Node your homework: I wrote this essay for Military Strategy and Crisis Diplomacy at the University of New South Wales. I intend to update this node further in the next few weeks with some notes from my lecturer, so if you have any comments, please message me.

Sir Humphrey: "Don't you believe that Great Britain should have the best?"
Jim Hacker: "Yes, of course."
Sir Humphrey: "Very well, if you walked into a nuclear missile showroom you would buy Trident. It's lovely, it's elegant, it's beautiful. It is quite simply the best, and Britain should have the best. In the world of the nuclear missile it is the Saville Row suit, the Rolls Royce Corniche, the Château Lafitte 1945. It is the nuclear missile Harrods would sell you. What more can I say?"
Jim Hacker: "Only that it costs £15 billion and we don't need it."
Sir Humphrey: "Well, you can say that about anything at Harrods."

-- 'Yes, Prime Minister'

After the establishment of the Strategic Missile Force (SMF) in China on 1 July, 1965, Chinese analysts began to examine the nuclear strategies of the world's nuclear powers, in an attempt to develop their own. In his study 'The Armed Forces of China,' Professor You Ji noted that "Chinese analysts found NATO's Cold War nuclear strategy very attractive." (You, 1999, p95) To a certain extent, Chinese nuclear policy is similar to the nuclear policy of the United States of America during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but some fundamental differences ensure that they will never be completely parallel.

This essay undertakes an analysis of six key points to determine the similarity and disparity of Chinese and U.S. Cold War nuclear strategy. It will be demonstrated that some key aspects of Chinese nuclear strategy are parallel to U.S. Cold War nuclear strategy, such as attitudes towards first- and second-strike capabilities; a progression towards tactical or theatre nuclear weapons rather than strategic nuclear weapons; and an emphasis on a "triad" of weapons based on land, in sea and air. But China's nuclear policy has several fundamental aspects which do not correlate to U.S. Cold War nuclear policy: these include a firm "no first use" policy, a minimum deterrence policy and ambiguity over weapons capability. Thus, it will be seen that Chinese nuclear strategy is similar to U.S. Cold War nuclear strategy in some ways, but certain key elements make China's policy unique among all the world.

Attitudes towards first-strike supremacy and second-strike capabilities comprise the first key point which Chinese and U.S. Cold War strategy have in common. For a nation to have first-strike capability, it must be able to destroy the retaliatory forces of a nation so that it cannot launch a second-strike in return. This was originally known as "assured destruction" and applied to the United States of America in its opposition to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War. However, this policy quickly became outdated when the Soviet Union increased its weapons stockpile to a point where first-strike supremacy became impossible. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara discussed this during the "San Francisco Speech" in 1967:

"[The United States and the Soviet Union] have both built up [their] 'second-strike capability'… to the point that a first-strike capability on either side has become unattainable." (McNamara, 1967, p270)

Having determined that first-strike capabilities were no longer attainable, the United States focused its energy on second-strike capabilities - the ability to "absorb a surprise attack and survive with sufficient power to inflict unacceptable damage on the aggressor." (Ibid.) China's rejection of the pursuit of first-strike capabilities was always a part of its policy. China has always had a "no first strike" policy (which will be discussed in detail later). Since China entered the nuclear arms race at a time when other nuclear powers already held supremacy, a campaign for first-strike capabilities would have been arduous and costly - the chase could be compared to the mathematical legend of Achilles and the tortoise. Instead, China was able to focus its development on second-strike capabilities. This was cited as an issue of primary importance by You Ji:

"The improvement of survivability [has] been [one of] the primary objectives of the PLA SMF since the outset of its nuclear program." (You, 1999 p86)

This was done by applying the principles of mobility and speed, using techniques as diverse as using deep, hidden caves for missile storage and working towards developing solid fuel propellants for missiles. Thus, both the United States and China rejected the pursuit of first-strike capabilities and instead focused their development on second-strike capabilities .

Another key area in which China and the U.S. have had similar policy is the progression towards smaller, tactical nuclear weapons rather than strategic weapons. The very nature of nuclear weapons renders them largely unusable in many battles. The effects of strategic nuclear weapons are considered so horrific that since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nations have been extremely reluctant to openly discuss their potential use in the theatre.

