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China's military strategy 2015: The nuclear dimension

No first use and nuclear counter-attack the focus of Beijing's latest white paper
Published : 15 July 2015

By: Debalina Ghoshal

In May this year, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense released its latest defense white paper, titled “Chinese Military Strategy.” The document underlines Beijing’s nuclear ambitions and strategy in the overall context of the preparation for military struggle (PMS), the basic military practice safeguarding peace, containing crises, and winning wars.

Nuclear force plays an integral part in Beijing’s military strategy and hence, the white paper did not miss out on an opportunity to highlight China’s nuclear force as a strategic cornerstone for safeguarding national sovereignty and security. The document stresses how the People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) is placing emphasis on both conventional and nuclear missiles, even for precision long-range strikes.

The Chinese government maintains that it is developing capabilities to maintain strategic deterrence and carry out a nuclear counter-attack. With a ‘no-first use’ doctrine, the white paper identifies this retaliatory capability as ‘counter-attack’ rather than ‘second strike’ capability. This leaves less confusion in the minds of adversaries on China’s adherence to its ‘no-first use’ doctrine.

The white paper also affirms China’s continued stance on ‘no-first use’ of nuclear weapons and reiterates that it would not attack any non nuclear weapon state or nuclear weapons free zone with its nuclear weapons. This is distinct from its 2013 white paper, which made no reference to the ‘no-first use’ doctrine, leading many to wonder if Beijing was rethinking its policy.

The document also stresses China’s desire to keep its nuclear weapons at a minimum level but enough to maintain its national security. It clearly mentions Beijing’s unwillingness to enter into a nuclear arms race with any country. It also emphasizes that China will optimize its nuclear force structure, improving strategic early warning, command and control, missile penetration, rapid reaction, and survivability and protection capabilities, and deter other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

China is already working on missile penetration aids and Chinese missiles could be fitted with decoys, chaffs, mylar balloons, and sub-munitions. China has also developed missiles flying at depressed and lofted trajectories, is working on multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) and maneuverable re-entry vehicles (MARVs) as penetration aids. Chinese engineers are attempting to overcome a hit-to-kill intercept by enclosing the ASBM warhead in a metallic shroud cooled by liquid nitrogen. This technology could even be conducive if the ballistic missile defense system (BMD) is in boost phase. 

With a no-first use doctrine, the survivability of nuclear forces is crucial and it also enables it to follow the path of maintaining a minimum deterrent posture. Beijing has been working on the survivability of its nuclear forces, including replacing liquid fuelled missiles with solid ones, with only the DF-5 and DF-5A liquid fuel missiles left in its arsenal. It has also been working on mobile missile systems, developing dummy silos near silo-based missile sites, developing hard and deep tunnels, for example, in the Hebei Mountains. Such mountains are advantageous especially for liquid fuelled ICBMs since the preparation time for such liquid fuelled missiles is longer and hence, could be easily destroyed if stored in places which could be easily targeted.

China’s sea-based nuclear deterrence also provides the best mode of survivability of its nuclear force. There is also a focus in the report on improvising China’s maritime capability and for this China’s sea based nuclear deterrent would remain crucial.

However, as a whole, the document makes no mention of the Anti Access Area Denial Strategy (A2/AD), a strategy to counter US military growth in the Asia Pacific region, also known as the Shashoujian Strategy.

While the document stresses the need to boost the Chinese air and missile defense capabilities, there is no mention of enemy ballistic missile defense systems, which negate China’s nuclear deterrent capability.

While the document highlights concerns over the US rebalancing strategy in the Asia Pacific region, it carefully left out concerns over the US ballistic missile defense systems in Taiwan and Japan. There is also no mention of nuclear arms control and nuclear disarmament as an objective in China’s long-term nuclear strategy.  

At a time when analysts and practitioners of international security are apprehensive of China’s nuclear weapons and have suggested including it in nuclear arms control measures, the exclusion of any mention of control and disarmament leaves it unclear where the country really stands on the issue.

The document also makes no mention of anti ship ballistic missiles (AShBMs), something that would have been crucial for the rest of the world as Beijing is developing hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) which can be mounted atop these AShBMs and pose a serious threat to enemy aircraft carriers.

China is also believed to be concentrating on an early warning system to detect enemy nuclear capable ballistic missiles. This, along with missile and air defense systems, enables Beijing to not only detect incoming ballistic missiles but also to intercept them and launch a counter-strike.

Deep, protected underground tunnels along with the early warning system will only enhance China’s ability to absorb a first strike and retaliate, thereby strengthening Beijing’s ‘no-first use’ policy. Possessing a credible early warning system would also prevent China from mating its nuclear warheads with delivery systems during peacetime.

Debalina Ghoshal is a Research Associate with the Delhi Policy Group.

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