China's Perspective on Nuclear Deterrence

By Yunzhu, Yao | Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

China's Perspective on Nuclear Deterrence

Yunzhu, Yao, Air & Space Power Journal

My topic is about China's perspective on deterrence, but before I deal with the topic, I must point out that for a long time in the Cold War, China strongly opposed the concept of nuclear deterrence, which, as so frequently used by the US government, had carried with it such derogatory connotations as "nuclear blackmail," "nuclear coercion," "nuclear containment," and "nuclear threat." And China, as the country most frequently threatened by nuclear attack, was understandably reluctant to use such a term.1 Not until the late 1980s or early 1990s, when China's drive toward defense modernization inspired academic debate, did deterrence gain acceptance as a key concept in strategic studies and lose its pejorative sense. However, even though the term remained taboo for some time, the logic of deterrence has always played a major role in Chinese nuclear thinking. To facilitate understanding, I explain China's nuclear policy, making use of US deterrence terminology, and compare China's deterrence thinking with that of the United States.

China's No-First~Use Policy Indicates That It Applies Pure Deterrence and Deterrence by Punishment

The most important element of China's nuclear policy is renunciation of the firstuse option. By adopting a no-first-use policy, China has to base its deterrence on retaliation, not on denial. Therefore it must develop retaliatory second-strike capabilities instead of nuclear war-fighting capabilities and doctrines. Studying the nuclear thinking of earlier Chinese leaders like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, we find that neither man considered nuclear weapons usable on the battlefield in the same way as conventional means. Moreover, neither believed that nuclear wars could ever be fought and won in a measured and controlled way. Such thinking differs from that of American nuclear strategists who have explored many possible forms of nuclear conflict and have formulated complex, complete theories of nuclear war fighting, including limited war, theater nuclear operations, and escalation control.

The Self-Defensive Nature of China's Nuclear Policy Means That It Carries Out Central Deterrence but Not Extended Deterrence

China preserves nuclear capabilities only to deter nuclear-weapon states from launching nuclear attacks against its homeland. China neither provides a "nuclear umbrella" to, nor accepts one from, any other country. Its opposition to the policy of extended nuclear deterrence- the practice of nuclearweapon states' providing nuclear umbrellas to their non-nuclear-weapon allies- attests to the self-defensive nature of that policy. China has clearly indicated that it will neither deploy nuclear weapons on foreign territory nor allow foreign nuclear weapons into China. By comparison, the United States has incorporated extended deterre nee as a key component into its nuclear strategy and alliance policy, both during the Cold War and even today. I disagree with the notion that extended deterrence helps nonpro life ration by relieving allies of the need to develop their indigenous nuclear arsenals, thus reducing the number of nuclear states. In my view, extended deterrence is first and foremost a defense commitment used to strengthen an alliance, with nonprolif e ration a by-product of this commitment rather than a predesigned major mission. Very few of America's allies face threats today that can be dealt with only by US extended nuclear deterrence; rather, US conventional military means can easily satisfy their defense requirements. Additionally, extended deterrence promotes proliferation by motivating declared or potential enemies of the United States and its allies to possess nuclear weapons as asymmetric means to offset US conventional superiority. If we are serious about creating conditions for a nuclear-free world, as President Obama has suggested, the policy of extended nuclear deterrence should be among the first to change.

China's Nuclear Policy Seeks Deterrence at the Grand Strategic and Strategic Levels, Not at the Operational and Tactical Levels

Chinese leaders mainly consider nuclear weapons a political instrument for employment at the level of grand strategy, not as a winning tool for military operations. …

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