Jeffrey LewisChina and No First Use

The 2006 edition of Chinese Military Power devotes an entire box to the question of whether China will maintain its pledge “not be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances.”

The box cites three articles, including an interview with Chu Shulong, an academic at Qinghua University:

While affirming “no first use,” Chu Shulong, from the prestigious Qinghua University, also stated in a July 2005 interview printed in state-owned media that “if foreign countries launch a full-scale war against China and deploy all types of advanced weapons except nuclear weapons, China may renounce this commitment [to no first use] at a time when the country’s fate hangs in the balance.”

Now, I know a little about Chu Shulong—one of his students is going to be a fellow at Managing the Atom next year—and this statement seemed a little odd to me. He just wrote a paper that concluded “China will stick to its NFU pledge.”

So, I asked Gregory Kulacki to grab the Chinese version and I tracked down the FBIS translation.

The first thing I noticed about the FBIS translation was not encouraging: FBIS headlined the article “PRC Expert Warns PRC May Renounce ‘No First Use’ of Nuclear Weapons in War Time,” but the translation of the Chinese title is “PRC Expert: China’s Policy on Nuclear Weapons Remains Unchanged.”

Not encouraging.

The original Chinese article is pretty unequivocal about China keeping no first use:

The Director of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Stratgeic Studies, in an interview with a reporter from Da Gong Bao expressed, China’s promise not to be the first to use nuclear weapons was extremely clear and firm. As of now, their isn’t the slightest indication that China’s government will let go of this promise. ”(I) have not heard any leader on any occassion state China will change or let go of this position. Never.”


At the same time Chu Shulong provided a hypothetical, except in the case of a foreign power launching a full scale war against China, using all of their advanced (precision) weaponry except nuclear weapons, and the Chinese nation were facing the danger of extermination, China may let go of this promise. But he considers the possibility not very great. “I think what Zhu Chenghu said is the worst possible circumstance, and the worst possible circumstance should not happen”.

[This translation is Gregory’s; the FBIS translation is essentially the same.]

I don’t think noting that Chu “affirmed” the policy really conveys the overall context of the quote. The article is about how there isn’t a real debate over no-first use and how extremely unlikely China would be to use nuclear weapons.

Some people at DIA (though not all or even most) have been making the same prediction for twenty years and they’ve been wrong every year, for twenty years. Seriously, read Special Defense Intelligence Estimate: China’s Evolving Nuclear Strategies DDE‐2200‐321‐85 (May 1985), particularly pages 8-9.

Thinking about those sad dead-enders, desperately casting about for some glimmer of hope, some sign no matter how slight or vague, that this year will be the year that redeems all the past predictions, I am reminded of this scene in Dumb and Dumber, where Jim Carey asks Lauren Holly about his chances with her.

“Not good.”

“You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?”

“I’d say more like one out of a million.”

So … you’re telling me there’s a chance!

Yeah, guys, there is a chance.


  1. Fred Zimmerman (History)

    AC Wonk: I think you’re being a little harsh on the guys at DIA. The fact is that China’s NFU policy is just that, a policy, wubject to change at any time if a ruling coalition finds a persuasive argument to self-interest. There is considerably more than a 1 in a million chance that any policy of any government will be changed over any given span of N years. Policies, in general, simply don’t have “six nines” stability associated with them. It’s more like one or two nines, and that means that nothing is certain for very long in this world. It would be interesting to create a data set measuring the half-life of “major policies” for a broad set of nations; I’m guessing that you’d not find many policies that last more than say 30 or 40 years, simply because circumstances always change.

  2. Matt Tompkins

    One of the other articles cited in the report includes a quote from Shen Dingli at Fudan University, essentially making the same point as the Chu quote. Thinking he’d been taken out of context, I asked him about it. He wasn’t. His argument is that if China, in a broader conventional conflict, were faced with defeat or the destruction of most of its forces, then it’s not plausible to think that they wouldn’t turn to nuclear weapons as a last resort. (His further argument is that if you accept that assertion, then it’s better for China to renounce NFU and have a transparent, credible policy than one no one believes.) I hate that this feeds the China-hawks broader fantasies, but it’s a chain of thought that has to be considered.

  3. Jeffrey Lewis

    Well, I would say that policies change for bureaucratic more than rational reasons, but I do understand the pressures that the folks in the IC are under.

    After all, if they missed China dropping NFU, they’d be in a lot more trouble than they’ve been for missing China keep it.

    That said, when I was at DOD, mocking DIA was kind of a ritual past time (“Do it again”, etc.) There are some very, very talented people at DIA, but I find the distribution of talent has larger tails for DIA than other IC entitities.

    Just one wonk’s opinion, of course.

  4. Jeffrey Lewis

    Re: Shen Dingli …

    He is a friend of mine and no doubt that he was not taken out of context. He is a hawk among hawks on defense issues.

