Chinese Nuclear Weapons Strategy—Leaning Towards a More Proactive Posture? Part I: Legacy Policy and Strategy, and the Drivers of Potential Change

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 12

Transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicles of the PLA Rocket Force on parade in Tiananmen Square. (Source: Getty Images)

Authors’ Note: This is the first part of a two-part article addressing the evolving character of Chinese strategy and policy regarding the role and potential use of nuclear weapons. This first article uses authoritative Chinese texts to identify key features of China’s approach to nuclear affairs that have been resistant to radical change; it then examines some of the internal drivers that could lead to departures from well-established Chinese nuclear strategy and policy. The second half of this series will draw from Chinese open sources to assess the various external stimuli that could compel Beijing to adopt changes to its nuclear posture.



In public remarks made in late May 2019, Lieutenant General Robert J. Ashley, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), offered a stark assessment of the nuclear weapons program of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He stated that, over the next decade, “China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in China’s history” (DIA, May 29). This judgment, a departure from previous intelligence estimates, suggests that the PRC may be pursuing a more robust nuclear posture than was long presumed in the West. Yet, even if this were to prove true, what remains unanswered is why China would deviate from core tenets that have guided its nuclear policy and strategy for over five decades. This two-part article series, drawing upon Chinese-language sources, identifies some of the factors that could explain the change in Chinese behavior that the DIA has evidently discerned.

Since the PRC tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964, Beijing has adopted a defensive-minded nuclear policy and strategy, relying on a small arsenal that furnishes Chinese leaders an assured retaliatory capability. Yet even as Beijing rhetorically adheres to longstanding principles of restraint, it has in recent years steadily modernized its nuclear arsenal, increased the size of the force, and engaged in debates about loosening the apparent limits on its nuclear policy and strategy. Most Chinese analysts insist that the PRC will remain faithful to its longstanding nuclear policies. [1] However, this two-part article argues that the internal and external pressures to break from the past have multiplied in quantity and intensity. To what extent and how quickly change will take place remains to be seen. However, the evidence documented in this series suggests that straight extrapolations of past constraint may become an increasingly unreliable measure of China’s future trajectory in nuclear matters.

Enduring Features of China’s Nuclear Policy, Strategy and Operations

The persistence of China’s defensive nuclear policy, strategy, and operations since the 1960s is attributable to both external threat perceptions and internal institutional factors. Despite changes in China’s security environment and its military guidance over time, China’s overarching military strategy remains wedded to the strategy of the weak that the Chinese call “active defense” (jiji fangyu , 积极防御), which involves the use of offensive operations and tactics in pursuit of strategically defensive goals, to include the survival of the CCP. [2] A host of internal factors—such as the defensive mindset of China’s early nuclear strategists, the technological limitations of China’s nuclear forces, and the explicit identity of the PLA as the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—also undoubtedly molded, clarified, and constrained China’s nuclear thinking.

Official policy statements, speeches, and publications—as well as other authoritative publications issued by PLA-affiliated organizations—have consistently reaffirmed key principles of the PRC’s nuclear policy:

  • Self-Defense: China’s nuclear forces are for self-defense against the nuclear powers.
  • Restricted Use: No first use, and no use or threat of use against nuclear-free states and zones.
  • Arms Control: Opposition to arms races and support for the prohibition of nuclear weapons. [3]

China’s nuclear policy has in turn informed official nuclear strategy, which is rooted in deterrence. The PRC’s nuclear strategy, while slowly formed over decades, has had several consistent elements dating as far back as the 1960s. These include:

  • Strategic Deterrence: Credibly deterring adversary use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. [4]
  • Lean and Effective Force Structure: Fielding a small, secure and reliable capability.
  • Centralized Command: Ensuring the senior leadership’s full control over nuclear forces. [5]

While these elements provide rough guidance on strategy and force structure, they are inherently ambiguous and allow for continued reinterpretation as circumstances change. Moreover, while the broad outline of PRC nuclear strategy appears clear, nuclear strategy has been underdeveloped in China. This is due to constraints such as senior political leadership views, limited institutional capacity, a restrictive work environment, and a shortage of expertise. [6]

According to the official Chinese position, China’s nuclear forces have prepared for only one type of operation: a nuclear counterattack, which is consistent with China’s strategic deterrence and “no first use” policies. Authoritative Chinese sources on nuclear operations first started to appear in the 1980s, with publications such as the 1987 Science of Military Strategy stating that China must “strike after the enemy has struck.” [7] Successive publications, such as Defense White Papers and the various editions of Science of Military Strategy, have focused exclusively on conducting counterattacks in self-defense. [8]

Internal Drivers of Change: Force Structure Modernization, Modified Command and Control Arrangements, and Inter-Service Rivalry

While China’s nuclear policy, strategy, and operations have been remarkably consistent over time, emerging internal pressures—fueled by changes in China’s nuclear force structure, command and control arrangements, and bureaucracy—may erode long-standing positions. As a result of these ongoing changes, the PRC’s future political leaders will likely be presented with a range of new countervalue and counterforce options distributed along various rungs of the escalation ladder, including precise and limited offensive nuclear strikes against fixed and mobile military targets defended by modern air defense systems. These technological and bureaucratic developments may thus expand the scope of China’s nuclear thinking.

