How China’s Nuclear Ambiguity Affects India

By National Interest

Ever since China exploded its first nuclear device in 1964, Beijing’s nuclear strategy has largely remained unchanged: it is based on achieving deterrence through assured retaliation. A crucial requirement for this is the survivability of its arsenal following a nuclear or conventional adversary’s first strike.

But the improved technology and evolving security dynamics with the United States have compelled China to rethink its operational capabilities to achieve effective deterrence. China is rapidly attempting to modernize its conventional and nuclear arsenal and increase its nuclear ambiguity through subtle changes in the doctrine, force posture, and capabilities.

China pursues a “self-defensive nuclear strategy” and adheres to the No First Use (NFU) doctrine. However, some Chinese doctrinal texts create ambiguities—intentionally or unintentionally. For instance, as Thomas Christensen argues, the 2004 Science of Second Artillery Campaigns (SSAC)—a doctrinal work designed only for the readers within the Chinese security establishment—contains several suggestions implying nuclear weapons’ role in a conventional conflict.

Furthermore, the SSAC’s key passages suggest scrapping of the NFU and threatening nuclear attack to deter conventional attacks against the mainland. This gets compounded by reading the 2013 Science of Military Strategy, another doctrinal text, which claims a prompt escalation that could lead to a nuclear clash if China fails to adopt the correct degree of deterrent threat. Literature on China’s NFU is clouded with parenthetical additions on the blurring of the firebreak between conventional and nuclear warfare. Such select texts increase ambiguities and have an impact on future deterrence calculations.

Furthermore, China’s nuclear ambiguity also stems from the operational procedure and newer capabilities. For instance, the overlapping launch geographies for China’s conventional and nuclear mobile systems may create doubt with the adversary fearing misinterpretation.

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