A no-first-use (NFU) pledge is a declaratory confidence-building measure (CBM) in which a nuclear weapon state promises not to use nuclear weapons first. An NFU pledge can be unconditional or provided with certain conditions.
China's NFU Policy:
Since 1964, China's stated policy has been to “not be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances." Chinese officials have consistently adhered to this principle and claim that the existence of their NFU pledge is proof that China possesses nuclear weapons for defensive purposes. China expanded on this commitment in 1995 when it publicly issued an unconditional negative security assurance. ["China's National Statement On Security Assurances," 5 April 1995.] China's consistent support for NFU is mainly based on its historical experience of being subjected to nuclear threats during the 1950s and 1960s, its technological limitations and economic constraints, and a belief that deliberate strategic ambiguity and concealment of actual numbers and precise locations of deployed weapons could maintain the survivability of China’s limited nuclear retaliatory force. Threatened by Soviet invasion and U.S. military threats during the Cold War, China decided to keep the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal to the minimum rather than enter an international arms race. Even with a small number of weapons, China maintained sufficient quantitative ambiguity so that other states would not be confident that they could take out all of China’s nuclear weapons in a first strike. [Phillip Saunders and Jing-Dong Yuan, “China’s Strategic Force Modernization: Three Scenarios and Their Implications for the United States,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, 2003, forthcoming.]
Chinese officials argue that global instability during the Cold War compelled them to develop a nuclear deterrent, but China paired this need with a small nuclear force and continued support for nuclear disarmament. Under Deng Xiaoping, China shifted its focus from building its nuclear program to economic reform. Even as Deng reduced the PLA’s ranks by over one million troops, the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or “Star Wars”, program rekindled debates among Chinese strategic analysts and raised important issues for China’s limited nuclear forces. A renewed U.S.-Soviet arms race that included missile defense capabilities could undermine the credibility of China’s nuclear retaliatory capabilities and expose China’s inability to compete in a potential race toward weaponization of space. These fears thus prompted China to place more emphasis on improving the survivability and credibility of its nuclear deterrent to prepare for an uncertain future strategic environment, yet the Chinese leadership continued to cling to its NFU policy.
Today, China’s continued nuclear modernization and
possible doctrinal change have caused many foreign
scholars to question the longevity of China’s NFU
China and NFU Agreements:
One of China's main nuclear arms control initiatives has been the proposal for an NFU agreement with the other four nuclear-weapon states (United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom). China invited parties from all four other nuclear weapon states to discuss the issue in 1993 and 1994, but only Russia agreed to take part. China presented a draft Treaty on the No-First-Use of Nuclear Weapons to the other four nuclear weapon states in January 1994. These initiatives resulted in a Sino-Russian NFU and detargeting agreement in September 1994 in which both countries signed a joint statement on no-first-use and detargeting of nuclear weapons. China signed a non-targeting agreement with the United States in 1998.
China has repeatedly called on the nuclear powers, particularly the United States, to issue NFU pledges, and has in the past linked an NFU pledge to Chinese participation in other arms control measures, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). For years, China indicated that it would not conclude a detargeting agreement with the United States unless the United States issues an NFU pledge and China also pushed for the inclusion of an article on NFU during CTBT negotiation. Both efforts ultimately failed. China signed the CTBT in 1996 and China and the US reached a non-targeting accord in June 1998.
US-China Disagreement on NFU:
As stated above, China has consistently called on the United States to adopt a no-first-use policy, to reach a NFU agreement bilaterally with China and to conclude an NFU agreement among the five nuclear weapon states. Some arguments put forward by both sides--from both academics and policymakers--include the following:
- NFU is important to preventing nuclear war, strengthening the nonproliferation regime, and promoting nuclear disarmament
- The United States does not need to reserve the right to use nuclear weapons first due to US conventional superiority
- A no-first-use pledge is a necessary first step to achieving multilateral nuclear reductions among the five nuclear weapon states
- NFU is a serious political commitment with a strong politically-binding force, and will provide for more strategic stability than the existing deterrence policies
- The option to use nuclear weapons first under extraordinary circumstances is necessary to provide credible security guarantees to its alliance partners around the globe; US security commitments to other countries are much wider than China's and thus demand a NFU policy.
- The adoption of an NFU policy might undermine the credibility of US security guarantees to its allies, pushing them toward acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities of their own
- NFU is highly symbolic, lacks real substance, is not verifiable, and can be easily changed
- The option to use nuclear weapons first can deter the use of chemical or biological weapons (CBW) against the United States and its allies and friends
Concerns about the credibility of China’s NFU policy:
China remains publicly committed to a policy of no-first-use and delayed response, but some scholars and analysts have questioned the credibility of this declaratory doctrine. During the 1970s and 1980s, reports that China had considered using nuclear weapons as a means of response to a conventional Soviet attack led many Western analysts to doubt the reliability of China’s NFU pledge. Today, observers continue to question whether China’s pledge prohibits use of nuclear weapons on Chinese soil, particularly in response to a foreign invasion or a war in Tibet or Taiwan. In 2003, China’s nuclear policy continued to revolve around a desire for universal elimination of nuclear weapons and a promise of no-first-use. Nevertheless, foreign analysts – and, to some degree, Chinese scholars -- increasingly question China’s commitment to its NFU pledge.
