On July 11, a strange video surfaced on Chinese social media warning that China would abandon its nuclear no-first-use (NFU, 不率先使用) policy if Japan ever attempted to defend Taiwan against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Four days later, after being reposted by various Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, including the Baoji Municipal Committee’s Bytedance iXigua (西瓜視頻) video app account, and receiving millions of views, both the original video and an extended version were taken down.
China’s NFU declaration states that “at no time and under no circumstances would China be the first to use nuclear weapons.” However, this incident has left analysts wondering whether Beijing has abandoned its NFU policy amid a rapidly changing geopolitical context. As the narration makes clear:
In 1964, when our first atomic bomb was successfully detonated, we promised the world that we would not use atomic weapons against non-nuclear countries, and we would not be the first to use them […] Nearly 60 years have passed. Now the international situation has changed dramatically. Our country is in the midst of a major change. And all political policies, tactics and strategies must be adjusted to protect the peaceful rise of our country […] It is necessary to make limited adjustments to our nuclear policy.
The video appeared on the somewhat obscure “Wisdom & Strategies for 6 Armies” (六军韬略) online military channel, which is believed to be either affiliated with the PLA or to have strong connections with it. Programming for this channel started in November 2020.
Although any sign that a country may have abandoned its longstanding nuclear NFU policy is undoubtedly alarming, it should be noted that there has been no official confirmation on the part of the PLA or the Central Military Commission (CMC, 中央軍事委員會) to this effect. The sharing of such material by CCP officials also falls short of a statement of official policy. What remains to be determined is whether the production and sharing of the video was the product of individuals and agencies that acted independently—perhaps to vent out frustrations, or as an outlet for their ultranationalist sentiments—or if it was indeed sanctioned by the upper echelons of the CMC, the PLA, and the CCP.
Deterrence and Anger
If the video and its spread online received the blessing of senior decision makers within the Chinese military apparatus, there is a good chance that this represented an attempt, albeit a very crude one, to increase Chinese deterrence against greater involvement by Japan in the Taiwan Strait, which Beijing insists is an “internal matter.” Nevertheless, the fact that it was taken down after the post began receiving attention abroad suggests that the principal target audience was a domestic one.
The timing of the video certainly suggests that it was released in response to signs of a shifting policy in Tokyo, which has grown more vocal in its support for Taiwan and insistence on the need for stability in the Taiwan Strait, as demonstrated by several recent high-level statements. Chief among those were the April 16 Joint Statement by US President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Suga; the June 9 statement issuing from the Japan-Australia 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministerial Consultations; State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama’s remarks during an online forum hosted by the Hudson Institute on June 28; and the affirmation by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso on July 6 that Japan would join the US in defending Taiwan if the latter were attacked by China. Such developments suggest a policy reorientation by Japan and a departure from a more careful balancing strategy toward China. This was underscored in Japan’s 2021 Defense White Paper, released in mid-July, which emphasizes the sense of crisis in the Taiwan Strait and the importance of Taiwan for Japan’s national security.
In addition to these statements of intent, Japan’s provision of millions of COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan—amid efforts by Beijing to complicate Taipei’s response to a domestic outbreak—has also demonstrated a willingness to translate rhetorical support for Taiwan into concrete action. This was especially galling for the CCP, as the first of three deliveries of vaccines to Taiwan occurred on June 4, a rather touchy date for the Chinese regime.
Beijing’s anger also likely stems from other unfavorable developments in recent months, including the G7 and NATO communiqués in June, as well as greater assertiveness on the part of the US, with the unprecedented (and in Beijing’s view, “provocative”) landings of a USAF C-17 Globemaster III at Taipei International Airport (Songshan) on June 6 and a USAF C-146A Wolfhound on July 15.
