Chinese Nuclear Weapons Strategy—Leaning Towards a More Proactive Posture? Part II: External Drivers of Potential Change—Technical-Military Developments and Perceptions of Credibility

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 13

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


A diverse range of external stimuli, including technological trends and geopolitical shifts, is leading the strategic community of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to reconsider existing nuclear policy, strategy, and operations. According to Chinese open sources, U.S. global conventional precision strike systems, U.S. missile defenses, and India’s nuclear weapons modernization, among other threats, could shake the PRC’s faith in longstanding nuclear doctrine and posture. The 2013 Science of Military Strategy confirms that “the nuclear security circumstances facing China in overall terms are trending toward complexity.” [1] In response to such challenges, some Chinese analysts have proposed loosening the no-first-use policy and undertaking quantitative and qualitative improvements to China’s nuclear forces.

A departure from enduring nuclear policy and strategy may also reflect China’s growing power and sense of purpose as it seeks to reshape its surroundings and accelerate the erosion of the U.S. position in the Western Pacific. Indeed, Chinese analysts are exploring Cold War history in Europe, from which they may be drawing lessons about the vulnerabilities of U.S. extended deterrence in Asia.  While it remains unclear how and to what extent Chinese nuclear strategy will advance Beijing’s expanding ambitions, the internal debates suggest that China may be increasingly inclined to adopt a more coercive nuclear strategy. [2]

U.S. Conventional Prompt Global Strike

A major external driver that has shaped Chinese discourse is the pace and scale of technological change and innovation by the world’s leading military power, the United States. Chinese analysts have expressed concerns about the U.S. development of prompt global strike—a family of strike systems designed to quickly and precisely deliver conventional firepower over long ranges—for at least a decade. [3] As the National Defense University’s 2015 Science of Military Strategy forecasts, “Equipping conventional strategic missiles with prompt global precision-strike capabilities will become an important constituent of the strategic missile forces of major military powers.” [4] Such missiles would enable the U.S. military to rapidly destroy mobile, hardened, or deeply-buried targets, including enemy ballistic missiles, ground-based radars and sensors, anti-satellite missiles, mobile missile launchers, ships at pier-side, and parked aircraft. [5]

The most worrisome danger is that prompt global strike weaponry, including hypersonic systems, would furnish the United States the conventional means to conduct a disarming first strike against Chinese nuclear forces.  The 2013 Science of Military Strategy warns, “Once the [prompt global strike] program becomes an actual combat capability to be used conventionally to strike our nuclear missile forces, it would place us in a reactive position, greatly influence our nuclear counterstrike capabilities, and weaken the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrence.” [6]

To deter a conventional strike against China’s nuclear forces and to mitigate the risks of such a strike, Chinese analysts have called for expanding China’s nuclear arsenal; [7] enhancing the survivability of its retaliatory forces; embarking on its own prompt global strike development; loosening the constraints of the no first use policy; [8] and even adopting a warfighting nuclear strategy. [9] All of these choices would clearly have implications for the size, composition, and readiness of current nuclear forces.

U.S. Missile Defense Systems

Chinese analysts have also voiced alarm about U.S. advances in missile defense since at least the late 1980s. Their objections reached fever pitch when the U.S. military deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) System on South Korean soil in mid-2017. Chinese observers believe THAAD’s X-band AN/TPY-2 long-range, high-altitude radar system can peer deep into China’s interior from the Korean Peninsula and potentially monitor Chinese ballistic missile launches fired from locations in North China [10]  or beneath the waves of China’s offshore waters. [11] Moreover, the forward positions of these sensors would enable them to track the critical stage of a missile’s flight when it releases its warheads and decoys, [12] thereby undermining the penetration capabilities of Chinese nuclear forces—and more importantly, the credibility of China’s second-strike deterrent. [13]

In response to the operational and strategic advantages that THAAD purportedly confers to the United States, Chinese commentators have called for responses similar to those designed to counter U.S. prompt global strike systems. One Chinese scholar urges the PLA to field “a certain numerical scale” of the DF-41 inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) armed with multiple warheads, modernize China’s nuclear triad, and build up the size and striking power of its undersea nuclear forces. [14] Others have pressed for the development of hypersonic delivery vehicles to defeat U.S. missile defense systems. [15] Still others have hinted at a broader reconsideration of China’s no first use policy, in addition to increasing the size and penetration capabilities of the existing ICBM force. [16]