    A nice guy, but I am glad he doesn’t make security decisions within China.

  5. Muskrat (History)

    I wonder what was meant by the phrase ”[the] Chinese nation were facing the danger of extermination.”

    Virtually all scenarios for U.S.-China conflict I’ve heard of involve a U.S. defense of Taiwan, not a U.S. invasion of the mainland.

    Would failing to conquer Taiwan be “extermination” for the Chinese nation, even if it were a humiliating defeat and accompanied by serious damage to China’s military? Or would China be more likely to pull back and wait for another chance? I’m not much of a student of Sun Tzu, but is doubling down after disaster really the Chinese way?

    Or is the Pentagon suggesting a U.S.-China conflict scenario that would end with unconditional surrender and occupation of Beijing?

  6. DC Loser

    China’s fears of a US pre-emptory strike on its ICBMs via conventional PGMs delivered by B-2 bombers is real. The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was a wakeup call for them. I don’t blame them for not reacting if this scenario is borne out someday. They do have a right to change their minds.

  7. Eaton (History)

    I’m confused about your statement about the DIA and China’s NFU policy. You say: “Some people at DIA (though not all or even most) have been making the same prediction for twenty years and they’ve been wrong every year, for twenty years. Seriously, read Special Defense Intelligence Estimate: China’s Evolving Nuclear Strategies DDE‐2200‐321‐85 (May 1985), particularly pages 8-9.”

    This implies, when coupled with your next paragraph, that the DIA has been saying for twenty years that China has been about to abandon NFU. However, the document you cite and to which you provide a link cleary states the opposite. It notes on page 9 that “China’s commitment to well-established postiions—such as its no first-use pledge—will endure not only because of the political advantage Beijing might feel they offer but because they will remain compatible with the limited capabilities and strategic objectives of China’s small force.” This same point is made on page 1 in the report’s key judgement section. Indeed, it is reinforced by the qualifier that “the limited improvements likely in Chinese nuclear forces will reinforce, not alter, these basic policies.”
    Nowhere in DDE-2200-321-85 is there any discussion of China abandoning its NFU pledge. Rather, this DIA report reinforces your statements about Chnia’s commitment to its NFU policy. Do you have access to a past DIA document predicting the end of China’s NFU policy?

    I enjoy your blog.


  8. Jeffrey Lewis


    I read that document a little differently, which is a good reason to always make availale the full text.

    I agree with your reading of the top-line judgment. Indeed, I think that most folks at DIA in the 1980s had a pretty decent handle on the near-term changes in Chinese forces (I tried to indicate in the post that I didn’t think all or even most folks at DIA were in the “dead ender” camp).

    Now, paragraphs 15 and 16 refer to “some writers” in China complaining about China’s lack of flexibility and predict the development of “shorter-range ballistic missiles and other tactical systems more suited to battlefield use” … “may have a major impact on Chinese strategy, particularly employement plans.”

    The qualifier you cite refers to improvements over the “next ten years” while paragraphs 15 and 16 focus on systems that would “come to fruition” in the 1990s (essentially more than 10 years out).

    To state it simply, the document expresses long-term skepticism about the viability of no-first use as an employment doctrine given its obvious inflexibility.

    If I could change one thing about the post, I think it would the phrase “wrong every year” — that gives the impression that the change was expected in the near-term, which (as you point out) is incorrect.

  9. Tom (History)

    I think in a Chinese NFU discussion it’s probably fairly relevant to remember the Russian side of the equation here.

    Especially given all the turmoil Russia has gone through over the last decade and a half and the history of “tension” between the two.

    The PRC may need Russian oil and to a lesser extent arms at the moment but I would be very surprised if the Chinese leadership viewed Russia as a stable partner in any sort of meaningful way.

  10. Andy (History)

    I fail to see what the big deal is. Elements of the US Government are openly talking about nuclear penetrators to destroy facilities conventional munitions can’t. Back in 1991, some in Congress openly advocated using nukes against the Iraqis. I wonder what impression that gives the Chinese?

    China’s NFU policy is pretty clear. It is unsurprising and wise of them to consider “what if” scenarios where that policy might get tossed out the window. The end of the Chinese state seems like a reasonable cause to reconsider the policy.

    And as DC Loser says, the US has the capability to take out China’s strategic nuclear strike capability with our conventional forces. I’m sure that’s a concern for them from a strategic standpoint.