As Bates Gill, James Mulvenon, and Mark Stokes explain in 2002,
“First, [a no first use] pledge is highly symbolic – it is not verifiable and any violation of the pledge would not be detected until it is too late. Second, as a practical matter, we need to recognize that the NFU pledge is probably less an altruistic principle, and more a simple reflection of the traditional operational constraints imposed on Chinese doctrine by the country’s qualitatively and quantitatively limited arsenal: China maintains an NFU pledge because it fits with the realities of nuclear weapons inventory. As its force structure changes, so too might its NFU principle… Similarly, mounting evidence in Chinese military writings and through interviews suggests increased unhappiness within the PLA about the NFU pledge, especially in consideration of the overwhelming and stand-off conventional force of countries such as the United States. Revisions to the NFU pledge could advocate launch-on-warning or launch-under-early-attack policies.” [Source: Bates Gill, James Mulvenon, Mark Stokes. “The Chinese Second Artillery Corps: Transition to Credible Deterrence,” in The People’s Liberation Army as an Organization: Reference Volume v1.0.” Ed: James C. Mulvenon, Andrew N.D. Yang. 2001. Page 516.]
Alistair Iain Johnston argues that many military strategists within China do not support the no-first-use policy. He reports that some in the Chinese military have questioned the need to wait until the initial attack is completed and may push for a “launch-on-warning” or “launch-under-early-attack” policy. Other strategists, he explains, support a preemptive doctrine and claim a right to counterstrike under nuclear threat, before bombs have arrived. [Alistair Iain Johnston, “China’s New ‘Old Thinking’: The Concept of Limited Deterrence,” International Security, Vol. 20, No. 3, winter 1995/96. Pages 21-23.]
Recently, perceived changes in U.S. military and nuclear doctrine have also alarmed Chinese officials. Many Chinese security analysts interpreted the Bush Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to indicate an increased role for nuclear weapons and an emphasis on pre-emption in the U.S. security strategy. In 2002, leaks of classified portions of the Bush Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review revealed existing contingency plans for using nuclear weapons against China, which may be leading some in China to fear that the United States might use nuclear weapons in a Cross-Strait conflict between China and Taiwan. Further, some analysts wonder if a conventional attack by the United States against China’s nuclear weapons would incite a nuclear response from China, thereby reneging on the country’s no-first-use policy. Although government reports remain loyal to the official Chinese doctrine, some Chinese strategists are allegedly reevaluating the country’s nuclear policies in the context of the NPR. [Phillip Saunders and Jing-Dong Yuan, “China’s Strategic Force Modernization: Three Scenarios and Their Implications for the United States,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, 2003, forthcoming.]
Major General (ret.) Pan Zhenqiang, former Director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at the PLA National Defense University, presents a few potential scenarios that might force China to reconsider its no-first-use pledge. He refers to the following three dilemmas: “(1) If Washington uses a tactical nuclear bomb against China’s military assets in a conflict at Taiwan Strait [sic] as it has alleged; (2) If Washington uses conventional weapons to attack China’s ICBM silos or its nuclear infrastructure as it clearly indicated in the nuclear posture [sic] that in the U.S. new triad, conventional weapons will replace strategic weapons to perform part of its missions; or (3) If Washington launches a limited nuclear attack against China after it has successfully deployed a limited NMD system which is specifically aimed at coping with the possible Chinese incoming warheads.” He notes that all of these situations would likely tempt China to retaliate using nuclear forces, yet the current NFU doctrine would not permit this kind of nuclear counterattack. Pan notes that, “From an operational point of view, China’s no-first-use pledge seems to have greatly bound its hands to maintain flexibility in seeking the optimum options.” [Phillip Saunders and Jing-Dong Yuan, “China’s Strategic Force Modernization: Three Scenarios and Their Implications for the United States,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, 2003, forthcoming; Pan Zhenqiang, “On China’s No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” Pugwash Online, November 26, 2002 http://www.pugwash.org/reports/nw/zhenqiang.htm]
Key statements/documents related to China and NFU:
- ["China's National Statement On Security Assurances," 5 April 1995.] ("China undertakes not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances.")
- ["Basic Position on Security Assurance to Non-Nuclear-Weapon States," Chinese paper presented to the Fourth Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT, 19 September 1990.]
- [China's unilateral security assurances, 28 April 1982.]
- ["On Effective International Arrangements to Assure Non-Nuclear-Weapon States against the Use or Threat of Use of Nuclear Weapons," Chinese working paper to the Conference on Disarmament, 16 April 1982.]
- ["On the Question of Security Assurances," Chinese working paper to the Conference on Disarmament, 6 August 1981.]
- [China's unilateral security assurances, 7 June 1978.]
Last updated: 06/26.2003
This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, agents. Copyright © 2007 by MIIS.