India’s Modernizing Nuclear Deterrent

The PRC confronts an increasingly complex geometry of deterrence in the second nuclear age due to nuclear proliferation among rising regional powers. Chinese analysts cite India’s emergence as a nuclear power as a prospective dilemma for Beijing. New Delhi’s entry into the nuclear club opened up a new front along China’s southern flank. [17] Moreover, India sees China, rather than Pakistan, as its primary threat and has designed its deterrent posture accordingly. [18] One Chinese study observes that the capabilities of India’s long-range strategic missiles, particularly the Agni IRBM and ICBM series, far exceed the requirements of a contingency involving Pakistan and are clearly directed at China. [19] These missiles would allow India to hold at risk China’s major political, economic, and industrial centers, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

To what extent India’s deterrent posture will influence Chinese nuclear force modernization remains uncertain, not least because of sharp asymmetries in threat perceptions between the two antagonists. Indian strategists tend to overinflate the Chinese danger while their counterparts in China are inclined to hold a sanguine, if not condescending, attitude toward their southern neighbor. Nevertheless, given India’s strategic depth, large numbers of population and industrial centers, increasingly competitive economic and technological base, and growing nuclear arsenal that the Chinese acknowledge is directed at them, Beijing will almost certainly adapt its nuclear posture in accord with developments in South Asia.

Chinese Research on U.S. Extended Deterrence

Recent Chinese interest in studying extended deterrence (yanshen weishe, 延伸威慑) suggests that analysts are paying more attention to U.S. security guarantees in the region. Chinese analysts do not directly address Beijing’s official views concerning U.S. extended deterrence; rather, they have explored Cold War history, the evolution of U.S.-NATO relations, and U.S. regional strategy. Chinese analysts have looked to the past for lessons. For example, an in-depth history of U.S. nuclear strategy in the early 1970s—written in support of a larger Chinese government-sponsored research effort on U.S. deployment of nuclear weapons in the Far East during the Cold War—examines the influence of the “Schlesinger Doctrine.” The author attributes the U.S. shift toward a limited nuclear option in part to deepening American concerns that extended deterrence to European allies under existing policies lacked credibility. [20]

Chinese commentators have explored the transatlantic debates following the Soviet introduction of SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the late 1970s, noting the danger of decoupling that animated Western fears at the time. [21] Decoupling was premised on the idea that an exclusive nuclear threat against Europe might disincline the United States—whose territory would be spared from the Soviet theater missiles—to intervene and retaliate on behalf of its allies across the Atlantic.

Scholars have also assessed the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Europe since the end of the Cold War. [22] Still others have sought to measure the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence. [23] Notably, Sun Xun and Han Lue find that U.S. credibility is strongest in Europe when compared against American extended deterrence in Asia and the Middle East, owing to the forward presence of non-strategic nuclear weapons and formal institutional mechanisms that involve U.S. allies in decisions over the employment of nuclear weapons. Analysts have even applied game theory to examine three-way interactions between a defender, a challenger, and the challenger’s third-party security guarantor—which has obvious analogies to China’s present security environment. [24]

These Chinese writings implicitly illustrate the growing gap between U.S. commitments and resources in the context of extended deterrence. The literature frequently recounts the sharp reductions in U.S. forward-deployed nuclear forces during the post-Cold War period, including deep cuts in Europe, the unilateral withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons, including those in South Korea, in 1991, and the decision to retire nuclear-armed Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles in 2010. Chinese analysts also highlight the contentious debates about the declining utility of nuclear weapons that have sown division within the United States and among its allies since the 1990s drawdown. Yet, as the Chinese point out, regional aggression and proliferation over the past decade have made deterrence and reassurance ever more urgent and problematic. [25]

Chinese open sources to date are silent on how Beijing might exploit the dilemmas of U.S. extended deterrence, but they demonstrate a keen recognition that Cold War-era concerns may become ever more relevant as China’s own theater-range capabilities grow in size and capability. Since China may be seeking to undermine extended deterrence in Asia and perhaps use decoupling as the tool with which to break the chains of the U.S. alliance structure, Beijing’s views of extended deterrence may be an area worthy of closer attention in the coming years

Conclusions: Leaning Toward Change

The degree to which China’s nuclear policy and strategy will stay the course or depart from established practices rests on a complex mix of external and internal sources of competition. Trends in the security environment, including technological breakthroughs by leading military powers, can impel change and encourage decision-makers to test the limits of their self-imposed constraints. Strong evidence exists that advocates for nuclear modernization have seized on such external developments to justify their own agendas, highlighting the interplay between external events and domestic actors that could spur a reassessment of existing procedures and thinking.

