China’s nuclear arsenal has long been an enigma for Western policymakers and issue experts. 

China’s nuclear arsenal has long been an enigma for Western policymakers and issue experts. The arsenal has historically been small, based almost exclusively on land-based ballistic missiles, maintained at a low level of alert, and married to a no-first-use doctrine – all choices that would seem to invite attack in a crisis. Chinese leaders, when they have spoken about nuclear weapons, have articulated ideas that sound odd to the Western ear. Mao Zedong’s oft-quoted remark that ‘nuclear weapons are a paper tiger’ seems to be bluster or madness.

Western officials and experts often express frustration at the level of transparency and dialogue with the Chinese government and other interlocutors. Given China’s growing economic, political and military influence, its small nuclear force looms ever larger in Western calculations. Our collective inability to understand the logic behind China’s nuclear forces, policy and posture is frustrating.

In an earlier work, I argued that the Chinese arsenal was not so strange if one accepted the notion that China’s leaders simply viewed nuclear weapons differently to their Western counterparts – or acted as though they did. For a variety of bureaucratic, historical and ideological reasons, Chinese leaders have placed less emphasis on technical details than their Western counterparts when it comes to assessing the stability of deterrence.  Imagine Chinese political leaders left cold by the econometric logic of Albert Wohlstetter’s Delicate Balance of Terror, just as we Westerners find little to recommend in Mao’s earthy aphorisms.

China’s nuclear forces are now too important to remain a mystery. Yet Westerners continue to disagree about basic factual information concerning one of the world’s most important nuclear-weapons states. Chinese statements are often cryptic or simply difficult for foreigners to accept. Meetings among Westerners and Chinese seem to cover the same ground, year after year. Enlightenment is elusive.

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Jeffrey Lewis Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an affiliate with the Center for Security and International Cooperation at Stanford University.

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