China's Nuclear Posture at the Crossroads: Credible Minimum versus Limited Deterrence and Implications for Engagement

By Bleek, Philipp C. | Kennedy School Review, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

China's Nuclear Posture at the Crossroads: Credible Minimum versus Limited Deterrence and Implications for Engagement


Bleek, Philipp C., Kennedy School Review


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). 

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