Indeed, while worries about U.S. and Indian intentions and capabilities expressed in the literature are undoubtedly real, other institutional, bureaucratic, and elite motivations less visible to outside observers may also be at work. For example, Chinese leaders may be more inclined to adopt changes in nuclear strategy in order to shape the external environment in ways that better reflect Beijing’s perceived newfound status and that accommodate China’s growing power and ambitions. The combined full weight of these domestic and external factors strongly indicates that the decades-old limits that have characterized Chinese nuclear thinking are likely to give way to a more proactive nuclear policy and strategy with a more flexible posture and capability.

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. 

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).

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.


[1] 寿晓松 [Shou Xiaosong] ed., 战略学 [Science of Military Strategy] (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 171.

[2] Alastair Iain Johnston, “China’s New ‘Old Thinking:’ The Concept of Limited Deterrence,” International Security, Vol. 20, No. 3, Winter 1995-1996, pp. 5-42; M. Taylor Fravel and Evan S. Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Structure,” International Security, Vol. 35, No. 2, Fall 2010, p. 80; Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation: China’s Nuclear Posture and U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” International Security 40, No. 2, 2015, pp. 24-26; and Nan Li, “China’s Evolving Nuclear Strategy: Will China Drop ‘No First Use’?,” China Brief, Vol. 18, No. 1, January 12, 2018.

[3] 周黎妮 朱启超 邓斌 匡兴华 [Zhou Lini, Zhu Qichao, Deng Bin, and Kuang Xinghua], 美国快速全球打击计划的最新进展 [The Latest Developments of U.S. Prompt Global Strike Program], 国防科技 [National Defense Science and Technology], No. 2, 2012, p. 80.

[4] 肖天亮 [Xiao Tianliang] ed., 战略学 [Science of Military Strategy] (Beijing: National Defense University Press), 2015, p. 362.

[5] 党爱国 李晓军 徐宝 [Dang Aiguo, Li Xiaojun, and Xu Bao], 外军快速全球打击能力发展动态 [The Development and Trends of Foreign Prompt Global Strike Capabilities], 飞航导弹 [Aerodynamic Missile], No. 7, 2012, p. 51.

[6] Shou Xiaosong ed., Science of Military Strategy, p. 171.

[7] 孙向丽 [Sun Xiangli], 中国核战略研究 [Research on Chinese Nuclear Strategy] in 张托生 [Zhang Tuosheng ed.] 核战略比较研究 [Comparative Study on Nuclear Strategies] (Beijing: Social Science Academic Press, 2014), p. 17.

[8] 夏立平 [Xia Liping], 高边疆理论视阈下美国全球快速常规打击计划 [America’s Conventional Prompt Global Strike in the Context of the High Frontiers Theory], 国际观察 [International Review], No. 5, 2014, p. 12.

[9] 宇文静波 唐立文 [Yuwen Jingbo and Tang Liwen], 美国快速全球打击计划探讨与启示 [An Exploration of the U.S. Prompt Global Strike Program and Its Implications], 装备指挥技术学院学报 [Journal of the Academy of Equipment Command and Technology], Vol. 22, No. 3, June 2011, p. 60.

[10] 孙超 周军 李大光 [Sun Chao, Zhou Jun, and Li Daguang], 萨德反导系统入韩威胁东北亚地缘安全 [THAAD Missile Defense System’s Introduction to South Korea Threatens Northeast Asia’s Geopolitical Security], 飞航导弹 [Aerodynamic Missile], No. 5, 2017, pp. 6-7. See also: 廖生智 [Liao Shengzhi], 萨德入韩与中国东北亚地缘安全困境的加剧及应对 [THAAD’s Introduction to South Korea and the Aggravation and Responses to China’s Geopolitical Security Dilemma in Northeast Asia], 东疆学刊 [Dongjiang Journal], Vol. 34, No. 3, July 2017, p. 104.

[11] 刘冲 [Liu Cong], 美国酝酿在韩部署萨德系统问题辨析 [Analyzing the Problem of U.S. Deployment of the THAAD System in South Korea], 现代国际关系 [Contemporary International Relations], No. 5, 2015, p. 17.

[12] 王世涛 邢晓莉 [Wang Shitao and Xing Xiaoli], 韩国部署萨德系统对中国沿海弹道导弹影响浅析 [An Analysis of the THAAD System Deployment in South Korea and Its Influence on China’s Ballistic Missiles in the Littorals], 飞航导弹 [Aerodynamic Missile], No. 9, 2016, pp. 44-45.

