China's No First Use of Nuclear Weapons

By Zhenqiang, Pan | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports, October 28, 2016 | Go to article overview

China's No First Use of Nuclear Weapons


Zhenqiang, Pan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports


On October 16, 1964, China successfully conducted its first test of a nuclear weapon by exploding an atomic bomb. On the same day, the Chinese government issued a statement, which solemnly declared that it "will never at any time or under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons."1 Subsequently, China also promised that it "will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons on non-nuclear-weapon states and nuclear-weapon-free zones" under any circumstances.2

This commitment by China not to use and not to threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states is a logical development of China's pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons. Because non-nuclear-weapon states by definition do not possess nuclear weapons, China's use of nuclear weapons against them is out of the question. These two commitments have become the cornerstone of China's nuclear strategy, and the country has never wavered or been ambiguous about these pledges either during or after the Cold War.

China's nuclear strategy, symbolized by its no-first-use commitment, uniquely distinguishes it from other nuclear-weapon states-namely, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France. However, Western countries often question the validity of China's no-first-use policy and claim that it is only a wishful verbal promise, one that is difficult to verify. Furthermore, it is hard for Western countries to believe that during a crisis, China would not use nuclear weapons first in order to ensure its own eventual security and survival. This belief uses a traditional Western concept of nuclear security as a measuring stick to assess Chinese thinking on nuclear strategy. Western countries simply cannot understand and do not believe that China will not fully exploit its nuclear weapons, as assets with great military value, and they doubt that China is willing to unilaterally limit their use, tying its own hands.

Given these considerations, how should China's commitment to no first use of nuclear weapons be interpreted, and why has it adopted this stance? What impact does its no-first-use policy have on the country's domestic and international security? And will China's policy change, in light of the tremendous changes in global affairs in the post- Cold War era?

THE REASON FOR CHINA'S ADOPTION OF THE NO-FIRST-USE POLICY

CHINA'S VIEW OF THE USABILITY OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS

In the eyes of nuclear-weapon states such as the United States and Russia, and even the United Kingdom and France, nuclear weapons are not qualitatively different from conventional weapons. Despite the massive destructive power and lethality of nuclear weapons, they are considered to be usable in ways similar to conventional weapons. Thus, during the early stages of the Cold War, when the United States held a nuclear monopoly or enjoyed absolute nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons were a trump card in the massive retaliation strategy implemented by the United States. The United States assumed that once a war broke out with the Soviet Union, a large-scale nuclear attack would defeat its rival. But as the Soviet Union's nuclear forces gradually caught up with those of the United States, in addition to its superior conventional forces in Europe, the United States and NATO could no longer suppress their rival with a large-scale nuclear first strike. However, the United States and NATO were still prepared to use nuclear weapons first as the most powerful tool to retaliate against a strong offensive attack by the Warsaw Pact's formidable tank columns.

After the Cold War, when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, the confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union and also between their associated military blocs ceased. Russia, having inherited the legacy of the Soviet Union, no longer had an advantage in conventional forces over NATO. In fact, compared with Western military assets, Russia had become a disadvantaged party in terms of conventional forces, and thus it had to take the path previously taken by Western countries during the Cold War: using nuclear weapons to make up for its lack of conventional forces. …

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