Chinese Views on the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, and Their Implications

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 4

DF-26 missiles participating in a military parade in Beijing

The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released in February, appears to be focused mainly on the challenges presented by Russian nuclear weapons and strategy. Nonetheless, the document also has some potentially important implications for China, where analysts continue to discuss and debate China’s approach to strategic deterrence generally as well as Chinese nuclear policy and strategy and nuclear force modernization in particular (China Brief, January 12). Unsurprisingly, China’s reaction to the latest U.S. NPR has been critical. The PRC Ministry of National Defense spokesperson stated: “We hope the U.S. side will discard its ‘cold-war mentality,’ shoulder its own special and primary responsibility for nuclear disarmament, understand correctly China’s strategic intentions and take a fair view on China’s national defense and military development” (Xinhua, February 5). Similarly, an article in Global Times criticized the NPR, stating that its focus on “defining China as a threat…is an excuse to develop even more nuclear weapons when Washington already possesses the world’s strongest deterrent” (Global Times, Feb 5).

More specifically, Chinese experts assessing the NPR’s implications for China appear to be focusing on its proposals to develop new nuclear capabilities and its listing of several types of non-nuclear strategic attacks that could result in nuclear escalation. For example, Professor Li Bin, a well-known Chinese nuclear policy expert at Tsinghua University, states that the United States “could prepare more nuclear tools and could threaten to use nuclear weapons on more occasions.” [1] Moreover, Li argues that the strategy reflects a renewed attempt to use U.S. advantages in nuclear weapons to pursue “regional and global hegemony.” As for how China should respond, a late January PLA Daily article called for China to strengthen and expand its nuclear deterrence capabilities (SCMP, January 30), but such moves were already well underway in response to Chinese concerns about advances in U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), precision strike, and missile defense capabilities. Indeed, the 2013 edition of the Science of Military Strategy, an influential volume published by the PLA’s Academy of Military Science (AMS), assessed that China’s faces an increasingly complex nuclear security environment and underscored the importance of responding by strengthening China’s nuclear deterrent capabilities. On the whole, therefore, Chinese strategists are likely to view the NPR as validating China’s existing approach to nuclear force modernization, which has been largely congruent with its stated nuclear policy and strategy.

Implications for Chinese Nuclear Policy and Force Modernization

 Initial indications are that China will view the NPR as underscoring the need to continue moving ahead with a nuclear force modernization program that is increasing the quality and quantity of Chinese nuclear forces, albeit in ways that appear to be largely consistent with China’s longstanding no first use (NFU) policy, and an approach to nuclear strategy that focuses on providing China with a modern and secure nuclear retaliatory capability.

As for China’s NFU policy, even if Chinese strategists are concerned about aspects of the NPR, it provides little impetus for China to officially change its longstanding nuclear policy. Indeed, Fu Ying, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the PRC’s National People’s Congress (NPC), reaffirmed China’s adherence to NFU in her remarks at the Munich Security Conference in February (Xinhua, February 18). Some Chinese critics of NFU have suggested that it diminishes the ability of the nuclear force to deter conventional strategic attacks against China; however, NFU proponents can and have argued that this potential shortcoming has already been addressed by a number of PLA publications, as well as a large body of unofficial statements indicating that there are circumstances under which China’s NFU policy might not apply. This approach seems to allow China to continue to enjoy what it perceives as the benefits of the NFU policy, while generating additional deterrence effects through strategic ambiguity. Indeed, the 2013 edition of the Science of Military Strategy appears to endorse such an approach, at least implicitly, when it notes that different voices expressing views on such subjects might help create better deterrence effects. [2]

Chinese nuclear force modernization appears designed to support China’s nuclear policy and strategy. China describes its desired nuclear force structure as a “lean and effective” nuclear deterrent, one that is capable of ensuring retaliation following an enemy attack against China.[3] China’s focus on the effectiveness of its nuclear missile force can be traced to concerns expressed in PLA publications dating to the late 1980s, which outlined plans to improve China’s nuclear counterattack capability by moving toward mobile launchers, improving survivability, increasing the ability to penetrate missile defenses, increasing the numbers of missiles and launch units, and improving command and control and support systems. As China continues to implement its plans to deploy a more modern, mobile, and increasingly credible nuclear deterrent, it continues to focus on making progress in all of these areas.

China’s focus in terms of modernizing its ICBM force appears to be consistent with a longstanding approach that emphasizes survivability and countering current or possible future developments in U.S. missile defense capabilities (DNI Worldwide Threat Assessment, February 13). According to the U.S. Department of Defense, China currently has about 75–100 ICBMs. [4] This includes the silo-based DF-5A; the silo-based DF-5B, which is equipped with multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs); the road-mobile DF-31 and DF-31A; and the older, shorter-range DF-4. China’s decision to MIRV some of its silo-based ICBMs was likely intended to increase warhead numbers and presumably add additional countermeasures to ensure China’s ability to overwhelm or penetrate missile defenses. Another important development was the unveiling of the DF-31AG ICBM, which China revealed at the military parade last year. The DF-31AG has an improved launcher, underscoring China’s desire for greater mobility and more survivability (The Straits Times, Aug 17, 2017; Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2017). At the theater level, however, there appear to be signs that the PLA Rocket Force may be giving China some more flexible options. The most notable development in this regard appears to be the DF-26 IRBM [5], which China has indicated is available in accurate nuclear, conventional, and anti-ship ballistic missile versions. [6]

