I am sure you have, by now, noticed that Kyodo News has published a story titled, “China military eyes preemptive nuclear attack in event of crisis,” which was picked up by the Associated Press and AFP. The article claims that an “internal document” from the PLA indicates that under certain conditions, China would abandon its no first use pledge.
The internal document in question appears to be the Science of Second Artillery Campaigns (第二炮兵战役学), a 2004 a textbook printed by the Chinese National Defense University and used for training military officers. This textbook is one of a series of textbooks circulating in the United States including the better known Science of Military Campaigns. (I picked up copies of several of these books in Beijing, but was stopped by a conscientious clerk who noted the ones marked “nei bu” — not for foreigners. Oh well!)
Basically this is an well-known textbook that is widely circulated and cited, which has been taken out of context and then further abused by the translation into English. The Chinese military is not eyeing a preemptive nuclear attack in a crisis, but the slightly longer explanation is interesting.
Like most news stories, the headline does not accurately describe what is written, which is more careful. (Apparently, the writing is even more careful in the original Japanese.) Rather than a general sense that China might use nuclear weapons preemptively in a crisis, the story indicates that China might abandon its “no first use” policy (a warning, followed by a strike) in response to a conventional attack on Chinese civilian targets like nuclear power plants, hydroelectric facilities and urban centers.
(The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied the report, but in that utterly unconvincing manner of apparatchiks and functionaries the world over.)
As I noted, this is one of a series of textbooks circulating in the United States. The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns has been cited in several scholarly publications, including articles by Andrew Erickson, as well as Taylor Fravel and Evan Medeiros. The 2004 document should be interpreted in the context of the entire body of textbooks, including the two volumes of the Science of Campaigns (战役学, 2000, 2006), which suggest China’s no first use policy remains an operational constraint. China trains, equips, and postures its forces on the expectation that Chinese leaders will ride out a nuclear attack.
The narrow case of what China would do in the event of a conventional attack on civilian infrastructure and population centers deserves perhaps some additional consideration. A well-established problem with “no first use” and other categorical statements about nuclear weapons employment, as I have argued before, is that it is always easy to imagine implausible but not impossible scenarios, akin to the tendentious and artificial “ticking time bomb” hypotheticals used to justify torture. This is one reason I have suggested we talk about why we possess or maintain nuclear weapons, but not when we would use them.
(As an aside: In our Track II discussion, US experts sometimes try to illustrate this problem, asking what would happen if the US used conventional weapons in some particularly provocative manner, in order to demonstrate the American aversion to “no first use” and other categorical declaratory policies. We should stop doing this. The Chinese, as you will soon see why, think this is intended as a threat.)
In the early 2000s, some Taiwanese (and American) strategists began discussing the use of conventional weapons against high-value civilian targets. The 2004 edition of Chinese Military Power, for example, noted that Taiwanese “proponents of [conventional] strikes against the mainland apparently hope that merely presenting credible threats to China’s urban population or high-value targets, such as the Three Gorges Dam, will deter Chinese military coercion.”
As you might imagine, the Chinese were enraged at this suggestion of striking the Three Gorges Dam (which would inundate many Chinese cities and drown a lot of Chinese citizens). In response to the report, the PLA trotted out Lt. Gen. Liu Yuan, son of Liu Shaoqi, to write a very tough response in the China Youth Daily calling leaders who attacked civilians in this way “whores,” arguing that this would be worse than anything Osama Bin Laden has ever done and generally leaving the impression that a strike on the Three Gorges Dam would be a very bad idea. He did, however, avoid threatening to use nuclear weapons.
It appears that the discussion of early 2000s discussion of conventional strikes against Chinese civilian targets prompted a debate within the PLA that amounted to, well, what would you do in that case? This was the context for the (in)famous remark by Gen. Zhu Chenghu that “If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons.”
The 2004 textbook was written in this same era, when Chinese leaders were struggling with the question of how to reconcile “no first use” with the possibility of mass casualty conventional attacks. References to striking civilians targets clearly initiated a discussion about conventional strike and the “no first use” policy. There is some question about how to characterize this conversation — is it a debate about whether to discard or condition the pledge? Or ought we understand the dialogue as part of the continuous and often difficult process of developing plausible operational concepts within the strictures of the seemingly immutable policy on no first use. (I happen to the think the second explanation is much more intriguing.)
Now, six years later, Kyodo has a copy of a textbook from this period. From a handful of discussions, my sense is that Kyodo’s coverage of the textbook (which I still need to acquire) is similar to the public reaction to a 2005 comment by Chu Shulong, a Chinese scholar, that was shorn of its context and distorted by being transplanted from a domestic debate to a foreign one.
In 2005, Chu gave an interview to a Chinese newspaper, titled in Chinese “PRC Expert: China’s Policy on Nuclear Weapons Remains Unchanged.” FBIS, however, picked up the interview and titled the document “PRC Expert Warns PRC May Renounce ‘No First Use’ of Nuclear Weapons in War Time.” Quite a difference!
How did that happen? As I blogged at the time, despite Chu’s direct argument that China would continue to maintain “no first use” as an operational assumption (and subsequent statements to that effect), Chu also admitted the obvious: No one could be certain what Chinese leaders might do under extreme scenarios. This, too, ended up in Chinese Military Power. The 2006 edition highlighted Chu’s remark as further evidence that China was moving away from “no first use,” despite Chu’s obvious intention to make the point that it would remain the policy for the foreseeable future.
This is a textbook that has circulated, if not widely, at least among scholars for some time now and was little remarked upon by experts because in context it is broadly consistent with what we already knew: China’s no first use policy probably remains a real operational constraint on how China trains, equips and postures its nuclear forces. New conventional capabilities may be a new source of pressure on the policy. And, if the US were to do something like destroy the Three Gorges Dam and drown 20 million Chinese, no one could be confident that an enraged Chinese leader in a hot-blooded moment would scrupulously observe “no first use”. Which is how the Chinese like it.