China’s Nuclear Strategy And Its Implications For Asian Security

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 3

The writing on the wall is clear. The 21st century is headed for strategic turmoil among the primary centers of power. Most importantly, the emerging global order is likely to fall under the shadow of the growing strategic rivalry between China and the United States. The fall out from this rivalry will permeate the entire global strategic order, generating problems not the least of which would be the strategic concerns of the other Asian powers, India and Japan.

The significant factor that will drive Sino-American strategic competition is the striking focus on nuclear weapon capabilities based on emerging threat perceptions, responses to which will have consequences for the prevailing balance of power between the primary powers.

It is in this context that the Indian Ministry of Defense [MOD] has taken note of the Chinese Government’s report to the Sixteenth National Party Congress in November 2002. It states that the strengthening of national defense is a “strategic task in China’s modernization drive” in view of a serious imbalance of military power, especially between the developed and developing countries. It also reiterated that China’s continued occupation of approximately 38,000 sq km of Indian territory in the Aksai Chin Area, its claims on yet another 90,000 sq km in the Eastern Sector, and the ceding of an additional 5,180 sq km of territory in Northern Kashmir to it by Pakistan must be factored into any evaluation of China’s “strategic task.”

In its Annual Report 2002-2003, the MOD states: “As far as India is concerned, it cannot be ignored that every major Indian city is within reach of Chinese missiles and this capability is being further augmented to include submarine launched Ballistic Missiles [SLBMs]. The asymmetry in terms of nuclear forces is pronouncedly in favor of China and is likely to get further accentuated as China responds to counter the U.S. missile defense program.”

Given these strategic parameters it is important to appreciate the developing nature and capabilities of China’s Armed Forces and their potential to achieve and maintain China’s national security interests. The military structure in China is divided into two broad categories–conventional and strategic nuclear forces–with present day dependence on the former as the nuclear force structure continues to evolve into a viable policy instrument.

The conventional forces, despite the ongoing modernization, are comparatively dated in equipment and doctrine, and this state of affairs can be expected to last for a few more years before comprehensive upgrades of the entire structure becomes viable vis-a-vis technologically advanced modern military forces. However, the overall potency of the conventional forces has been substantially enhanced by the introduction of Tactical Nuclear Weapons [TNWs] and doctrinal changes in war fighting techniques that give conventional forces the potential to operate offensively or defensively in a nuclear battlefield. “In 1984, … the PLA conducted exercises simulating tactical nuclear warfare in at least nine out of the eleven military regions.” These exercises were conducted by simulating PLA offensives against an enemy holding defensive positions. Chong-Pin Lin, the former Taiwanese minister for main land affairs, concluded that “the PLA has been indoctrinated to perceive nuclear weapons, especially TNWs, as defensible, tactical nuclear warfare as fightable, and the human factor as still the decisive one in conventional or nuclear battles.” India, as a nuclear weapon state [NWS] with a major territorial dispute with the PRC, must factor this doctrine and force potential into its own Defense Policy at two levels.

First, at the tactical level. This is because Beijing, while insisting that its nuclear weapons are exclusively “defensive” in nature and focused only on deterring the possibility of nuclear coercion by other NWS’s, has an added proviso that nuclear weapons have a role in preserving its sovereign territorial integrity, thereby extending their use in any military operation it may launch to wrest the territory it claims from India.

Second, at the strategic level, to offset the asymmetry in the prevailing balance of nuclear capabilities to ensure that Beijing, or any other NWS, cannot fall back on nuclear blackmail to achieve its political objectives vis-a-vis India.

Nuclear Strategy

The Indian Government has noted with concern that China has created a comprehensive and fully indigenous nuclear weapons program. And that, while the modernization program for the armed forces is tailored within the existing fiscal constraints of the Chinese economy, the development and modernization of nuclear forces continues unabated.

China first tested a nuclear device in 1964. This fission device was followed by detonation of a fusion [thermonuclear device] in 1967. Since then it has refined and miniaturized its nuclear devices to facilitate free dropping from fighter ground attack aircraft; delivery through a wide range of missile systems including MRBMs, IRBMs, ICBM, SLBMs and short range tactical missiles; utility as Atomic Demolition Munitions [ADMs]; and, battle field application through heavy and medium artillery pieces. China has shown considerable interest in the Enhanced Radiation Device [ERD], which would provide the wherewithal for tactical deployment. According to one source, the stockpile of nuclear warheads was estimated at 1,245 in 1985, which amounted to approximately three times that of France.

At the turn of the century China fields a comprehensive triad of nuclear forces with the potential to strike strategic targets in Asia, Russia and the United States. A plausible ICBM capability supplemented with an evolving SSBN fleet gives China’s strategic nuclear forces a global character. Some of the highlights of the delivery capability of the Chinese nuclear forces are: Its SLBM was successfully launched on October 12, 1982; in 1981 China introduced the nuclear propelled Xia Class SSBN, which has the capability to launch twelve to fourteen SLBMs with an operational range of 1,853-2,410 kilometers; and of a projected force level of twelve SSBNs, six have already been commissioned. Finally a major spin off from the indigenous space program is the enhancement of the capacity of individual missiles by virtue of an MIRV capability.

