China’s Evolving Nuclear Strategy: Will China Drop “No First Use?”

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 1

The PLA Rocket Force is continuing to upgrade its missile forces and shift its emphasis from a posture of immobile and vulnerable positions hidden deep in mountains to a highly mobile and more survivable mode. A new CCTV documentary also reveals that China’s multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV)-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) DF-41 will begin active service in 2018 (PLA Daily, December 25, 2017; People’s Daily Online, November 28, 2017).

While China’s strategic nuclear capabilities are changing, there is still a high level of uncertainty among analysts about the specifics of China’s nuclear strategy. Though China vigorously censors information about its missile forces, examination of a body of relatively authoritative military texts provides useful context to help understand China’s nuclear strategy beyond the more visible changes in equipment. Importantly, it is evident that as China modernizes its nuclear forces, it is also debating a shift in strategy, including the abandonment of its No First Use (NFU) policy.

The Evolution of China’s Nuclear Strategy

According to Chinese nuclear strategists, two major concepts best describe the evolution of China’s nuclear strategy. The first, overarching drive for China’s development of a nuclear weapon was to “curb and stop nuclear blackmail” (遏止核讹诈), and secondly to maintain “effective counter-nuclear attack deterrence” (有效反核威慑).

China’s first nuclear strategy, adopted during the 1960s and 70s, is based on the premise that a country must possess nuclear weapons in order to prevent nations with nuclear weapons from “blackmailing” those without them. [1] China’s lack of nuclear weapons during the Korean War and the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958 motivated Chinese leadership to accelerate research and development of nuclear weapons, resulting in China’s first nuclear test in 1964. But because this strategy has “no clear requirements for the quantity and quality of nuclear weapons” due to technological and financial constraints, it could only meet the “minimum goal” of symbolic possession to prevent nuclear blackmail. This crude strategy may also account for the Beijing’s lack of strategic communication with other powers, which was generally construed by analysts outside China as a strategy of almost total ambiguity. [2]

The second concept, which is understood as China’s nuclear strategy from the 1980s up to present, is “effective counter-nuclear attack deterrence.” This strategy is an outgrowth of China’s development of more effective (or credible) second-strike nuclear capabilities since the 1980s. This strategy requires China to possess nuclear counter-attack capabilities that can survive the first nuclear attack and launch retaliatory nuclear strikes (报复性核打击). These nuclear counter-attack capabilities “can be limited, but must be effective” (可以有限, 但必须有效), and capable of being launched on command if an enemy attack is detected. [3] Such a requirement also implies that surveillance satellite and radar capabilities need to be enhanced to provide sufficient early warning.

Moreover, this strategy requires China’s strategic nuclear forces to have survival and protection capabilities, so that sufficient capabilities can survive the enemy’s first nuclear attack. Similarly, China’s nuclear counter-strike capabilities “must include effective defense-penetration capabilities including the opponent’s missile defense system.” These requirements may account for China’s efforts in recent years to develop its own missile defense system and counter-missile defense capabilities, develop and deploy more solid-fuel, road and rail-mobile strategic missiles and nuclear ballistic missile submarines, and test MIRV-capable ICBMs and hypersonic glide vehicles (China Brief, April 21, 2016; July 21, 2017).

Another requirement of this strategy is that China’s nuclear forces must be able to “cause unbearable damage effects to the enemy”—destroying 20–30 percent of an opponent’s “important strategic targets,” which likely refers to major cities and other “value” targets as opposed to enemy nuclear forces.

China’s nuclear strategists are then faced with the problem of building sufficient capabilities to achieve these effects and deter, but which are also financially sustainable.

Finally, for this strategy to be effective and credible, China’s nuclear strategists believe that effective strategic communication is indispensable. This communication must include the demonstration of credible quantity and quality of nuclear capabilities, and of the “will and resolve” (意志和决心) to use them, and letting potential opponents to be “absolutely convinced” (确信不疑) of Chinese willingness to use nuclear weapons. This may account for Chinese media coverage of strategic missile force and submarine exercises, discussion of advanced space, air, sea, and land-based advanced surveillance capabilities and acknowledgement of ongoing tests of anti-missile systems, MIRV-capable ICBMs, and hypersonic glide vehicles.

Debating No First Use

China’s nuclear policy can be understood as following the principle of No First Use, which is consistent with its second strike-based nuclear strategy of “effective counter-nuclear attack deterrence.” But there appears to have been increasing discontent with this policy from within China’s analytical community on nuclear policy and strategy in recent years. This discontent has been reflected in several critical views of NFU.

One view is that NFU may impose certain limitations on the strategic use of China’s Rocket Force, implying reduced crisis response flexibility due to the highly centralized decision-making in employing nuclear weapons.

