Report Chapter - Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

Assuring Destruction Forever: 2022 Edition

| January 2022

Since its first nuclear explosion in 1964, China has maintained what it calls a “minimum deterrent” and a no-first use (NFU) pledge, both of which it says are aimed at avoiding a costly nuclear arms race. As its 2019 White Paper on Defense states:

China is always committed to a nuclear policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally. China advocates the ultimate complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons. China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security. China pursues a nuclear strategy of self-defense, the goal of which is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

While some western experts and scholars are suspicious of China’s NFU pledge, China’s nuclear force posture is in line with an NFU policy. Specifically, it has a smaller arsenal with a lower alert status than what is generally considered to be required for a first-use option. The Second Artillery Corps, which is the military unit in control of China’s strategic missile forces, conducts war planning and training under the assumption that China will absorb a first nuclear blow and use its nuclear forces only to retaliate. There is currently no evidence China will change its long-standing NFU nuclear doctrine. China’s nuclear force posture is determined primarily by its strategy, not financial or technological constraints.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping provided the guidance for the future development of China’s nuclear force. He emphasised that China’s strategic weapons “should be updated (gengxin) and the guideline [for their development] is few but effective (shao er jing). Few means numbers and effectiveness should increase with each generation.” Since the 1980s, the Chinese government says it has been pursuing its nuclear force structure as a “lean and effective” nuclear deterrent.

For China, the “minimum acceptable” nuclear force is one that will survive a first nuclear strike and overcome a missile defense system to reach its designated targets. The number of the “minimum” nuclear warheads to reach a target would be relatively constant. However, the total number of warheads required to support an effective nuclear force is changeable, depending on a number of factors, including estimates about the survivability of Chinese missiles and their ability to permeate missile defence systems. China’s officials have never declared the specific number of weapons needed for its “minimum” nuclear force.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Hui Zhang, China chapter “ China’s nuclear force modernisation,” in Allison Pytlak and Ray Acheson ed., Assuring destruction forever: 2022 edition. January 2022, Reaching Critical Will, a project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.