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  • The Wilberforce Society Cambridge

The Ukraine Effect: China's lesson from Putin's nuclear threat

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Leonas Pausch

Edited by Norpell Wilberforce

24/01/2023



In October 2022, Joe Biden assessed that the world faced the highest risk of “nuclear Armageddon” since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. And although the White House was eager to downplay the president’s remarks there is some truth to it. Immediately before the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Putin publicly warned that “whoever tries to interfere” would suffer “consequences that you have never experienced in your history” - a thinly veiled reference to Russia's nuclear capabilities. Putin's nuclear rhetoric is an important strategic tool, as on the one hand it demoralises the enemy and its supporters, but on the other hand it also deters the West from military intervention or foreign aid. So far, the Kremlin has been partly successful with the latter. Although huge amounts of ammunition, weapons and humanitarian aid have been provided to the Ukrainian people, the most direct support has failed to materialise. Citing the danger of nuclear escalation, Ukraine's international supporters continue to refrain from direct military intervention, which includes the much-discussed no-fly zone and delivering some weapon systems like ATACMS or Western-produced fighter jets. Thus Putin´s nuclear threats have clearly demarcated the boundaries of the conflict, but within these limits NATO support is very visible and important for Ukraine´s war effort. This caution about a nuclear escalation influenced the previous Western reaction and still prevails, although many analysts see the risk of a nuclear attack decreasing. For US Admiral Charles Richard, former commander of the US Strategic Command, the war in Ukraine thus marks a new era in which great powers use nuclear weapons to pressure their rivals. But the “Ukraine crisis that we're in right now is just the warmup” he declared on November 3rd. “The big one is coming. And it isn't going to be very long before we're going to get tested in ways that we haven't been tested a long time.”


Change in nuclear policy?

The “big one” is China, which not only made a great economic leap forward but is also eagerly expanding its nuclear stockpile in recent years. From approximately 70 warheads in 1970 it has grown its arsenal fivefold to today’s estimate of more than 400 and is expected to keep increasing with this pace. With 135 ballistic missile tests in 2021, the country has conducted more tests than the rest of the world combined, and the Pentagon predicts that China will have over 1500 active warheads by 2035. This puts China's arsenal on a different path from that of the US or Russia, which have continuously reduced the number of their nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union, although they still have large stocks. And unlike Russia or the US, China has not engaged in hard agreements like START to limit its own nuclear weapons programme. In fact, China remains uninterested in arms control, with Chinese officials stating that limitation can only be discussed if the US and Russia reduce their stockpiles to Chinese levels.

This shift towards an accelerated production which, coupled with strategic ambiguity and China's overall geopolitical ambition, could quickly become a dangerous situation. In some ways, what is happening today resembles, as some analysts pointed out, the beginning of a nuclear arms race and thus the resurgence of an old fear in Washington: In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson was so worried about the rise of another nuclear rival that plans were drawn for a pre-emptive strike on China's main nuclear test site. Today, the US is taking a more cautious path of diplomacy and observation, with Antony Blinken calling China the greatest long-term threat to world order and the Pentagon setting up 500 satellites to track ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles.


This more subtle approach to China should not be surprising, because although the cause for concern has remained the same between 1964 and today, the circumstances have changed dramatically. Like many nuclear powers, China long adhered to a form of minimum deterrence, whereby a few warheads were deemed sufficient to ensure devastating retaliation in case of a surprise attack. China still officially commits itself to this position, with high-ranking officials underlining that “China has solemnly committed to no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstance.” However, with Chinas nuclear triad growing apace, it seems that its commitment to “no first use” (NFU) and to Mao’s mantra in 1964, that “we don’t wish to have too many atomic bombs ourselves” is increasingly put into question. Originally intended to prevent a US-Soviet style arms race and to support its foreign policy directive of “peaceful coexistence”, NFU seems now disconnected from China´s new role on the global stage. Under China's current leadership, the country's continued rise has been accompanied by increasing disputes with Western countries over such wide-ranging issues as human rights, democratic behaviour, and access to 5G networks. The multitude of disputes contribute to the Chinese perception that Western countries want to contain China's rise, feeding into a narrative of increasing polarisation. Indeed, many analysts such as Neill Fergusson or Michael Hirsh have already declared the beginning of a new cold war between China and the West. Keeping this in mind, some Chinese pundits such as Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of a major state-owned tabloid, argue that a larger arsenal of weapons and the abandonment of the NFU would make the country's rivals respect China and exercise more self-restraint in dealing with Beijing. This line of thinking may resonate with China's supreme leader, who has long stressed that China should counter perceived Western aggression with unequivocal strength and firm resolve.



Next Ukraine: Taiwan?

The war in Ukraine has only made China more inclined to follow Hu's recommendations. Although the West's swift and decisive response in Ukraine has certainly influenced China's own calculations, especially in the context of Taiwan, Russia has also demonstrated the utility of a credible nuclear threat.

Since February 2022, Taiwan has been on high alert. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine has strengthened our determination to defend Taiwan, but” as Chiu Hsien-chih, a Taiwanese legislator, said, “we are far from ready”. With a current defence budget of 2.4% of GDP, Taiwan is in a similar percentage range to Uruguay or Ecuador, which analysts such as Richard Bush or Su Tzu-yun believe is far too little to support the asymmetric warfare needed to defend the island. Beijing's greatest concern about war in the Taiwan Strait is thus the likelihood of military intervention by the US and its closest regional partner, Japan. If they were kept out of the conflict, Chinese prospects of victory would increase dramatically.