Unable to take on, and to deter, a large segment of the international community, China instead appears to be resorting to intimidation against a select group of countries. Although the video was in Chinese only (which again suggests that this was not officially sanctioned, as a nuclear policy shift would necessitate versions in languages that are understood by the international community), the producers must have known that it would eventually catch the attention of the international community and be translated into other languages. Besides Taiwan itself, this starts with the one country that, for historical reasons, strikes a most sensitive chord with the Chinese regime and much of the Chinese population in general: Japan. It bears mentioning that Japan has perhaps the strongest rationale for seeking stability in the Taiwan Strait—and besides the US, the most formidable capabilities to intervene in a conflict over Taiwan. Such intimidation likely aims to derail the current intersection of US and Japanese interests over Taiwan, a development that, should it result in joint action, would greatly complicate Chinese ambitions regarding Taiwan by substantially augmenting the latter’s ability to deter the PLA.
Another reason to doubt that the video constitutes a true expression of a shift in Beijing’s NFU policy is the fact that a nuclear attack against Japan, a non-nuclear state, would—just as a conventional attack—trigger the Japan-US Security Treaty. A nuclear strike, however, would be a far more severe act of war against Japan and one that would prompt a devastating—and possibly nuclear—response by the US. Knowing this, and cognizant of the effects that nuclear war with the US would have on China, it is unlikely that Beijing, assuming that it continues to operate along “rational” lines, has decided to embark on such a course of action. Therefore, the likeliest explanation for the video and its sharing by a number of CCP officials is that this was intended as a signal of deterrence mixed with historical grievances and ultranationalism.
However unlikely it may appear at the moment, we nevertheless cannot completely discount the possibility that China, seeing a geopolitical environment that is increasingly stacked against it, is in fact contemplating a departure from its longstanding NFU policy. Such a shift could be the result of despair within the CCP or the product of hawkish factions prevailing against more conventional thinkers in the CMC, the PLA and the CCP. For example, this could result should the CCP regard the “loss” of Taiwan as an existential threat to the party, which has made the annexation of the island a cornerstone of its policy. If the situation indeed risks triggering “irrational” decision making in Beijing, whereby the leadership no longer calculates costs versus benefits along expected lines or is willing to absorb tactical losses for strategic gain, then it is essential that we make the necessary intellectual adjustments to prepare to confront such scenarios.
The most alarming aspect of such a policy shift in Beijing would be the greatly elevated risks of miscalculation, which could now result in nuclear exchanges. Firstly, by elevating the potential for a nuclear first strike against one of its opponents, China would create a rationale for Japan to embark on its own nuclear program, which would in turn create a vicious circle and spark a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia. The security dilemma posed by a nuclear Japan—or one that bolsters its conventional long-range strike capabilities in response to a Chinese nuclear threat—would compel Beijing to further develop its nuclear arsenal. Secondly, by adding a nuclear component to the Taiwan Strait, China would exacerbate the risks of miscalculation, which could potentially result in nuclear exchanges. By elevating the contest over Taiwan to the nuclear level (even if secretly the CMC retained a NFU policy), China would increase its own insecurities over the potential use of nuclear weapons by other states. Most troubling is the potential for the PLA to misconstrue an incoming threat. As Christopher P. Twomey warns in China’s Strategic Arsenal:
Some evidence suggests that China might consider moving to a launch-on-warning or launch-on-threat posture. This raises some important questions: How would such warning be assessed? What capabilities do the Chinese have to differentiate between a nuclear and nonnuclear attack?
Unless Beijing makes a clear effort to dispel the possibility that it may be overturning its NFU policy, such belligerence via the elevation of the threat against other potential players in a Taiwan Strait contingency risks creating an escalatory spiral. The recent discovery that China is building as many as 120 new nuclear silos to bolster its nuclear strike capability is not sending a reassuring signal to the international community. If Beijing’s new plan is indeed to nuclearize the Taiwan Strait, then the risks of error and a resulting devastating conflagration will have become all the more serious.
The main point: A new video posted on a semi-official Chinese military channel has warned that Beijing could abandon its nuclear no-first use policy and strike Japan should Tokyo decide to intervene on Taiwan’s side in a Taiwan Strait contingency. Regardless of whether this is mere ultranationalist bluster, deterrence, or an actual policy shift, this kind of signaling contributes to greater instability and uncertainty in the region.