Dragon or Dinosaur? Nuclear Weapons in a Modernizing China

By Kane, Thomas M. | Parameters, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Dragon or Dinosaur? Nuclear Weapons in a Modernizing China


Kane, Thomas M., Parameters


Few leaders, if any, would make the decision to deploy nuclear weapons casually. Therefore, the fact that a country possesses such arms indicates that it has important uses for them. Nevertheless, analysts of contemporary Chinese foreign policy often dismiss the nuclear arsenal of the People's Republic of China (PRC) as insignificant in size and passively defensive in purpose. (1) Indeed, analysts of contemporary nuclear matters often fail to mention China at all. (2) This article aims to correct these omissions by arguing that Beijing has long-term aspirations to improve its position in world politics, and that nuclear weapons play a fundamental role in its plans.

Whenever one discusses long-term planning in foreign policy, one must proceed with caution. Chance plays such a large role in international politics that it is difficult for any government to plan its foreign affairs in much detail. One must remain aware that a nation's domestic politics can overshadow its external intentions. The lack of reliable information about such basic matters as the Beijing government's defense budget makes it all the more difficult to analyze China's foreign policy.

With those caveats, however, one may observe that there are patterns in China's policies, media attitudes, and military thought. These patterns match those which an observer would expect to see in a country with China's known goals and China's known capabilities. These patterns have remained consistent for decades. Therefore, one may infer that the Chinese government is pursuing a coherent long-term policy, whether or not it has planned its future moves in detail.

This article begins by discussing China's foreign policy aspirations. A second section covers China's ability to achieve those aspirations, and notes that its nuclear arsenal is its only reliable assurance of military supremacy. A third section discusses Chinese official and semi-official statements on nuclear doctrine. Beijing professes to maintain nuclear forces only to deter others from using nuclear weapons against it, but Chinese military writings suggest that the PRC's leadership understands that such arms have more uses than that. A final section discusses the PRC's capabilities. This section notes that, despite American assertions that the strategic environment has changed radically over the past 12 years, Chinese writers tend to stress the continuities in international affairs, and Chinese military developments appear to be following the same pattern they have been following since the 1980s.

China's Military Requirements

The PRC has ambitious foreign policy goals, many of which bring it into conflict with other powers. To begin with, the PRC, like any self-respecting state, treasures its sovereignty. Official spokesmen speak passionately about the humiliation China suffered at the hands of European powers during the 19th century, and about their country's determination never to repeat the experience. Despite the fashion for modifying the principle of national independence to accommodate international organizations and global commerce, Chinese writers define sovereignty rigidly. (3)

Chinese leaders appreciate that their country needs to trade and cooperate with other nations, and that this will often require them to compromise. For this reason, they wish to obtain as much international influence as they can, so as to settle as many disputes as possible on their own terms. In the words of Colonel Peng Guangqian of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), "The development of modern China cannot be separated from the outside world, especially at a time when the world is growing smaller each day." (4) Accordingly, Peng concludes that China's development depends on a favorable international strategic situation.

China's leaders also understand that the dominant powers in the contemporary world are, at best, lukewarm toward their regime. Although many observers suggest that the Chinese are relinquishing their belief in communist ideology, China's leaders continue to ground their political discourse in the precepts of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. …

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