China’s Shifting Nuclear Posture: An Ominous Sign Of Things To Come?

For decades People’s Republic of China has accepted the inferiority of it’s strategic ( ie nuclear) forces when compared to those of the United States and Russia. The relatively small size of China’s nuclear arsenal, coupled with the limited amount of damage it could inflict upon an enemy led many experts over the years to question China’s beliefs about nuclear warfare as well as its strategy for fighting one. The overall consensus is that since China exploded its first atomic bomb, the nation’s nuclear posture has been one of minimal deterrence.  In recent years the questions have become louder as China’s nuclear forces undergo modernization and expansion. As a consequence of this, China’s nuclear posture will inevitably shift away from minimal deterrence to one which offers more flexibility and options.

Minimal deterrence is a Western term not frequently used in Chinese military and political circles. In application, minimal deterrence is a doctrine in which a state possesses only enough nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear adversary from undertaking a first strike. It revolves around a no first use policy and the principle that the primary role of nuclear weapons is deterrence. The small size of a state’s nuclear arsenal severely limits the second strike options available to its leadership in the event of an attack. A counterforce second strike is not feasible under minimal deterrence. The only viable option then, is a countervalue second strike aimed at an enemy’s population centers. Realistically then, minimal deterrence can only be achieved if the survivability of a state’s nuclear force can be guaranteed.

China’s strategic modernization appears to be the result of a political decision to make China’s nuclear force more survivable in the face of US strategic upgrades.  For years the primary component of Chinese nuclear forces was the liquid fueled, silo based DF-5A ICBM. This is changing now as the more survivable DF-31A had come into service. The DF-31A is a solid fueled missile based on a mobile launch system. Hence, it is not restricted to a stationary launch site and can be readied in minimal time, unlike its liquid fueled counterparts.

China’s strategic modernization is not confined to land. At sea, the single Xia class SSBN which was in service since the mid 80s has been withdrawn. The PLAN is replacing it with the Type 094 (Jin Class) ballistic missile submarine. The Type 094 is a marked upgrade from the Xia. As many as five boats are planned and at present possibly up to three boats are already in service.

The modernization of China’s nuclear forces is paralleling upgrades to the conventional forces. US interest and concern is high. The primary question at the moment is: what do the new capabilities in Chinese nuclear forces tell of China’s future intentions?

For the moment it is apparent that minimal deterrence is fast becoming an obsolete doctrine for the People’s Republic of China.

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