulvenon, and Stokes seem to expect. But just because the causal effects are not iron-clad does not mean they are not significant. Given the effects of voluntary constraints on China's current posture--and few would argue that the CTBT does not substantively hamper China's nuclear modernization efforts, or even that its no-first-use pledge is not a limitation on its nuclear forces against which some of its military officials appear to chafe--engagement is a potentially productive long-term strategy for affecting China's nuclear future.
Areas for Future Scholarship
If the hypothesis posited herein--that China's nuclear doctrine and posture are in a state of flux--is correct, then scholars should look for signs that China is leaning toward or has chosen one of the paths outlined here. Contradictions identified above can be tracked and new contradictions evaluated if they emerge. If those contradictions begin to resolve themselves, that will be evidence that China is moving down a particular path.
Another fruitful avenue for future research is to look for signs that China is responding to significant actions taken by other actors. China may be in flux and hence more sensitive to the actions of other actors, but just how sensitive remains unclear. For example, if the Bush administration proceeds with current plans to deploy an initial missile defense capability as early as 2004, followed by more ambitious, integrated theater and national defense platforms, the above analysis has posited that China is likely to respond vigorously. Of course, given the highly secretive and ambiguous nature of Chinese policy making in this area, it will be difficult to gauge responses, particularly in the near term. But good scholarship thrives on such challenges.
Finally, essentially all areas of Chinese nuclear posture, doctrine, and policy making remain less than fully understood and hence merit further study. Certain areas, such as those related to process, remain particularly poorly understood. Other areas for potential investigation, such as China's non-strategic nuclear forces, discussed above, are research priorities because of their potential to shed light on China's current and future nuclear doctrine and posture more broadly. But as in the past, such study will continue to be largely hostage to the release--intentional or not--of primary source information from China. One thing is clear: China's nuclear policies bear watching. Scholars, for their part, have a vital role to play by continuing to parse what little does emerge from China and by ensuring that potentially significant nuances are not lost in the inevitable filtering and simplifying process that occurs in both public debate and the halls of power.
As a result of the state of flux that currently characterizes China's nuclear doctrine and posture, the future of China's nuclear forces will be particularly sensitive to the actions of other nations in the coming years. U.S. policy makers should take this sensitivity into consideration when weighing the costs and benefits of actions likely to affect China. China and its nuclear posture and doctrine cannot be treated as a constant. Of course with sufficient time nothing in the international system is constant, but the key argument advanced here is that, given the state of flux of its nuclear posture, China is likely to be particularly sensitive to external influences.
These observations do not mean that the United States should not deploy missile defenses, improve the capabilities of its conventional or nuclear weapons, or adopt potentially provocative policies vis-a-vis Taiwan; nor do they mean that the United States must engage China in bilateral or multilateral arms control efforts. But they do mean that U.S. policy makers would be well advised to make cost-benefit assessments of relevant policies that carefully consider potential impacts on China's future nuclear posture and doctrine.
(1) Of the five declared nuclear weapons states recognized in the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, China is clearly the least transparent. That said, even the relatively transparent United States is not quite as transparent as is often assumed. The information exchanges mandated under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties with the Soviet Union and then Russia allowed the size of U.S. strategic nuclear forces to be estimated with a high degree of accuracy, but the precise numbers of strategic weapons and warheads remained and remains classified. The new Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty recently signed by Moscow and Washington contains no similar verification provisions and although Moscow has publicly called for their negotiation, the current administration in Washington has expressed no interest in doing so. And non-strategic weapons stockpiles have been and continue to be relatively nontransparent. Finally, although less is known about China's nuclear forces than those of the other declared nuclear weapons states, there is a case to be made that even less is known about the postures and doctrines of non-recognized nuclear-capable states like Pakistan, India, and Israel.
(2) Assessments of China's nuclear capabilities from governmental and non-governmental sources are relatively consistent, and debate about the size and capabilities of China's nuclear arsenal occurs mostly at the margins. See National Intelligence Council (NIC), "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat Through 2015," Unclassified Summary of the National Intelligence Estimate (December 2001); Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, "NRDC Nuclear Notebook: Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2003," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 59 (2003): 77-80.
(3) Brad Roberts, Robert A. Manning, and Ronald N. Montaperto, "China: The Forgotten Nuclear Power," Foreign Affairs 79 (July/August 2000): 54; Brad Roberts, Robert A. Manning, and Ronald N. Montaperto, "China, Nuclear Weapons, and Arms Control: A Preliminary Assessment" (paper presented at roundtable for the Council on Foreign Relations, the National Defense University, and the Institute for Defense Analyses, Washington, DC, April 2000), 34.
(4) Roberts Manning, and Montaperto, "China, Nuclear Weapons, and Arms Control," 34.
(5) Michael Chase, James Mulvenon, and Evan Medeiros, "China's Evolving Nuclear Calculus: Modernization and the Doctrinal Debate" (paper presented at the RAND/Center for Naval Analyses annual conference on the PLA, "The PLA Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs: Zhanyi Xue and Beyond," Alexandria, VA, December 2002), 11.
(6) See, for example, Chong-Pin Lin, China's Nuclear Weapons Strategy (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988), passim. Somewhat less problematically, see Chase, Mulvenon, and Medeiros, 48.
