In recent months - particularly following the US-Australia AUKUS pact which will see Washington transfer nuclear submarines to Canberra - multiple reports have suggested that China is currently rethinking its nuclear policy.
Back in June, for example, The Washington Post detailed that "China has begun construction of what independent experts say are more than 100 new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in a desert near the northwestern city of Yumen, a building spree that could signal a major expansion of Beijing’s nuclear capabilities." That prior report has this week been bolstered by fresh satellite imagery coming out of sites in China's western desert.
With a much more active US military presence in the Indo-Pacific region in recent years, some Chinese officials and pundits are urging a fresh look at the country's longstanding 'no first use' nuclear policy. For now Beijing appears committed to it; however, it's urgently calling on other nuclear powers to adopt the same policy as a means to avoid any future nuclear war scenario.
A report in the South China Morning Post recently highlighted this based on a defense policy memo that invited discussion of Chinese leadership:
China has underlined its "no first use" nuclear policy in a position paper amid discussion over its commitments in a rising nuclear arms race.
In the "Position Paper on China and United Nations Cooperation" issued by the foreign ministry on Friday, China declared it had a history of initiating the no first use (NFU) principle, and said nuclear-weapon states should abandon pre-emptive deterrence policies.
"Bear in mind that 'a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought'," the paper said.
At the same time fresh reports this week suggests what Western nuclear watchdog analysts are calling a new push for "unprecedented nuclear build-up" in China.
This is based on satellite imagery examined by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), said to feature nuclear launch-capable silos for long-range missiles in Western China, as CNN describes:
Rapid construction at three suspected silo fields in China -- which could eventually be capable of launching long-range nuclear missiles -- appears to indicate that Beijing is putting substantial efforts and resources into the development of its nuclear capabilities, according to analysis of new commercial satellite images.
Experts from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a nonpartisan national security research and advocacy organization, found that China has made significant progress on suspected silo fields in the western part of the country.
Images via Planet Labs/Federation of American Scientists
But the report notes this important caveat: the study of the satellite images say "the missile silo fields are still many years away from becoming fully operational and it remains to be seen how China will arm and operate them."
Perhaps this will depend on who answers China's ongoing call for a global embrace of 'no first use' (NFU) doctrine. Crucially, the United Sates has long resisted adoption of NFU - with multiple administrations going back to the Cold War long arguing that it "reserves the right to use" nuclear weapons first in the case of conflict.
But new Washington Post reporting on Tuesday suggests the Biden administration could be ready to revisit the issue.
China’s nuclear deterrence mainly counts on the US media to help propagate, I really don’t know if we should thank CNN😀 https://t.co/38rwFgI4Yb— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) November 2, 2021
Meanwhile, China state media - in particular a Global Times op-ed from days ago - is calling for the US to "take the lead" among its reluctant allies in implementing no first use:
China has announced the "no first use" nuclear policy at a very early phase. It has adhered to this policy since the first day it owned nuclear weapons. US allies should think this way: If China walks away from this policy, how much pressure will it add to regional security? Similarly, if the US, as the world's No.1 military power, announced restrictions on the use of nuclear weapons, it will without doubt create constructive opportunities to global security, with advantages outweighing disadvantages.
Nuclear posture is the thorniest security dilemma - particularly issues such as the number of nuclear warheads and anti-missiles. If the US can take the lead in restricting the use of nuclear weapons in this era, it is likely to expand the route undertaken by China in the past and push forward a new period of nuclear security. US allies such as Japan and Australia are falling into the trap of their own petty calculations, but they will not feel more secure if the US does not try to make the commitment of restricting the use of nuclear weapons.
Yes, you really should https://t.co/bqI72cJSgO— zerohedge (@zerohedge) November 2, 2021
This appears at once an open appeal and a "threat" - with China seeming to be ready to blame Washington for any near-future nuclear build-up between the two rivals.
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Here's Rabobank discussing the further implications...
The Financial Times lead story this weekend was that US allies are lobbying the White House NOT to shift to a “No First Use” (NFU) nuclear policy. After Afghanistan, this is another enormous shock for an ostensibly “America is Back” administration. Military strategists back to Vegetius (“Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”) stress America’s nuke stockpile underpins its military might; and Korea, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Central Asia aside, that is still what prevents more wars more often everywhere else.
A nuclear arms race is unavoidable without serious intervention https://t.co/x0fJhpLXX8 | opinion— Financial Times (@FT) October 27, 2021
If the US moves to NFU, any other power can do whatever it wants short of nukes, and the US can only respond with already-overstretched conventional power. Consider that as Russia again builds up forces near Ukraine; when looking at tensions in the South China Sea; and when China’s Global Times runs an editorial, "US should announce ‘no first use of nuclear weapons,’ with no strings attached". There are always strings attached to shifts in such existential policies: markets would be well advised to understand the implied volatility.