Since the 1970s, China has held a long-term goal of modernizing its nuclear forces to increase their credibility, reliability, and survivability. For several decades, China maintained a limited, vulnerable force structure that might not have provided a credible retaliatory attack capability. [9] China’s early political leaders supported continuous modernization, but they never openly clarified the operational requirements of the force, aside from indicating that both the quantity and quality of the force should increase over time. PLA leaders and publications, since at least the 1980s, specifically emphasized survivability and reliability as modernization goals. [10]

China’s nuclear force structure modernization is now pushing the boundaries of what can reasonably be considered “lean.” Over the last fifteen years, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) has made several technological improvements that dramatically improved the credibility of its retaliatory strike capability, including: road-mobile solid-fueled missiles, such as the DF-26, DF-31, DF-31A, DF-31AG and DF-41; multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles; and, a sea-based strategic deterrent with the Type-094 Jin-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). [11] The PLA has also made investments in recent decades in the survivability of command posts, and in redundant communications networks that can survive under wartime conditions. [12]

While the PLA has previously focused on quality over quantity in modernization, recent publications suggest that China will pursue both qualitative and quantitative improvements to not only the systems themselves, but also the supporting personnel and infrastructure. As the authoritative 2013 Science of Military Strategy indicates, the PRC’s nuclear modernization goals will likely focus on multiple areas, to include: increasing the number of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); strengthening its sea-based nuclear deterrent by increasing the number of SSBNs; improving survivability and penetrability, to include developing rapid maneuver and launch, hypersonic glide, and multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities; and, finally, enhancing operational effectiveness after a first strike, to include operations planning, unit training, and other infrastructure upgrades. [13] Additionally, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) may be developing a nuclear-capable strategic bomber and an air-launched nuclear ballistic missile. [14]

In regards to the control of nuclear forces, the CCP’s apparent obsession with centralized control will increasingly run up against China’s growing technological prowess and more assertive bureaucratic actors in the nuclear strategy debate. On the technological front, the PLA Navy (PLAN) has recently begun operating the Type 094 Jin-class SSBN, armed with JL-2 SLBMs. [15] The development of a credible sea-based deterrent may require some trade-offs against the political leadership’s demands for centralized command and control (C2). [16] Given that these submarines must remain undetected in crisis or wartime, and avoid communications lest they reveal their positions to enemy forces, new C2 arrangements—including those that loosen tethers to structures of Party authority—may be inevitable.

Bureaucratically, PLA services with nuclear capabilities are growing in number and institutional importance. With its Type 094 submarines, China finally appears to possess a credible nuclear dyad. [17] The PLAN and the PLARF will likely be joined by yet another service, the PLAAF, which has ambitions to become a strategic air force. The development of a stealthy, long-range and potentially nuclear-capable bomber, the H-20, may help bring such a goal closer to fruition. [18] The PLARF itself was elevated from a branch to a service in the massive military reforms of 2015, formally acknowledging its increasing role and influence in PLA strategy and operations. Overall, the institutional clout of the PLARF, PLAN and PLAAF has been growing in recent years at the expense of the PLA Army, the traditionally dominant service.

New institutional relationships are thus emerging that may lead to greater inter-service rivalry over the nuclear mission, [19] and to more complicated C2 arrangements in future joint operations. Each service may attempt to gain greater leverage in the nuclear debate by accelerating the technological trends noted above, bolstering their own capabilities through the development of more precise missiles and increasingly diverse and survivable nuclear platforms and delivery vehicles. While China’s stated nuclear policy and strategy have remained defensive, these new capabilities may drive changes in China’s nuclear policy and strategy by permitting Chinese leaders to feasibly consider a new range of offensive and escalatory nuclear operations. Indeed, as detailed in the forthcoming second part of this series, some Chinese strategists are already hinting at such changes.

This article has been adapted in part from a case study performed by the authors in the report “Understanding Strategic Interaction in the Second Nuclear Age” (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2019). The full report is available at this link.

Jack Bianchi is a Senior Analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and focuses on security strategy and defense issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Mr. Bianchi was previously a Research Analyst at Defense Group Inc. where he performed bilingual (Chinese and English) open source research and analysis for U.S. government clients on Chinese cybersecurity issues and China’s defense-related science and technology development. Mr. Bianchi’s prior experience also includes work at the Department of Justice and in the Office of Investment Security at the Department of the Treasury.

