Xi Facing Calls in China to Rethink “No First Use” N-policy

A Chinese Xian H-6K strategic bomber

The administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping is facing calls in China to rethink its “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons, a pledge not to use nuclear weapons unless attacked with such weapons.

Discussions on nuclear weapons are becoming more multifaceted within the Xi administration, which is crafting a nuclear strategy to counter the United States. With Russia ramping up nuclear threats amid its invasion of Ukraine, there are growing calls for China to review its no first use policy, as part of efforts to deter other nations from getting involved in an emergency situation involving Taiwan.

According to Chinese government sources, a report issued in the latter half of 2022 by China’s National Defense University warned that it “would be necessary to amend” the no first use policy for nuclear weapons if doing so “would have the effect of preventing” the United States and other nations “from intervening in the event of a Taiwan emergency.”

The United States has opted not to get into a direct conflict with Russia even as the Ukraine invasion rumbles on, for reasons including Moscow’s possession of nuclear strike capabilities and the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin has not used nuclear weapons so far.

The Chinese report indicated that the threat of using nuclear arms “can play a role in preventing the escalation of a war being fought with conventional weapons.”

China announced its no first use policy in 1964 after successfully conducting its first nuclear weapon test. Beijing has, since then, stood by this doctrine that is intended to deter other nations from using nuclear weapons against China. India also has adopted a no first use policy.

Calls to alter the Chinese policy have emerged in various corners. In September 2021, a former senior Chinese government official declared that the no first use policy “should not apply to the United States.” In July of that year, a video was shared online in which a Chinese military enthusiast said, “only Japan should be excluded from the policy of nonnuclear use,” with regard to an emergency situation in Taiwan.

In November 2022, the Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party used the report as a basis for discussions on the modernization and size of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

The commission contended that “significantly increasing the number of nuclear warheads was unnecessary if the no first use policy remained unchanged.”

A proposal reportedly mooted in the discussions stated that tactical nuclear weapons could be preemptively used in the event of a major military intervention by forces opposing moves to unify Taiwan.

Xi, who chairs the commission and is the commander in chief of China’s armed forces, wrapped up the discussions by saying there “was no need” to hurriedly make any decisions. However, the Chinese president reportedly called for more research on the proposals.

The commission confirmed that the nuclear strike capabilities of China’s air, maritime and ground forces would be bolstered, for the time being. It also confirmed plans to accelerate the development of strategic nuclear-powered submarines, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and strategic bombers.

Unifying Taiwan and mainland China is a fervent wish of the Xi administration. Preventing an intervention by the U.S. military would be a major factor in successfully invading Taiwan to achieve the goal.

The Chinese military is pushing ahead with improvements to its anti-access/area-denial capabilities, which are designed to prevent U.S. military forces from advancing past the “first island chain,” a group of islands that run from southern Kyushu to the Philippines.

Dong-Feng (DF) 41 intercontinental ballistic missiles

Defense budget boost

The increase in China’s 2023 defense budget announced on March 5 was considerably higher than the nation’s economic growth rate target. Beijing is moving quickly to ensure it has the capability to invade Taiwan.

If the threat of a nuclear strike made the United States hesitant to get involved in an emergency situation, it would favor the Chinese military.

However, some Chinese military officials say China will not change its no first use policy anytime soon.

Although researchers at the Renmin University of China also urged a reversal of the policy in internal discussions, any such change would inevitably invite fierce pushback from the international community.

“Changing that policy won’t be easy,” a Chinese military official told The Yomiuri Shimbun. “The National Defense University’s report should also be considered as reference material.”

The same official was also less than supportive of Russia’s recent decision to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. “Although it is difficult to criticize Russia, China opposes any and all proliferation of nuclear weapons,” the official said.

In a press conference on Monday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “Under the current circumstances, all sides need to focus on making diplomatic efforts toward a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine crisis and work together for de-escalation.”

It is assumed that the Xi administration will be closely watching the reaction of the international community and will carefully move ahead with a review of its nuclear weapons policy.

Oki is a correspondent based in Beijing; Tajima is based in Washington.