Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference 2013: China’s Strategic Nuclear Posture

07 May, 2013    ·   3919

Vijay Shankar contextualises China's White Paper on Defence to re-assess its strategic nuclear orientation

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)

What would appear to have passed muster is China’s incremental transformation of the idea of a nuclear weapon; from one whose power lay in its non-use and which had enjoyed thus far, an admittedly, puerile yet tolerable and stable relationship with the world at large; into one of possible delinquency and deepening uncertainty. The Chinese formulation as articulated by their spokesperson General Yao Yunzhu, was that, “It was the importance of uncertainty and opacity rather than transparency” (emphasis added) that lay at the heart of deterrence. This at once strikes a discordant note to nuclear orthodoxy and the theory of what principles better serve the cause of deterrence.

In an era shorn of paradigms that define the strategic context, (as did the all-embracing Cold War, ‘containment,’ ‘clash of civilizations’ or even the ‘end of ideological history’), ‘uncertainty’ makes for a curious strategic nuclear hypothesis. The demands of an indeterminate situation, particularly where nuclear weapons in the hands of ‘rational players’ are concerned, is for certainty and not uncertainty in nuclear policy and transparency, and surely not opacity in material and technological intrusions into the nuclear arsenal.

The uncertainty-opacity approach provides the potential adversary with the basis for embarking on a ‘speculative bulge’ in his arsenal and kicks off a nuclear arms race with the hazards intrinsic, much in the Cold War mould. This would appear in stark contradiction to a policy of nuclear war avoidance, No First Use (NFU), and the belief in minimalism of the size of arsenal; all of which thus far remained the guiding determinants (so we perceived) of China’s nuclear strategy. The logic of the past lay in the credible assurance of massive retaliatory punishment, should the State be subjected to a ‘First Strike’. Also evident, while adopting a ‘punishment’ strategy, is that the imperatives of penetration and survival of the arsenal be assured. Since it was massive punishment that was sought to be imposed, it was necessary that the penalty for First Use be unambiguous and patently apparent. In such a frame of reference, the inconsistency in China’s strategic nuclear orientation is clearly perceptible, and the question that begs an answer is, to what purpose and why has the past been negated?

To find some clues, one turns to China’s White Paper on Defence. The Paper is economical on nuclear force planning, arsenal stewardship, strategic underpinnings, and the marrying of ideational issues and technological capabilities with operational practises. What it does proclaim, in a departure from the eight previous papers, is that the Peoples’ Liberation Army Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) combines precision nuclear and conventional missile forces aimed at carrying out nuclear counter attacks and precision strikes. Significant is that while conventional missiles also form a part of the arsenal of the other arms of the PLA; the Second Artillery is under the Nuclear Command Authority vested in the Central Military Commission (CMC).

It must therefore be surmised that China currently nurtures both a Counter Value capability, as well as a Counter Force capability, which may suggest the emergence of a nuclear First Strike potential. There is a cryptic statement in the Paper that asserts, “If China comes under a nuclear threat (emphasis added), the nuclear missile force will act upon the orders of the CMC, go into higher level of readiness, and get ready for a nuclear counter attack to deter the enemy from using nuclear against China.” This, at best, suggests a continuation of the NFU policy; or if one were to dissect the first two sentences, advocates the possible development of a Launch on Warning (LOW) capability in the extreme case.

National proclamations of such substance may explain, to some degree, the statement of General Yao of the importance of opacity and uncertainty in their strategic nuclear posture. The White Paper, predictably, has no declared stance on their hitherto policy of No First Use; in fact, it makes no mention of it.

In passing, the Iranian delegate Mr Khajehpour’s avowal that, “Iran’s greatest threat perception is a Talibanised Pakistan” should set our strategic planners thinking. Particularly, when viewed in the nuclear perspective, and at a time when Pakistan has taken the slippery descent down the tactical nuclear weapon route.