Toshi Yoshihara is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and he previously held the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the U.S. Naval War College where he taught strategy for over a decade. Dr. Yoshihara has served as a visiting professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego and the U.S. Air War College. His latest book, with James R. Holmes, is the second edition of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Naval Institute Press, 2019).


[1] For vigorous defenses of continuity in Chinese nuclear strategy, see: 王仲春 [Wang Zhongchun], 核武器 核国家 核战略 [Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear Powers, and Nuclear Strategies], (Beijing: Shishi Press, 2007), pp. 213-220; 荣于 洪源 [Rong Yu and Hong Yuan], 从反核威慑战略到最低核威慑战略:中国核战略演进之路 [From Counter Nuclear Deterrence Strategy to Minimum Deterrence Strategy: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy], 当代亚太 [Journal of Contemporary Asia-Pacific Affairs], no.3 (2009), pp.120-132; 夏立平 [Xia Liping], 论中国核战略的演进与构成 [On the Evolution and Formation of Chinese Nuclear Strategy], 当代亚太 [Journal of Contemporary Asia-Pacific Affairs], no. 4 (2010), pp. 113-127; and 李显荣 [Li Xianrong], 论核战略 [On Nuclear Strategy], (Beijing: Renmin Press, 2014), pp. 323-372.

[2] 中国人民解放军军语 [Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Military Terminology], (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2011), p. 52. See also: M. Taylor Fravel, Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy since 1949 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), pp. 61-63.

[3] Of the many Chinese sources, examples include: Statement of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, 16 October 1964; Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, China’s National Defense in 2006 [], 2006; 战略学 [Science of Military Strategy], Academy of Military Science, (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), pp. 176-178. For Western analyses identifying similar features in China’s nuclear strategy, see: Lewis and Xue, “Making China’s Nuclear War Plan,” pp. 46-47; Eric Heginbotham et al., China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent: Major Drivers and Issues for the United States (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017), pp. 15-22; Michael S. Chase, “China’s Transition to a More Credible Nuclear Deterrence: Implications and Challenges for the United States,” Asia Policy, No. 16, July 2013, pp. 55-70. While China’s arms control policy has included support for nonproliferation in recent decades, this is not an original enduring feature of its nuclear policy and considerable evidence of China’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear program also undermines that aspect of its stated policy. See Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman, The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation (Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2009).

[4] In the Chinese context, strategic deterrence encompasses not only nuclear capabilities, but also conventional, space and cyber capabilities. Michael Chase and Arthur Chan, China’s Evolving Approach to ‘Integrated Strategic Deterrence, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation), 2016.

[5] For these points, examples of Chinese sources include: Science of Military Strategy, Academy of Military Science, 2013, pp. 171-175, 235; Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, China’s National Defense in 2006. See also: Li Bin, “Differences between Chinese and U.S. Nuclear Thinking and Their Origins” in Li Bin and Tong Zhao, eds., Understanding China’s Nuclear Thinking (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2016), p. 13.

[6] M. Taylor Fravel and Evan S. Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Structure,” International Security 35, No. 2, Fall 2010, pp. 57-73.

[7] Science of Military Strategy, Academy of Military Science, 1987, as cited in Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” pp. 68-69.

[8] See, for example, China’s Defense White Papers from 2000, 2006 and 2015, and the 2013 Science of Military Strategy.

[9] Chase, “China’s Transition to a More Credible Nuclear Deterrence,” p. 52.

[10] Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” pp. 64-65, 69.

[11] For additional detail on Chinese nuclear forces, including estimates of the quantities of launchers and warheads, see: Jacob Cohn, Adam Lemon, and Evan Braden Montgomery, “Assessing the Arsenals: Past, Present, and Future Capabilities,” (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments), 2019, pp. 24-27.

[12] Lewis and Xue, “Making China’s Nuclear War Plan,” p. 55.

[13] Science of Military Strategy, Academy of Military Science, 2013, pp. 214, 233-234.

[14] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019, (Washington, DC: Department of Defense), p. 67.

[15] China previously commissioned one Type 092 Xia-class SSBN in the 1980s, but that submarine never undertook a deterrent patrol.

[16] Heginbotham et al., China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent, pp. 107-110.

[17] Richard Fischer, “China Advances Sea- and Land-Based Nuclear Deterrent Capabilities,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, December 15, 2015.

[18] Michael S. Chase and Cristina L. Garafola, “China’s Search for a Strategic Air Force,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 39, No. 1, 2016, pp. 24-25.

[19] Heginbotham et al., China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent, pp. 102-110.