"... even U.S. military professionals have accepted the view that nuclear weapons are not useable, that they are fundamentally different from other kinds of weapons." (Gray, 1986, p104)

This has resulted in a push towards tactical nuclear weapons systems. Tactical nuclear weapons offer "improved accuracy and lower yields to minimize collateral damage." (Stobbs, 1994, p203) Such weapons can be used on an extremely local scale: a particular battlefield, a particular suburb, a particular army unit. This idea appealed greatly to Chinese strategists:

"Nuclear weapons are not militarily useable and therefore the Chinese nuclear weapons are not for war-fighting." (Li, 2001)

"[The PLA] accepted the idea that even in an all-out war in the future, tactical nuclear weapons would be preferential to strategic ones." (You, 1999, p94)

According to You, the PLA determined that China was most likely to "face a tactical nuclear attack, such as a nuclear surgical strike." (Ibid.) China saw the appeal of being able to respond to such an attack with tactical nuclear weapons, rather than strategic (and therefore, urban) nuclear weapons. While China has not confirmed that it possesses tactical nuclear weapons, it has conducted war exercises which "simulate the use of tactical nuclear weapons" (Johnson, 1988, p76) and nuclear tests during the 1970s and 1980s, leading many Western analysts to believe that China already possesses these weapons. The United States drew the same conclusions during the Cold War:

"While thermonuclear power is almost inconceivably awesome, and represents virtually unlimited potential destructiveness, it has proven to be a limited diplomatic instrument. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is, at one and the same time, an all-powerful weapon - and a very inadequate weapon." (McNamara, 1967, p273)

The U.S. move towards tactical nuclear weapons was, in part, a response to the perceived inadequacies of nuclear weapons. It gave the U.S. the ability to respond militarily to specific threats without causing catastrophic damage. Thus, both China and the U.S. Cold War policymakers agreed that tactical nuclear weapons represented a more useful weapon in the theatre.

The "triad" system of missile sites is a third way in which Chinese and U.S. Cold War policy are similar. Traditionally, a "triad" approach involves the three traditional branches of the military: the army, navy and air force. The United States was quick to adopt the triad approach - by 1967, the U.S. had 41 Polaris submarines, equipped with 656 missile launchers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). These submarines gave the U.S. a tactical advantage through their mobility and ability to hide; during a first-strike, nuclear submarines were considered more likely to survive than stationary land missile sites. This concept was very popular with Chinese strategists. According to You:

"Chinese strategists have studied and accepted the U.S. nuclear strategy, which gives prominence to nuclear submarines as the safest basing mode for a second-strike capability. Admiral Liu Huaqing summarised the new thinking in China's nuclear strategy as follows: 'In the face of a large-scale nuclear attack, only less than 10 per cent of the coastal launching silos will survive, whereas submarines armed with ballistic missiles can use the surface of the sea to protect and cover themselves, preserve the nuclear offensive force, and play a deterrent and containment role.'" (You, 1999, p96-97)

China's nuclear submarine fleet, known as Unit 09, contains Han-class tactical boats, and its submarine fleet has received top priority for development and research. However, the high cost and technological difficulty of developing nuclear-missile-capable submarines resulted in slower development of China's fleet than America's. Despite this, both China and the U.S. share an admiration for a policy involving air and sea-based nuclear launch capabilities.

However, U.S. and Chinese nuclear strategy are disparate in several important ways. The first of these is the "no first use" policy. Since China's first development of nuclear weapons, it has maintained that it will never begin a nuclear conflict:

"Indeed, compared with other Nuclear Weapon States (NWS), China is the only state that has made, and still abides by, a commitment to never be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstance. China has also undertaken unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) or in Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZs)." (Zheng, 2001)

China's insistence that it will never start a nuclear war coincides with the policy line that it's nuclear arsenal was developed solely in response to a security threat from the superpowers. (Johnson, 1988, p73) By repeating this policy often, China has attempted to "discourage the superpowers from striking at a growing Chinese nuclear force out of fear of Chinese intentions." (Ibid.) On the other hand, while the U.S. often stated that a first-strike was unlikely, during the Cold War the U.S. never ruled out a pre-emptive strike against Russia. Although the U.S. conceded that it could never again develop the aforementioned first-strike supremacy, a first- or pre-emptive strike against Russia was always on the table. During the Presidency of John F. Kennedy, the U.S. remained ambiguous on whether it would engage in "primary retaliation." President Kennedy is quoted as saying:

"Khrushchev must NOT be certain that, where its vital interests are threatened, the United States will never strike first." (Ball, 1990, p25)

Thus, this is the first key point on which Chinese and U.S. nuclear strategy differ: whether either side would engage in a first- or pre-emptive strike.

China's policy of minimum deterrence is another important way in which Chinese and U.S. Cold War strategy differ. The idea of minimum deterrence is a way for smaller powers to adequately respond to superpowers with only a reduced number of nuclear weapons. In the event of a nuclear war, the lesser power only needs enough nuclear weapons to absorb the first-strike and retaliate with a small number of strikes against it. China sees this as a key point in developing its nuclear arsenal, and has "invested huge amounts of money and talent in the achievement of such a minimum assured retaliatory capability." (Garver, 1988, p134) This policy has allowed China to avoid spiralling excessive costs in an attempt to build and maintain a vast nuclear arsenal. It is in line with China's assertion that its nuclear arsenal is purely defensive, and that the number of nuclear weapons worldwide should be reduced as much as possible. Critics of minimum deterrence have decried it as having "fatal flaws" (You, 1999, p92) but concede that it is only a temporary strategy, designed to give the SMF time to advance technologically.
      In sharp contrast to the policy of minimum deterrence, the United States of America pursued a policy of assured destruction and then mutual assured destruction (MAD) throughout the Cold War. In his 1967 San Francisco Speech, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was unequivocal on the issue:

"If the United States is to deter a nuclear attack on itself or on our allies, it must possess an actual, and a credible, assured-destruction capability."