  11. Andrew

    China’s NFU policy makes just as much sense now as it did 20 years ago because the strategic situation hasn’t changed. Unlike Russia, China does not have the nuclear capability to wipe out America as a nation, so MAD will not work to deter the US from using nukes on China if (for some unlikely reason) the US believed China was a direct and imminent threat to the US mainland. In addition, the US does have the nuclear capability to effectively destroy China as a nation, so the Chinese would have to assume any nuclear exchange could result in a war of escalation that would leave much of China a smoldering ruin. The only military utility for China’s nuclear weapons is therefore to deter US nuclear weapon use in a conflict that does not directly threaten the US mainland, such as a war over Taiwan (as mentioned earlier, a nuclear strike on US soil could result in a much larger US retaliatory strike). Here, China could use nuclear weapons on US assets in theater to make such a war too costly for America to pursue. However, China already possesses the conventional capability to do so. Think about it, a conflict with Taiwan would involve very expensive US force projection platforms (aircraft carriers, destroyers, SSGNs, etc) facing off against relatively cheap Chinese short range air and missile assets. It would be very easy in such a conflict for China to inflict more damage on the US than we could afford to justify our presence. In order to make such a conflict winnable, the US would have to inflict tremendous damage on Chinese assets while losing almost none of its own platforms, which is (in my opinion) why US military planners are so worried about such a conflict occuring. Remember that supercarriers would cost about $15 billion apiece to replace, and have a total crew of over 5000 people (more than died in the 9/11 attacks). How many of those could we afford to lose?

  12. RT (History)

    Interesting article:
    US and China stoke fears of nuclear tension
    By Mure Dickie in Beijing and Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington
    Published: June 1 2006 20:05 | Last updated: June 1 2006 20:05…0779e2340.html

    Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, arrives in Singapore on Friday for a three-day conference on Asia security issues that is likely to include much discussion about China following the release last month of his department’s annual report on the Chinese military.

    The Pentagon drew plenty of attention last week when it suggested that US defence analysts had been surprised by changes in the capacity of China’s nuclear deterrent, including the “pace and scope of its [nuclear] strategic forces modernisation”.

    It is not entirely clear what surprises the Pentagon was referring to since the unclassified version of the report provided few details about new developments. But the highlighting of concerns about Chinese nuclear intentions was a reminder of the possibility for mutual miscalculation between the world’s most powerful country and its most populous.

    While there has been a surprising lack of nuclear competition between the US and China since Beijing exploded its first atomic device in 1964, recent signals from both sides have increased fears that they might succumb to the temptations of a new arms race.

    Peter Brookes, a defence analyst at the Heritage Foundation and former Pentagon official on Asia issues, says the US and China are not “at that point right now”.

    But he says the increased mobility of China’s nuclear forces and their desire to arm submarines is causing concern in the Pentagon.

    Many Chinese observers bristle at what they see as the hypocrisy of expressions of concern from the US – which has about 10,000 strategic and tactical nuclear warheads – at a Chinese arsenal generally estimated to total less than 400.

    “I do not know why they should feel surprised. Why do they assume that China should have weaker nuclear forces?” says Shen Dingli, an expert on international relations at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

    The Pentagon report cited China’s long-standing plans to add mobile DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missiles to its current old and small arsenal of about 20 silo-based ICBMs able to hit the US.

    The Pentagon’s focus on long-range, precision conventional weapons worries Chinese strategic thinkers, since they could be used to launch a pre-emptive strike.

    Beijing has since the days of Mao Zedong calculated that a “minimum deterrent” capable of threatening the destruction of only a few US cities is enough to deter any nuclear assault by Washington.

    But US enthusiasm for anti-missile defences means that China is likely to need more missiles or warheads to have any confidence that at least some could get through such a shield. But Larry Wortzel, a former military attaché in Beijing and now chairman of the US-China Commission, says China has been increasing its nuclear forces long before the US started looking seriously at missile defence.

    “We must hold America effectively hostage, because we are being effectively held hostage by America, and we need to strike a balance – even if it is asymmetrical,” says Mr Shen.

    Mr Shen himself was mentioned in the Pentagon report as offering evidence of a possible rethinking of China’s long-standing stated policy of “No First Use” of nuclear weapons.

    The Fudan University academic does indeed think the No First Use policy should be adjusted to take into account the possibility of a conventional attack intended to eliminate China’s nuclear forces – but he insists this is a personal view not part of any wider debate.

    The Pentagon has stronger evidence of a policy discussion in the comments of Chinese General Zhu Chenghu, who last year said Beijing might have to use nuclear weapons against the US if attacked during a confrontation over Taiwan.

    The Chinese government assured Mr Rumsfeld in October that Gen Zhu was speaking in a private capacity. But the fact that he has kept his job, following an administrative punishment, has fed US concerns that the No First Use policy is more rhetorical than doctrinal.

    Li Bin, director of the Arms Control Programme at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, argues that China’s nuclear strategy has always been based on an assumption that the “nuclear taboo” ensures the US will not actually use its atomic weapons.

    The greater risk is that possession of nuclear force might make policymakers rash about the use of conventional force, Prof Li says.

    “Some kind of nuclear escalation could still develop,” he says. “It is a danger, but it’s not the number one danger.”