(7) Roberts, Manning, and Montaperto, "China, Nuclear Weapons, and Arms Control," 34.
(8) U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), trans., "The Strategic Use and Development of the Second Artillery in the New Period," undated and not further identified. Obtained from A. Iain Johnston, November 2003.
(9) U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently made the known-unknown distinction in a notably cogent comment that was widely mocked as nonsensical in the American and international media. Rumsfeld said, "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns--the ones we don't know we don't know." (U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), "DOD News Briefing: Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers," February 12, 2002, http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Feb2002/t02122002_t212sdv2.html. The remark won Rumsfeld the annual Foot in Mouth Award of the British Plain English Campaign, although that country's Economist subsequently came to the defense secretary's defense. See "Rum Remark Wins Rumsfeld an Award," BBC News, December 2, 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3254852.stm.) The key, then, is to attempt to compile a comprehensive set of knowns and unknowns. Only if previously unknown unknowns can be incorporated into the known unknown category can they be flagged for further study that could facilitate a move into the known category. And even if they remain in the unknown category, accurate identification of unknown data is vital to an accurate analysis of what is known.
(10) Roberts, Manning, and Montaperto, "China: The Forgotten Nuclear Power," 53.
(11) Ibid.; Roberts, Manning, and Montaperto, "China, Nuclear Weapons, and Arms Control," 31.
(12) Ibid., 35; Bates Gill, James Mulvenon, and Mark Stokes, "The Chinese Second Artillery Corps: Transition to Credible Deterrence," in The People's Liberation Army as Organization, ed. James C. Mulvenon and Andrew N.D. Yang (Washington, DC: Rand, 2002), 537.
(13) Roberts, Manning, and Montaperto, "China, Nuclear Weapons, and Arms Control," 31.
(14) Chase, Mulvenon, and Medeiros, 3.
(15) A. Iain Johnston, "China's New 'Old Thinking': The Concept of Limited Deterrence," International Security 20 (1995/6): 12.
(16) Wang Wenrong, ed., Strategy (Beijing: Chinese National Defense University Press, 1999), 359. Note: The passages cited herein were translated by A. Iain Johnston and obtained by the author November 26, 2003.
(18) Ibid., 360.
(20) Johnston, "China's New 'Old Thinking,'" 18.
(21) Wang, 360-361.
(22) Albert Wohlstetter, "The Delicate Balance of Terror," RAND, Paper P-1472 (December 1958). Available online at http://www.rand.org/publications/classics/wohlstetter/P1472/P1472.html; Johnston, "China's New 'Old Thinking,'" 19.
(23) Johnston, "China's New 'Old Thinking,'" passim.
(24) Gill, Mulvenon, and Stokes, 512; Johnston, "China's New 'Old Thinking,'" 31.
(25) Roberts, Manning, and Montaperto, "China: The Forgotten Nuclear Power," 56.
(26) Norris and Kristensen, 77-80.
(27) Gill, Mulvenon, and Stokes, 540-541.
(30) Johnston, "China's New 'Old Thinking,'" 19-21.
(32) Gill, Mulvenon, and Stokes, passim; Chase, Mulvenon, and Medeiros, passim.
(33) Johnston, "China's New 'Old Thinking,'" 21-23.
(34) John Wilson Lewis and Hua Di, "China's Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies, Strategies, Goals," International Security 17 (Fall 1992): 6-7, as cited in Gill, Mulvenon, and Stokes, 542-543.
(35) Johnston, "China's New 'Old Thinking,'" passim.
(36) A. Iain Johnston, "Prospects for Chinese Nuclear Force Modernization: Limited Deterrence versus Multilateral Arms Control," China Quarterly 146 (June 1996): 549.
(37) NIC, 5-6.
(38) This discussion treats China as an essentially unitary actor. An alternative approach might be to consider bureaucratic factions within China advocating for different doctrinal approaches and evaluate external impulses in light of their effect on factional dynamics. Hence an explicit U.S. policy of preventive war might strengthen the hand of military hardliners advocating for more aggressive nuclear weapons policies vis-a-vis those advocating more traditional, defensive approaches to nuclear weapons.
(39) Johnston, "Chinese Nuclear Force Modernization," 550.
(40) Roberts, Manning, and Montaperto, "China: The Forgotten Nuclear Power," 53-54.
(41) Ibid., 54.
(42) Wade Boese, "DOD Wants to Field Defenses Without Calling It Deployment," Arms Control Today 33 (March 2003): 24.
(43) Roberts, Manning, and Montaperto, "China: The Forgotten Nuclear Power," 54-55.
(44) Gill, Mulvenon, and Stokes, 536.
Philipp C. Bleek
Philipp C. Bleek is a graduate student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he is currently conducting research on U.S. efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear material stockpiles worldwide. A graduate of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Bleek previously served as an analyst with the non-governmental Arms Control Association in Washington, where his portfolio included strategic and tactical nuclear weapons policy, threat reduction efforts in the former Soviet Union, and U.S.-Russian relations. Bleek began his professional work on nonproliferation issues as a Washington-based Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow. Bleek recently published "Project Vinca: Lessons for Securing Civil Nuclear Material Stockpiles" in the Fall/Winter 2003 Nonproliferation Review.…