[13] 王世涛 邢晓莉 [Wang Shitao and Xing Xiaoli], 韩国部署萨德系统对中国沿海弹道导弹影响浅析 [An Analysis of the THAAD System Deployment in South Korea and Its Influence on China’s Ballistic Missiles in the Littorals], 飞航导弹 [Aerodynamic Missile], No. 9, 2016, pp. 44-45.

[14] Liao Shengzhi, p. 105.

[15] 郑兆岚 [Zheng Zhaokai], 美萨德入韩的影响与对策 [The Impact of and Response to U.S. THAAD Deployment to South Korea], 国防 [National Defense], No. 12 (2016), p. 54; 曹庭 [Cao Ting], 萨德入韩引发的地缘政治危机及中国的对策 [The Geopolitical Crisis Arising from THAAD’s Deployment to South Korea and China’s Response], 国防科技 [National Defense Science and Technology], Vol. 38, No. 4, August 2017, p. 66.

[16] 陈向阳 [Chen Xiangyang], 萨德入韩对东北亚地区的战略影响 [The Strategic Impact of THAAD’s Deployment to South Korea on Northeast Asia], 现代国际关系 [Contemporary International Relations], No. 4, 2017, p. 2.

[17] 张节根 [Zhang Jiegen], 印度的核战略 [India’s Nuclear Strategy] (Beijing: Shishi Press, 2015), p. 211-212.

[18] 张节根 [Zhang Jiegen], 印度核战略对中国安全环境及南亚政策的影响 [The Influence of Indian Nuclear Strategy on China’s Security Environment and South Asia Policy], 同济大学学报 [Tongji University Journal], Vol. 22, No. 2, April 2011, p. 65.

[19] 刘红良 [Liu Hongliang], 印巴核武器及核战略 [Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Strategies of India and Pakistan], 印度洋经济体研究 [Indian Ocean Economic and Political Review], No. 5, 2014, p. 42.

[20] 刘磊 [Liu Lei], 施菜幸格主义与尼克松政府核战略的调整 [The Schlesinger Doctrine and Adjustments to Nixon Administration’s Nuclear Strategy], 史林 [Historical Review], No. 4, 2013, p. 143.

[21] 刘芝平 [Liu Zhiping], 冷战时期联邦德国促使北约双重决议萌芽的原因 [The Reasons Behind West Germany’s Push for NATO’s Dual-Track Decision During the Cold War], 南华大学学报 [Journal of University of South China], Vol. 11, no. 4 (August 2010), p. 57.

[22] 夏立平 孙崇文 [Xia Liping and Sun Chongwen], 论冷战后时期的北约核战略 [On NATO’s Nuclear Strategy in the Post-Cold War Period], 欧亚研究 [Chinese Journal of European Studies], No. 6, 2012, p. 84. See also: 员欣依 孙向丽 [Yuan Xinyi and Sun Xiangli], 北约核政策与核态势的回顾及展望 [Retrospect and Prospect of NATO’s Nuclear Policy and Nuclear Posture], 国际安全研究 [Journal of International Security Studies], No. 5, 2017, pp. 145-151.

[23] 孙逊 韩略 [Sun Xun and Han Lue], 冷战后美国延伸威慑战略模式探析—基于地缘政治的视角 [An Analysis of Models of U.S. Extended Strategy Deterrence in the Post-Cold War—Premised on a Geopolitical Perspective], 当代亚太 [Journal of Contemporary Asia-Pacific Studies], No. 5, 2017, pp. 13-14.

[24] 向钢华 王永县 [Xiang Ganghua and Wang Yongxian], 一种三方不完全信息延伸威慑动态博弈模型 [A Game Model of Three-Way Extended Deterrence Dynamics Under Incomplete Information], 系统工程 [Systems Engineering], vol. 24, no. 4 (April 2006), pp. 40-43 and曹金绪 [Cao Jinxu], 实力与决心的较量—三方不对称军事威慑博弈分析 [The Contest of Capability and Will: A Game Analysis of Asymmetric Three-Way Military Deterrence], 国际政治科学 [Quarterly Journal of International Politics], vol. 34, no.2 (2013), pp. 1-34.

[25] For an excellent summary of Russia’s challenge to U.S. extended deterrence in Europe, see 蒋翊民 [Jiang Yimin], 美俄中导条约履约争议与欧洲地区安全: 影响与管控 [The Debate over the U.S.-Russia INF Treaty and European Regional Security: Influence and Control], 国际关系研究 [Journal of International Relations], No. 6, 2015, pp. 102-103.