On Feb. 2, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a new edition of its Nuclear Posture Review, which loosely defines America’s nuclear arms policies for the next five to 10 years. There were two points the Trump administration made in this report that were most eye-catching. First, the report relaxes restrictions regarding the conditions necessary for America to use nuclear weapons, proposing the use of nuclear weapons in the case of so-called non-nuclear strategic attacks. That is a fuzzy, poorly defined term that significantly expands the scope of America’s nuclear deterrence and increases the risk of nuclear war. Second, the report suggests that although the U.S. already has a large arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, it should develop new, smaller scale tactical nuclear weapons in order to increase its ability to respond flexibly to potential future threats, thus lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear arms. In addition, the report baselessly expanded the so-called threats from Russia and China, and even developed a custom-made nuclear deterrence strategy just for them.
This is a complete departure from the Obama era. Under Obama, the U.S. attempted to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in America’s national security strategy, reduce the nuclear arsenal and pursue a string of efforts aimed at creating a non-nuclear world. This report, on the other hand, aims to increase nuclear capabilities, expand the use of nuclear weapons and lower the threshold for the use of nuclear arms. Without a doubt, this is a step backward in history. As such, it’s no surprise that the report has received strong criticism both from within the U.S. and from Russia, Europe and around the world. Spokesmen from China’s foreign and defense ministries have also indicated their opposition.
The decision put forth in the report to begin developing new, small-yield, tactical nuclear weapons no doubt heralds the start of a new global arms race. Does China need to develop its own small-yield nuclear weapons in response? The author believes that the answer is obviously no. And why does China have no need to respond with tit-for-tat measures? Because of the role nuclear weapons play in China’s national security strategy, because of China’s understanding of the particular nature of nuclear weapons and because of China’s consistent, clear-cut nuclear strategy.
Back before China had any nuclear weapons, the previous generation of Chinese leaders clearly stated that, while in the future China might develop a small number of atomic bombs, there was no intention to use them, and they would only be used as defensive weapons. Under the guidance provided by this line of thought, China has continuously pursued a defensive nuclear strategy whose fundamental goal has always been to constrain the use or the threat of nuclear weapons by other countries against China. From the moment that China first possessed nuclear weapons, it has solemnly sworn to the entire world that no matter the time or the circumstances, China would always follow a “no first use” nuclear weapons policy.
Furthermore, China unconditionally committed never to use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear country or region. This is the “no first use” nuclear policy to which China has scrupulously abided since day one. The sole purpose of China’s nuclear weapons is to intimidate other countries capable of launching a nuclear attack against China in order to ensure that China never suffers such an attack at the hands of a foreign country.
As long as a country has reliable second-strike capabilities, it has effective nuclear deterrence capabilities. Beyond that, even if it substantially increases the size or variety of its nuclear arsenal, that will neither increase the country’s deterrence capabilities nor prevent the risk of destruction in the case of limited nuclear war. This is why some people refer to nuclear weapons as “absolute weapons.” Possessing basic nuclear capabilities is enough for deterrence; what matters is whether or not you have nuclear weapons, not how many you have. Of course, in order to act as an effective nuclear deterrent, a country’s nuclear capabilities must reach a certain level, and the weapons’ ability to survive must also be guaranteed. Only then can you have reliable second-strike capabilities. Precisely because of its understanding of this fact, China has always maintained an extremely restrained attitude toward the development of nuclear weapons, has never participated in anything that even looked like a nuclear arms race and has always kept its nuclear arsenal as small as possible while maintaining national security. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the scale of China’s nuclear arsenal has not followed the rapid growth and remarkable expansion of its economy. This is China’s defensive national security strategy, and this is what dictates China’s nuclear strategy.
History has already shown that highly effective nuclear capabilities have safeguarded China’s national security very well, and this is the genius of the Chinese nuclear strategy. If China dances to the tune of this new edition of America’s Nuclear Posture Review, it will inevitably get sucked into the vortex of a completely pointless nuclear arms race. But as America continues to increase its anti-missile capabilities, China must also carry out practical steps to maintain the effectiveness of its limited nuclear deterrence force. In response to an ever changing international nuclear situation, China must maintain a calm “wait and see” approach, and remain confident in its own nuclear strategy.