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China’s Nuclear Doctrine

Published Apr 25, 2020
Updated Apr 25, 2020

China’s nuclear doctrine is based on strategic culture with civilisation as well as communist perspective. The doctrine does not ape the United States or Russia but follows a minimalist line. More over China has not faced the challenge of a conventional threat like Russia or US led NATO forces had during the Cold War and beyond thus a necessity for developing doctrines and weapons for war fighting has not arisen.

On the other hand China is faced with the challenge of balancing stability in the wake of global competitors for strategic space the United States and Russia.

Thus developments in the two large nuclear powers determine much of the trajectory adopted by China. While this has led to developments in tandem of delivery capability in terms of range, multiple targeting systems and throw weight China remains restrained in quantity of warheads, though a degree of opacity in the reports leads to some circumspection.

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The Chinese nuclear doctrine needs to be examined in the light of above factors.

Xia Liping writing “On China’s Nuclear Doctrine”, identifies five major tenets of China’s nuclear doctrine, policy of declaration, nuclear development, nuclear deployment, nuclear employment, and nuclear disarmament.

The overall nuclear doctrine is based on self defence, thus nuclear weapons are to be used to ensure China’s territorial sovereignty and integrity of the people.

Nuclear weapons development policy is to an arsenal that is sufficient for self defence.

China is committed not to engage in a nuclear arms race, yet it may wily-nily be involved in one given the rising trajectory of the United States and Russia in this sphere. Chinese leadership is also committed not to deploy nuclear weapons abroad.

An important tenet of China’s nuclear doctrine is No First Use (NFU) – at any time and under any circumstances. This is further qualified by a commitment not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non nuclear weapon states or in nuclear weapons free zones.

A small but sufficient arsenal of nuclear weapons is maintained to ensure adequacy for counter attack and nuclear deterrence with an assured capability for a nuclear counter attack.

The strategic guideline of active defence is also applicable in nuclear weapons philosophy albeit with a likely modification that the “self defence counter attack,” or a pre-emptive may not be undertaken as a part of the nuclear strike.

While the numbers are low varied capability for delivery in terms of missiles, aircraft and submarine launched ballistic missiles is being maintained and is continuously upgraded as is evident from the recent developments. Missiles are upgraded in terms of range and multiple targeting vehicles. Ballistic Missile Defence development is another source to provide high degree of assurance of retaining a credible second strike capability.

Daniel R Coats Director of US National Intelligence USA in a Statement for the Record Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community on March 6, 2018 states, “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to modernize its nuclear missile force by adding more survivable road-mobile systems and enhancing its silo-based systems. This new generation of missiles is intended to ensure the viability of China’s strategic deterrent by providing a second-strike capability. China also has tested a hypersonic glide vehicle. In addition, the PLA Navy continues to develop the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and might produce additional JIN-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. The JIN-class submarines— armed with JL-2 SLBMs—give the PLA Navy its first long-range, sea-based nuclear capability. The Chinese have also publicized their intent to form a triad by developing a nuclear-capable next generation bomber”.

Command and Control of nuclear weapons is under the Central Military Commission. Given the No First Use policy the requirement for delegation does not arise as China has not shown any inclination for deployment of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons.

There is likely to be extremely tight control over nuclear facilities with effective checks and balances.

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In peace time Chinese nuclear weapons are not deployed and the warheads are not mated, however there is evidence that these are located suitably to be launched as and when necessary including in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

Normal levels of alertness from a peace time to a war time posture are likely to be adopted with the forces assuming a posture of readiness for counter attack.

Xia Liping maintains that China will retain a flexible nuclear posture without fundamentally altering the tenets such as No First Use in the future.