The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is building 120 new missile silos on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, raising anew questions about the future of Chinese nuclear forces and China’s approach to wielding them. Answers to those questions, which may not become clear for some time, could have significant effects on US-China strategic stability. In the meantime, it is worth thinking through the role that nuclear weapons play in the Taiwan Strait, a factor that is too often overlooked in analyses of the likelihood of a conflict in the Strait and the courses such a conflict might take.
A comprehensive assessment of nuclear dynamics surrounding the Taiwan Strait would consider nuclear force modernization efforts and doctrinal revisions in both China and the United States, and perhaps in Russia and India as well. Such an assessment would likewise take account of changes in conventional force structure and posture, missile defense capabilities, and conventional threats to strategic forces. This type of wide-ranging evaluation is not possible here. Instead, the analysis below will focus on one pillar of China’s nuclear approach and three scenarios for how it may evolve in the coming years: China’s “no first use” policy.
China’s Current Approach: A Brief Overview
China has long maintained a relatively small nuclear arsenal and a nuclear strategy that M. Taylor Fravel and Fiona S. Cunningham have described as “assured retaliation.” Assured retaliation, they write, “uses the threat of inflicting unacceptable damage in a retaliatory strike to deter an adversary from attacking first with nuclear weapons. That is, following a first strike, China would still have enough weapons to retaliate and impose unacceptable damage on its adversary.” Chinese nuclear strategists have long held that maintaining a credible ability to hit only a handful of enemy cities in a retaliatory strike was sufficient to deter nuclear use or the threat of nuclear use against the People’s Republic of China.
Along with this assured retaliation posture, China has maintained “dual pledges”: that it would never use nuclear weapons first (called no first use, or NFU), and that it would never use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is currently growing its nuclear arsenal; it is also modernizing and diversifying its delivery systems. There has been a debate in recent years about the future of China’s nuclear strategy, and in particular about the value of NFU. Today, China’s nuclear force structure remains consistent with “assured retaliation” and authoritative statements do not suggest that there has been a doctrinal overhaul. There are reasons to suspect that China may one day set aside “assured retaliation” and NFU. But for now, PLA doctrinal writings include just one campaign for the use of nuclear forces: a “nuclear counterstrike campaign,” which “describes how China would execute a nuclear strike after it had been attacked with nuclear weapons.”
Scenario 1: China Maintains a Strict Interpretation of No First Use
It is possible that China’s NFU policy is sincere and that Xi Jinping (習近平) and other members of the Central Military Commission have no intention of using nuclear forces unless China is attacked first with nuclear forces. In this scenario, China’s leaders would be confident they have conveyed that clearly to the United States. Washington would recognize those efforts, but remain somewhat skeptical of the NFU pledge. Should conflict erupt in the Taiwan Strait, Washington might be less inhibited in conventional escalation, and be more aggressive in targeting Chinese territory—though probably taking care to avoid striking intercontinental ballistic missiles and their enablers. US forces might proceed cautiously in escalating conventional attacks on conventional Chinese military targets, as they feel about for any potential limits to China’s NFU commitment.
A key question in this scenario regards what type of nuclear signaling Washington would engage in. Would it seek to convey that it may “go first” in response to PLA strikes on American bases in allied countries, on bases on US territory in the Pacific (e.g., Guam), on American critical infrastructure (e.g. cyber attacks on the electrical grid), or on civilian and dual-use satellite systems (e.g. GPS)? Or does the United States see such attacks as the price it will have to pay for a nuclear-free conflict involving attacks on the PRC itself?
A strict Chinese NFU policy, especially if the PLA maintains a secure second-strike capability, makes heightened violence at the conventional level more likely. Despite the likelihood of a bloody conflict, however, reduced concerns about nuclear escalation could make China more comfortable launching military action against Taiwan in the first place. On the other hand, strict NFU binds Beijing’s hands in ways that make it more difficult to deter American intervention and to potentially avert a disastrous defeat if a war goes poorly for the PLA. Given the importance that Chinese leaders place on unification, they are unlikely to enter into a conflict under such conditions.
Scenario 2: China Maintains a “Squishy” Interpretation of No First Use
As noted, in recent years there has been a debate within China about the future of the NFU policy, with some strategists arguing for a looser interpretation of “first use.” For example, some argue that the NFU policy should not prohibit a launch-on-warning posture or that it should not prohibit China from using nuclear weapons in response to conventional attacks on its nuclear forces. If Chinese leaders come to embrace such thinking, the scenarios under which they would consider nuclear use could expand significantly. American military planners must also consider the possibility that even if a “loose” NFU policy was sincere, it might not hold in particularly stressful circumstances.
