Chinese Nuclear Strategy: Peace or War?

“We want to have not only more planes and heavy artillery, but also the atomic bomb. In today’s world, if we don’t want to be bullied, then we cannot do without this thing” (Fravel & Medeiros, 2010, p. 61). This was a statement by Mao Zedong, the founder of the modern Chinese state, back in 1956, during a famous speech titled “On the Ten Great Relationships”. The context of Western news about China has almost always seemed to portray the Chinese government negatively. Many times, this has been well-deserved criticism, whether it is foreign policy, such as their belligerence towards Taiwan, Japan or India, their economic policy (a highly subsidized exchange rate), human rights (from the perspective of the West, it’s very bad – policy since Tiananmen hasn’t really changed) or potential acts of war such as their cyber attacks on American government and corporate interests. Fortunately, there are some areas where China deserves some credit. One of these, maybe surprisingly, is their nuclear posture.

China first tested a nuclear weapon on October 16, 1964. Why did China feel as if they needed the bomb? Mao’s view was that “[we] also want that atomic bomb. I hear that with such a big thing, if you don’t have it, then others will say that you don’t count. Fine, we should build a few” (Fravel & Medeiros, 2010, p. 61). Deng Xiaoping (along with Mao, one of the two most important leaders in Communist Chinese history) would eventually explain his support of Chinese nuclear policy in this way: “[China does] not advocate nuclear proliferation at all, but we even more strongly oppose nuclear monopolies”. Deng was a more pragmatic philosophical rival to Mao’s far-left political ideology, and he was also the man responsible for modern China’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, a combination of socialist political rhetoric alongside capitalist economic reforms. Mao and Deng both felt that China would be bullied and/or blackmailed by the United States and the Soviet Union if they did not go nuclear themselves. This is reflected in Mao’s perception of the superpowers’ version of diplomacy: “[w]ith batches and batches of nuclear weapons in the United States and Soviet Union, they often shake them in their hands to intimidate people”(Fravel & Medeiros, 2010, p. 61).

Despite the determination to build nuclear weapons, China did not engage in the arms race that the Soviet Union and the United States competed in. This was due to the continued view of the top leadership in the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) from Mao in the 1950s to Deng Xiaoping through the 1990s and likely to today, that a minimum deterrent is all that is needed. China did build some nuclear weapons infrastructure, though it never really approached the superpowers’ desire to maintain a “nuclear triad”, which consists of nuclear weapon-toting bombers, nuclear submarines and land-based inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The nuclear submarine that it did build never went on a deterrent patrol, while the bombers it possessed couldn’t even reach Moscow and its DF-5 ICBM which was capable of reaching Moscow or Washington, wasn’t even available until the early 1980s (Fravel & Medeiros, 2010, pp. 54-55). While the superpowers stockpiled weapons during the arms race, China maxed out at around 151 bombs during the height of its tensions with the USSR in 1985, a total which is roughly half the number Britain and France retained.

Chinese nuclear policy is most similar to the concept of “minimum deterrence”, which is defined as “threatening the lowest level of damage necessary to prevent attack, with the fewest number of nuclear weapons possible” (Fravel & Medeiros, 2010, p. 50). The advocacy of low bomb totals and minimum deterrence appears to be a stable political philosophy in China and in this way, China may begin to be seen as a trendsetter. In addition to the new START nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia as well as the current US President’s goal of a nuclear-free world, Britain has also begun to ponder the necessity of its nuclear deterrent (Rachman, 2010). Additionally, China was the first to develop a “no first use” (NFU) policy as well as its opposition to arms races. The fundamental view has been that “[b]oth Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping viewed nuclear weapons as tools for deterring nuclear aggression and coercion, not as tools to be used in combat to accomplish discrete military aims” (Fravel & Medeiros, 2010, p. 57). Among the nuclear powers today, China then is one of the least prone to aggression and a leader in responsible nuclear policy. In the post-Cold War modern age, where civilian casualties in war and environmental effects are so salient, is this peaceful policy naïve to consider with the variety of threats governments face, or is it an idea worth emulating?

Works Cited

Fravel, M. T., & Medeiros, E. S. (2010). China’s Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Structure. International Security , 0035 (002), 48-87. [or download the article from http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/Chinas_Search_for_Assured_Retaliation.pdf]

Rachman, G. (2010, July 20). Britain’s Nuclear Choice Can Be Cheap and Scary. Financial Times , p. 09.

About Barry Saturday

The author is a Lexington, Ky-based financial advisor and formerly taught high school social studies for Fayette County Public Schools. Along with a M.A. in Education, his educational background consists of a B.A. in Foreign Languages and International Economics and an M.A. in Diplomacy with a concentration in Global Commerce. In 2012, he finished a two-month stint student teaching in Xi'an, China, and recently (2018) ran for City Council in Lexington, KY (District 4: Tates Creek / Nicholasville Rd area). Today's news outlets profit most from incendiary, surface-level appeals to emotion, which is poisoning much of our political discourse nationwide. Barry created this site in order to learn more about our world and share that knowledge with others. He hopes this site, aimed at an educated audience, will provide objective information for those seeking greater clarity and understanding than is often available in the current news environment. If you like what you see, feel free to comment and share with your network.

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  1. How Does China Choose its Leaders? | TheSaturdaySyndicate.com - 2011.04.23

    […] Saturday, B. A. (2011, April 01). Chinese Nuclear Strategy: Peace or War? Retrieved April 01, 2011, from http://thesaturdaysyndicate.com: https://thesaturdaysyndicate.com/2011/04/01/chinese-nuclear-strategy-peace-or-war/ […]

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