China has also been using the official media to highlight the role of underground facilities in missile force operations. In particular, official media reports emphasize how these facilities contribute to PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) efforts to conceal its operations and enhance its survivability. For example, in June 2017, a Chinese media report highlighted an ICBM brigade’s participation in a “month-long underground survival exercise in an unidentified facility ‘beneath mountains.’” (China Daily, June 21, 2017). In addition, PLA publications and official media reports have highlighted improvements in training and readiness. PLARF training is reportedly becoming more realistic and complex, in line with PLA-wide directives aimed at improving the quality of military training. Finally, the Rocket Force appears to be focused on improving the readiness of its missile launch units. As a result, according to one recent official media report, “on-duty cells are ready to fire missiles immediately when ordered” (China Daily, June 21, 2017).

Looking ahead, the PLARF has a number of new capabilities under development. The DF-41 ICBMs currently under development are expected to feature MIRVs and will likely be designed to ensure they will be able to penetrate missile defense systems, as China has tried to communicate through recent official media reports. Moreover, some reports indicate that China might also deploy a rail-mobile version of the DF-41 ICBM (People’s Daily Online, November 28, 2017). In addition, China has conducted hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) tests, which are probably intended to provide new options for countering missile defenses. [7]

The PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) also appear to be emerging as important actors in nuclear deterrence, an area long dominated by the Rocket Force. The PLA Navy’s current Type 094 SSBNs and JL-2 SLBMs, as well as SSBNs and SLBMs under development, all appear aimed at enhancing the diversification and survivability of Chinese nuclear forces. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) also appears to be pursuing nuclear-capable bombers, which would give China a credible nuclear triad for the first time. The bombers could add more survivability, and likely will also offer some more flexible theater nuclear options along with the Rocket Force’s new missiles. The nuclear role may also offer benefits in terms of status and prestige for both the PLAN and PLAAF.


The 2018 NPR is unlikely to dramatically alter the trajectory of China’s ongoing nuclear force modernization or result in major changes to its nuclear policy. Beijing will likely view it as confirmation of an approach that is already well underway, one that is aimed at realizing improvements both in terms of the quality and quantity of its nuclear forces. Indeed, China seems likely to follow a course consistent with a recent recommendation by Li Bin, who suggests that in response to the NPR, China should not only “continue to focus on raising the survivability of its nuclear weapons…and their penetration capability against missile defense systems,” but also “reaffirm that its nuclear weapons are only for deterring a nuclear attack” (Global Times, January 25). The NPR, however, is not China’s only concern. Indeed, Chinese analysts are undoubtedly awaiting the new US missile defense review that is scheduled to be released following the NPR. If the review includes an increase in US missile defense capabilities in response to North Korea, as is widely expected, Chinese strategists may conclude that further increases in force size or additional missile defense countermeasures are needed to ensure that China’s nuclear deterrent will continue to meet its national security requirements.

Michael S. Chase is a senior political scientist at RAND, a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, and an adjunct professor in the China Studies and Strategic Studies Departments at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C.


 [1] At the same time, however, Li Bin notes that the NPR offers “positive comments” about US-China dialogue on nuclear issues and he suggests that the dialogue can “play an important role in stabilizing the China-US nuclear relationship.” See Li Bin, “Will US Nuclear Posture Review see a Return to Hegemony?” Global Times, January 25, 2018,

[2] The Science of Military Strategy [战略学], 3rd ed., Beijing: Military Science Press [军事科学出版社], 2013.

[3] See Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation: China’s Nuclear Posture and U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” International Security, Fall 2015, pp. 7–50; Jeffrey Lewis, “China’s Nuclear Modernization: Surprise, Restraint, and Uncertainty,” in Ashley J. Tellis, Abraham M. Denmark, and Travis Tanner, eds., Strategic Asia 2013–14, Seattle, Wash.: National Bureau of Asian Research, October 2013, pp. 67–96; Michael S. Chase, “China’s Transition to a More Credible Nuclear Deterrent: Implications and Challenges for the United States,” Asia Policy, July 2013, pp. 69–101; and M. Taylor Fravel and Evan S. Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” International Security, Fall 2010, pp. 48–87.

[4] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2017.

[5] Eric Heginbotham, Michael S. Chase, Jacob Heim, Bonny Lin, Mark R. Cozad, Lyle J. Morris, Christopher P. Twomey, Forrest E. Morgan, Michael Nixon, Cristina L. Garafola, and Samuel K. Berkowitz, China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent: Major Drivers and Issues for the United States, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-1628-AF, 2017,

[6] Andrew S. Erickson, “Academy of Military Science Researchers: ‘Why We Had to Develop the Dongfeng-26 Ballistic Missile’ – Bilingual Text, Analysis and Related Links,”, December 5, 2016,

[7] Lora Saalman, “China’s Calculus on Hypersonic Glide,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, August 15, 2017,; Joshua H. Pollack, “Boost-Glide Weapons and U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, February 2016, pp. 155–164.