In this scenario, China would adhere to a less restrictive NFU policy and there would be reasonable doubt in Washington—perhaps intentionally stoked by official Chinese statements and documents—that Beijing would refrain from nuclear use even if it is at risk of losing a war over Taiwan’s fate. China would be more likely to engage in robust nuclear signaling in the event of a conflict: for example, sending ballistic missile submarines to sea, mating warheads with land-based missiles, raising the alert status of its missile forces, and issuing warnings via the media or directly to US officials. Under these conditions, the United States would likely be far more cautious in conducting conventional strikes on Chinese territory in the event of conflict, especially if the circumstances under which NFU holds are ambiguously defined. US forces, for example, might strictly limit themselves to operations along China’s southeastern coastline, eschewing deep strikes and avoiding PLA Rocket Force command and control nodes. The PRC might likewise exercise restraint in attacks on US and allied territory, and especially on the 50 states, out of concern that nuclear escalation will be more difficult to avoid.
A “squishy” Chinese NFU policy could bound the conventional fight in a Taiwan Strait conflict scenario, in particular instilling caution in Washington regarding actions that threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power. The result could be a fight more or less contained to the western Pacific and China’s eastern seaboard—a fight more likely to become a numbers game and in which China can better take advantage of interior lines and thus one that favors the PRC, at least in the short term.
This is perhaps the ideal scenario for China, and arguably the most realistic of the three presented here. A looser interpretation of its NFU policy could (from Beijing’s perspective) helpfully shape the American approach to fighting a war in ways conducive to Chinese interests, and might even deter American intervention in the first place. Nuclear escalation is more likely in this scenario than in the first one—but so is Chinese victory, given the advantages China can bring to bear in a localized fight, even without nuclear use.
It is worth noting, however, that heightened concerns about Chinese nuclear use in this scenario could, somewhat paradoxically, lead the United States to contemplate early strikes on PLA nuclear forces. This will be especially true if Washington assesses that Beijing has been unsuccessful in fielding a secure retaliatory capability. In other words, the nuclear dynamics that would pertain under a looser Chinese NFU policy are considerably more prone to destabilization.
Scenario 3: The Death of NFU
Finally, it is possible, particularly as Chinese nuclear forces evolve, that NFU turns out to be little more than a slogan—in which case Beijing would have no intention of abiding by its NFU pledge in the event of a conflict, and Washington would have little expectation that China would do so—or that Beijing formally abandons the pledge. In this scenario, China may also include nuclear use in its campaign plans.
In this case, the United States would not only be hesitant to strike Chinese territory, as in the preceding scenario; it would also have concerns about a much lower Chinese threshold for nuclear use. Those concerns would become especially pronounced if China were to undertake a significant expansion in the size of its nuclear arsenal. American planners would have to worry, in particular, about nuclear strikes on US regional bases or on carrier strike groups at sea. And while it is true that lack of an NFU policy does not imply a first use policy, Chinese investment in capabilities like the dual-use DF-21 and DF-26 raise the prospect that a doctrine inclusive of nuclear warfighting could be in China’s future.
For the United States, having to grapple with nuclear strikes on assets in the region would present a significant challenge. The use of nuclear weapons against US bases in allied countries, for example, could trigger “nuclear umbrella” commitments, and the United States might struggle to settle on a proportionate response (or a disproportionate one) to nuclear use against naval forces at sea. This would be a potentially very different fight for Taiwan than the one often imagined, and one in which there could be substantial pressure for the United States to employ counterforce capabilities and resort to first use of nuclear weapons.
China might think such an approach is far more likely to convince America to leave Taiwan to its own devices and more likely to ensure victory if America does intervene. After all, quick nuclear strikes on US regional assets could devastate America’s ability to operate in the western Pacific, presenting Washington with a menu of unappetizing choices (to put it mildly). But, of course, things might not play out as Beijing might imagine. If the United States did come to Taiwan’s defense in these circumstances, Beijing and Washington might find themselves performing a highwire act to avoid a nuclear exchange.
The main point: Analyses of the likelihood of conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and of the course such a conflict might take, too often overlook the role nuclear weapons are likely to play. The content and fate of China’s “no first use” policy is just one factor that will significantly shape outcomes in the Taiwan Strait.