Strategic Force Modernization

In the post Cold War environment the emphasis of Chinese threat perceptions shifted focus to the remaining super power, the United States, bringing with it a need to modify China’s nuclear weapon doctrine and weapons capability. The United States, on the other hand, has started to put in a ballistic missile defense [BMD] system, which when it matures threatens to negate the deterrence capabilities that China fielded through its limited strategic forces. This in turn gave a new and added impetus for Beijing to qualitatively and quantitatively enhance its strategic nuclear forces to ensure that its deterrence competencies are relevant to the emerging strategic milieu. In the last decade of the Twentieth century Beijing reconsidered its nuclear doctrine and is modernizing its systems and structures to cope with this new threat.

Besides other political considerations, China developed a meaningful nuclear capability to gain recognition as one of the major powers of the world, and obtained her position along with the other four nuclear regimes as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This has greatly increased her leverage in the one world body that counts. Military potential, therefore, was crucial in China’s attaining her primary interest–great power status.

Next is China’s aim to project itself as being equal with the United States to preclude the possibility of intrusive diplomacy through nuclear coercion. While China is not on par with the United States, its leadership does have a meaningful deterrent at its disposal and continues to expand this power base without let up.

In the regional context China perceives a need to retain a trump card for the eventuality that Japan may rescind her current pacifist policies for a military option and to maintain political and moral ascendancy over its regional rival–India.

China is extremely sensitive to the nuclear disposition of potential opponents. Russia and the United States are eons ahead in the nuclear arms race and no amount of arms limitation accords are likely to alter that equation appreciably for quite some time.

Added to this, Japan and India are causes for concern. Japan, while abjuring nuclear weapons, has stockpiled enormous amounts of plutonium, is a leader in fusion technology and has the capability to produce nuclear weapons at very short notice. The unpredictable nature of the security environment could drive the Japanese to forego their aversion to nuclear weapons in deference to emerging national security interests, signs of which are beginning to surface in the ongoing missile standoff with North Korea. India is on the threshold of indigenously producing nuclear-powered submarines, has successfully launched short and intermediate range missiles and has a substantiated ability to fabricate a nuclear device. Beijing will find it mandatory to deploy an appropriate deterrent as she has done to secure herself vis-a-vis the United States and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The world’s third largest nuclear power, China is unique in adopting a strategy to develop nuclear weapons in precedence to conventional weapons. Former Defense Minister Zhang Aiping, in an article in the Party Journal, Red Flag, observed that “Defense funds should be concentrated upon those programs which are badly needed and the most important areas which affect the overall situation such as strategic guided missiles and centers for producing nuclear fuels and bombs.” Existing evidence suggests a greater spending on and securing of a “second strike” capability in terms of ICBMs, and a shift from a “minimum” to a “moderate” deterrence of about 900 warheads.

China noted in its Defense White Paper of 1995 that major nuclear powers “have neither abandoned their policy of nuclear blackmail nor stopped their development of nuclear weapons and outer-space weapons, including guided-missile defense systems.” The White Paper is critical of other Nuclear Weapons States for “dumping their advanced weapons on the international market,” “using weapon transfers as a means to interfere in other nations’ domestic affairs,” and “discriminatory anti-proliferation and arms-control measures.” Consequently there has been no reduction in the allocation of funds, manpower or resources. The budget for its nuclear weapons has been constantly maintained at 5 percent of the overall defense expenditure.


The PRC is undoubtedly the most significant player around which the future security environment of the Asian Region will pivot. It is important for other Asian powers to accurately appreciate the emerging political character that will govern future policies, to understand the critical sensitivities that may generate destabilizing responses, technological and economic competencies and military capabilities of China, and to identify the areas where reconciliation or compromises may be practicable before formulating their strategic policies.

The plethora of players, variables and discordant interests that will prevail in the Asian region are directly or indirectly connected with the future course of China’s policies and responses by the major players in keeping with their national interests. These are highly unpredictable and fluid circumstances over which a single player, its power quotient notwithstanding, cannot prevail.

Tested paradigms are unlikely to work. The prevailing phenomenon requires a new approach wherein a heterogeneous group with conflicting interests must work collectively to generate a stable security environment in which the well-being of all is safeguarded. Individual state priorities will have to be harmonized to cater to the primary weaknesses of each–their individual power notwithstanding. Inflexibility by any one player or attempts to capitalize on short term opportunities would generate a negative ripple effect that would worsen an already difficult situation.

Brigadier Vijai K. Nair VSM (retired) is a defense analyst specializing in nuclear strategy formulation and author of two books, including “Nuclear India.”