The Reason Why China Refuses to Use Nuclear Weapons First in a War

David Axe

Key point: Beijing is confident that no first use will help ensure nuclear strategic stability.

China has reaffirmed its policy of never being the first in a conflict to use nuclear weapons. Experts refer to this policy as “no first use,” or NFU.

The NFU policy reaffirmation, contained in Beijing’s July 2019 strategic white paper, surprised some observers who expected a more expansive and aggressive nuclear posture from the rising power.

Notably, the United States does not have a no-first-use policy. “Retaining a degree of ambiguity and refraining from a no first use policy creates uncertainty in the mind of potential adversaries and reinforces deterrence of aggression by ensuring adversaries cannot predict what specific actions will lead to a U.S. nuclear response,” the Pentagon stated.

Chinese state media posted the government’s white paper in its entirety. "Nuclear capability is the strategic cornerstone to safeguarding national sovereignty and security," the paper asserts.

“This is standard language,” explained David Santoro, a nuclear expert with the nonprofit Pacific Forum. “China's nukes serve to prevent nuclear coercion and deter nuclear attack.”

Then the surprise. “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,” the white paper adds.

This NFU clause surprised Gregory Kulacki, a nuclear expert with the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. “Ever since I took this job 17 years ago, U.S. colleagues of all political and intellectual persuasions have been telling me that sooner or later China would alter, adjust, amend or qualify the policy that China will never, under any circumstances, use nuclear weapons first,” Kulacki wrote.

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