China’s “No First Use” Policy and its Persistency in the Nuclear World

Nuclear Power Plant © Petr Adamek / Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

The rising number of global military spending amid the pandemic, especially among nuclear superpowers (SIPRI, 2021b), has revealed the need to prioritize the global disarmament agenda in order to create a world that is truly safe for humanity. However, due to the complexity of geopolitical and global strategic tensions since the Cold War era, prospects for global disarmament seem to be less and less possible each day.

One of the most prominent measures which may help contribute to a world without nuclear weapons is the “No First Use” policy, which refers to an approach taken by nuclear weapons states whereby they declare they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in any circumstances, either as first strike or to respond to non-nuclear attacks.

By declaring a “No First Use” policy, nuclear weapon states singal their position on their own nuclear weapons to the international community. However, since nuclear weapons are developed for strategic purposes, they are inevitably intertwined with international security and cooperation challenges faced by nuclear weapons states. For example, the United States remains reluctant to adopt an unconditional “No first Use” policy out of strategic need to reassure its allies of its protection under “extended deterrence” (Fetter and Wolfsthal, 2018). Therefore, when reviewing the challenges faced by nuclear-armed states that have declared a “No First Use” policy, it is important to understand the broader strategic commitments on their agenda.

Nuclear “No First Use” Policy: Theoretical Framework and Challenges

The “No First Use” policy agenda itself is not too complicated to understand; it is simply just nuclear superpowers declaring that it will not be the first to strike with nuclear bombs. The conditions vary depending on government decisions and so far China is the only country to declare an unconditional “No First Use” policy. The aim of the “No First Use” policy by nuclear weapon states is to signal its position on its own nuclear weapons and policies to the international community.

However, as nuclear weapons are strategic weapons, its policies are intertwined with the same challenges faced by state security affairs including areas such as alliance partnership, diplomacy, international conflict, and cooperation. Therefore when reviewing the challenges faced by the “No First Use” policy, it is important to understand the ripples on a state’s strategic agenda.

This is discussed among scholars (Fetter and Wolfsthal, 2018) under a concept of an “Extended deterrence” and the “Nuclear umbrella”, whereby they suggest that the purpose of nuclear weapons is not only to deter the use of other states’ nuclear weapons but also extends to defend allies and therefore affecting an ally state’s strategic decision to apply it. Additionally, these aforementioned effects are interdependent on allies’ preference regarding the “No First Use” policy. (Downman, 2021)

China’s “No First Use” Policy: Fundamental Elements

Unlike Washington, China’s unconditional “No First Use” policy has persisted since Beijing first announced it possessed nuclear weapons. China’s “No First Use” policy was announced by the Chinese Communist Party back in 1964, at the time China developed its first nuclear weapons, becoming the world’s fifth nuclear weapon state (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2020). Since then, China’s commitment to the “No First Use” policy has been shown through various actions, for instance, keeping the warheads not operationally employed (SIPRI, 2021b)

Besides declaring that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances, part of the Chinese government’s “No First Use” policy assurances is that it will not threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states and the nuclear weapon-free zones(Pan, 2018).

Beyond this pledge, China is the only nuclear weapon state that has declared an “unconditional No First Use” policy, whereas other nuclear weapons states have either attached some level of conditionality (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2020). For instance, India declared the same “No First Use” policy but with the condition that it will use nuclear weapons if attacked with “biological and chemical weapons” (Global Zero).

Understanding China’s “No First Use” Policy

China’s “No First Use” policy contributes to its self-projection in the world and establishes its strategic security position on the global front. For China, its “No First Use” policy reflects its commitment to peace by demonstrating its support for global nuclear disarmament (Pan, 2018). From a theoretical point of view, the “No First Use” policy itself does contain peace building elements and supports global disarmament solutions (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2020). By implying that China only seeks nuclear weapons as a defensive tool and not for attacking purposes, this policy also reinforces China’s image as a supporter of a peaceful world (SIPRI, 2021a).

China’s “No First Use” policy is based on three ideological pillars. First, it is influenced by Mao Zedong’s perception on nuclear weapons. In a 1991 interview, he declared that “Nuclear bombs is but a paper tiger used by the imperial United States to scale people...”, which suggests a perception of the nuclear bomb as a killing machine. The second is from China’s defense strategy since the New China Era which exhibited the key of logical and active defense strategy meaning that the best strategy perceived was to not attack first but always ready for counterattack. And finally, it is part of Chinese ancient wisdom, including thinkers such as Sun Tzu and Lao Tzu, which supports the deep and careful consideration before the use of weapons (Sun Tzu, Giles and Phillips, 2019).

The “No first Use” policy is facing criticism due to its questionable credibility and contribution towards global strategic stability, However, for China, this policy still projects its global image as a peace supporter and contains crucial ancient Chinese ideological foundations.

Phantitra Phuphaphantakarn, also know as Ariel Karn, is an OSCE-UNODA arms control and disarmament scholarship alumni. She is also a co-chair of the policy working group at an initiative called Youth for TPNW (the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons). Phantitra is also a research intern at Center for Security Analysis and Prevention (Prague, Czech Republic) as well as a writer at The New Global Order (Rome, Italy) where she is also soon to be leading her own armament and disarmament studies research team. Phantitra also organize her own strategic security platform called “Seacurity Saga” which can be found on Facebook and Instagram. You can find her on Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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