It is worth noting that towards the mid-1980s, the U.S. was drifting away from MAD as a basis for nuclear policy; President Ronald Reagan labelled it as "ethically repugnant" in his 1983 "Star Wars" speech. But despite this, the U.S. has not yet successfully made the transition to any other nuclear strategy. Thus, China and the U.S. differ greatly in their proliferation of weapons: China's belief in minimum deterrence is at the opposite end of the scale to the U.S. policy of MAD.

A third way in which the two powers differ is their ambiguity about their nuclear arsenal. Chinese military founding-father Sun Zi was fond of saying, "The essence of warfare is but the art of ambiguity." Sun-Tzu concurred: "Warfare is a matter of deception - of constantly creating false appearances, spreading disinformation, and employing trickery and deceit." (Sands, 1995, p17) This concept translated directly to Chinese nuclear policymakers. The fine details of China's nuclear strategy and the capabilities of China's nuclear forces are obscured by misinformation and secrecy:

"China, as a medium nuclear power, will not make a show of force as the two superpowers did, nor will it make clear exactly how it would use its nuclear weapons. It could be disadvantageous to China to let its adversaries know too many details about its capabilities. It would be better to leave some uncertainties for its adversaries to ascertain. This ambiguity seems to be a factor in China's doctrine of minimum nuclear deterrence." (Zheng, 2001)

This allows China to be flexible in its policies:

"China may pursue an ambiguous nuclear strategy to enhance the deterrent effect of her small and relatively unsophisticated force. Such a strategy enables the Chinese leadership to enjoy greater flexibility in the pursuit of national security because potential adversaries remain uncertain of the Chinese response in the event of a nuclear attack." (Johnson, 1988, p67)

In contrast to this, the U.S. has been comparatively explicit about the scope and policies of its nuclear arsenal. It has been the U.S. belief that for nuclear deterrence to be credible, it must be explicit. Contributors to "The International Politics of Deterrence" state that "the technologically most advanced power" will "emphasize the factors of certainty needed to project an image of capability." (Buzan, 1987, p179-180). This was done explicitly by U.S. Presidents and Defense Secretaries throughout the Cold War. For example, Robert McNamara's San Francisco Speech contains several references to the exact number of nuclear submarines and launchers in its stockpile.
      However, an obvious refute to this policy of explicitness is that it is difficult to determine whether U.S. officials were telling the truth about their capabilities. While it is fair to say that the U.S. discussed details in the public arena, these details may be completely false. The key difference between the U.S. and China, however, remains: while the U.S. may have given potentially misleading information, China rarely gives any information at all. This is the third major difference between Chinese and U.S. Cold War nuclear strategy.

In conclusion, Robert McNamara summarised the thoughts of his nation when he said that "No sane citizen, no sane political leader, no sane nation wants thermonuclear war." (McNamara, 1967, p267). But as China continues to develop as a strong nuclear power, it has become evident that its nuclear strategy is only partially similar to that of the United States of America during the Cold War of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. While the two powers concur on the ideas of first- and second-strike capabilities, the use of tactical nuclear weapons and the "triad" system of delivery, they disagree on the possibility of a nuclear first-strike, the necessary size of their nuclear arsenal and the nature of information dissemination about their policies and armoury. Thus, when considering global nuclear strategy, it is important to contemplate the similarities and differences between these two nations.


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Garver, J. 1988 'China's Response to the Strategic Defense Initiative' in China's Military Modernization: International Implications, Wortzel, L. (ed), Greenwood Press, USA

Gray, C. 1986 Nuclear Strategy and National Style, Hamilton Press, USA

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McNamara, R. 1967 'San Francisco Speech', in US Nuclear Strategy: A Reader, Bobbitt. P, Freedman, L. & Treverton, G. (eds), MacMillan, New York USA

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Stobbs Jr, E. 1994 'Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Do They Have a Role in U.S. Military Strategy?' in Comparitive Strategy 13, Taylor & Francis, United Kingdom

Zheng, W. 'The Role of Nuclear Weapons in Strategic Thinking and Military Doctrines: China' in Studies in Contemporary History and Security Policy: Volume 8: Nuclear Weapons into the 21st Century. Current Trends and Future Prospects, in Krause, J. & Wenger, A. (eds.),
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