Moreover, some believe that NFU reduces the credibility of China’s already small nuclear forces, and that abandoning NFU may enhance China’s nuclear deterrent. These analysts are particularly impressed by Russia’s abandonment of NFU to compensate for its inferiority in conventional capabilities. Abandoning NFU, they argue, is the most cost-effective way to free up scarce resources from defending China’s vital strategic targets for offensive capabilities to realize China’s primary strategic objectives.

Chinese analysts have also suggested that China abandon NFU in a number of threatening scenarios:

Conditions for China to Launch a First Strike [4]
China’s conventional forces are unable to defend against a “large-scale foreign invasion” (“大规模外敌入侵”)
If “the enemy attacks our nuclear bases with conventional arms, posing enormous threat to our strategic nuclear forces”
PLA’s operational objectives face an “enormous threat”

(“巨大威胁”) by a “large-scale foreign military intervention” (“大规模军事干预”) in a “war of safeguarding national unity”—referring to a Taiwan conflict scenario

Escalation indicating an opponent’s “intention” to cross the nuclear threshold
Attacks with conventional arms against nuclear bases and targets of life-and-death value like the Three-Gorges Dam causing destruction comparable to or larger than a nuclear attack.”

Supporters of NFU offer a number of rebuttals. Rather than hampering crisis response flexibility, they argue, the decision to employ nuclear weapons has always been “controlled in the hands of the state’s top leadership” which would be unaffected regardless of whether China continues the NFU policy.

Regarding whether abandoning NFU may enhance the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrence, it is argued that some countries may follow a policy of “first-use,” but that “does not mean that they would engage easily in nuclear adventure.” Chinese analysts carefully note that Russia’s abandonment of NFU in 1993 neither deterred NATO from its eastward expansion nor stopped the U.S. from waging a war in Kosovo. An additional concern is that if the gap in nuclear capability is too large, if the weaker side abandons NFU, it may trigger a pre-emptive nuclear strike by a superior opponent.

Supporters of NFU also argue that a “large-scale foreign invasion” of China is unlikely due to the rapid increase in the destructiveness of modern warfare, which has forced major powers to pursue limited objectives with limited wars. The difficulty large powers have faced in invasions (such as Vietnam and Afghanistan) further demonstrates the low likelihood of success of such a strategy.

Moreover, according to the pro-NFU view, the United States has less incentive to intervening in a war over Taiwan, and abandoning NFU may have little impact on U.S. decision whether to intervene because the U.S. has “absolute nuclear superiority” over China. With a tradition of “inferior fighting superior,” they argue, China should build up its conventional capabilities to deter Taiwan independence and U.S. intervention.

Finally, in regard to attacks on China’s nuclear bases and strategic targets of “life-and-death value” (such as the Three-Gorges Dam) with conventional arms, supporters of NFU argue that recent wars demonstrate that attacks meant to cause civilian casualties and economic losses—instead of achieving operational objectives—are unlikely. Moreover, China can deter these strikes because China possesses long-range, conventional precision-strike capabilities that can retaliate in kind by striking both the opponent’s homeland targets and its overseas bases. As a result, foreign conventional attacks of these Chinese targets are highly unlikely if not completely impossible.


China’s nuclear forces are undergoing an important transformation into an effective, survivable force. As these new capabilities come online, China’s leaders will have to reassess the full scope of their nuclear strategies. While No First Use is likely to remain China’s official nuclear policy in the near future, in the meantime, the dynamic evolution of China’s nuclear policy, strategy, and capabilities requires careful analysis. Such analysis is particularly necessary if the anti-NFU view begins to have great popular support within the PLA, if China develops a more grim view of its regional security environment, or if China believes that its economy is sufficient to support a more robust nuclear capability along the lines of Russia or the United States.


  1. For a discussion of this strategy, see Lt. Col. Li Shaohui (李韶辉) and Captain Tao Yongqiang (陶永强), “Capabilities Foundation and Policy and Strategy Space for Nuclear Deterrence” (核威慑的实力基础和 策略空间), Military Art (军事学术), June 2006. Both authors are graduate students at China’s Second Artillery Command College in Wuhan. See also Military Strategy Department of Academy of Military Science, Science of Military Strategy (战略学) (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 172.
  2. Chong-pin Lin, China’s Nuclear Weapons Strategy: Tradition within Evolution (Lexington Books, 1988). At this time, China had air-dropped weapons and later missiles, and it had also begun an ambitious program to build SSBNs.
  3. For a discussion of this strategy, see Li and Tao, “Capabilities Foundation,” and Colonel Li Xianrong (李显荣), On Nuclear Strategy (论核战略) (Beijing: People’s Press, 2014), p. 366. Li was a lecturer at Qingzhou Campus of Second Artillery Command College, and is currently a professor at Strategy Teaching and Research Department of China’s National Defense University in Beijing. See also Science of Military Strategy, p. 175.
  4. For a summary of anti-NFU views, see Major General Jin Yi’nan’s (金一南) lecture at