After the previous failures of the CCP in annexing Taiwan and preventing US intervention in the two Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950s, this conclusion is particularly evident. During this time President Eisenhower issued several nuclear threats to defend Taiwan, forcing the PRC to cease bombing attacks of Taiwan´s offshore islands. Indeed previously classified Pentagon reports reveal that the US Joint Chiefs of Staff considered the use of nuclear weapons "inevitable" during the first crisis and recommended their use, which Eisenhower rejected after some deliberation. Having thus experienced how nuclear deterrence can be utilized, China by the third Strait crisis in 1995/96 already had drawn its lessons from the previous attempts by marking a shift in nuclear rhetoric towards assured nuclear retaliation, deterring conventional intervention and preventing US nuclear coercion. The then deputy chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), in a conversation with US Assistant Secretary of Defence Chas Freedman, said: “In the 1950s, you three times threatened nuclear strikes on China, and you could do that because we couldn’t hit back. Now we can. So you are not going to threaten us again because, in the end, you care a lot more about the Los Angeles than Taipei”. This also was reflected in Mao’s 1956 speech: “We want to have not only more planes and heavy artillery, but also the atomic bomb. In today’s world, if we don’t want to be bullied, then we cannot do without this thing.”


Since then China has stayed on this course. Although “peaceful unification” remains the best-case scenario for Beijing, Xi Jinping declared on last year’s National congress that China would “never promise to renounce the use of force” to achieve “the great goal of national reunification”. To this end, the PLA is developing capabilities to “dissuade, deter, or if ordered, defeat third-party intervention during a large-scale theatre campaign”, as the US Department of Defense pointed out. It is thus very possible that military spokesperson Tan Kefei had more than an empty threat as he warned in December 2022 that “the Chinese military has the confidence and capability to thwart any external interference and separatist plots for ‘Taiwan independence’ and realize the complete reunification of the motherland.” Underlying these comments are the Chinese regular and public military exercises near Taiwan, which include missile firing over Taiwan and sending bombers into the island´s air defence zone.

So far Chinese rhetoric has been avoiding to explain what such a “capability to thwart” foreign intervention would look like and whether it would involve nuclear weapons. Chinese leaders still asserting that a credible second strike capability (NFU) would be sufficient to deter an attack on China, but this could change. As national security experts such as Caitlin Talmadge and Christopher Twomey assess, Beijing does not want to repeat the previous crises in the Taiwan Strait, when Washington responded to China's conventional challenges by threatening to cross the nuclear threshold early. A meaningful and proclaimed deterrent would minimise this risk, emphasising China´s counter-nuclear blackmail doctrine dating back to Mao.


The extent to which the US would intervene in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is therefore increasingly open to debate. This is especially true given the difference between the White House's official policy of “one China” and President Biden's repeated insistence on defending Taiwan in the event of an attack. But one should also not overlook the asymmetry of commitment: Control over Taiwan has been the CCP's most important foreign policy and strategic concern since Mao Zedong took power in 1949. Moreover, the fate of Taiwan is a litmus test for Xi Jinping's ability to govern, and therefore he may be willing to sacrifice millions of lives for it. China's political will is also matched by its military might. As CIA Deputy Director David Cohen predicts, the country may be able to successfully conquer and control Taiwan by 2027.In contrast, Taiwan, though geostrategically important, is only one of many US defence partners in the region. And as the German Marshall Fund's latest Transatlantic Trends survey found in September 2022, only 4 per cent of 21,000 representative respondents would support sending arms or troops to Taiwan “in the event of a Chinese invasion”. Compared to Russia, it is even questionable whether the West is even willing or able to lose China as a trading partner, since China, for example, accounts for almost 25% of US imports. The US must thus equally assess the risks of action and inaction and realise that if such a conflict were to break out, it might prove difficult to contain the fighting at the “conventional” level. A change in China's nuclear deterrence policy would only increase this uncertainty and tip the status quo of US “strategic ambiguity” in favour of the mainland.

If Beijing decides to issue a nuclear threat in the hope of winning a cross-strait war for China, it will have to forgo the NFU obstacle. The Chinese government could announce an amendment to the NFU stating that it does not apply to the situation in Taiwan, as Beijing considers the island to be Chinese territory. Alternatively, Beijing could abandon the NFU altogether, justifying the change on the grounds that it is appropriate to China's new great power status and necessary for the US's allegedly intensified efforts to “contain” China. It would not be the first time the CCP has redefined or abandoned a long-standing policy. One only has to look back to 2017, when China jettisoned its 40-year promise not to establish bases abroad by occupying its first unequivocal military base in Djibouti. The Ukraine war could thus be the last convincing push for the Chinese leadership to abandon its nuclear “no first use” policy.


Great Power Rivalry over the Himalayas

A turn towards a much larger nuclear arsenal and a more assertive policy would not only change China-US relations and put Taiwan in greater danger, but also further destabilise another important geopolitical constellation.

At first glance this comes relatively unexpected. India, like its northern neighbour China, is officially committed to NFU and minimum deterrence, and the nuclear aspect has historically remained relatively absent from the two states' relations: India's nuclear strategy was primarily directed against Pakistan, China's strategy against the United States. This was reaffirmed in the 1993 and 1996 bilateral agreements, which focused on maintaining peace in the border area between India and China.


Since Xi Jinping took office, however, India has become increasingly concerned about the military build-up of its northern neighbour. With a military base in Djibouti and an army presence in Sri Lanka, China is beginning to demonstrate its power in the Indian Ocean, and border skirmishes in the Himalayas are increasing in frequency and intensity, claiming lives on both sides as recently as June 2020. Indeed, it appears that China is preparing for continued military action along the Indian border, as the Centre for Strategic and International Studies has revealed the construction of military outposts. Fearing further aggression, India has increased its presence on the northern front and raised its military budget by 50% but, as Sushant Singh told the Financial Times, “India has done nothing substantial to increase its military strength.” India still lacks the financial resources to support an effective and modern armed force, with only one-third of military spending earmarked for development, maintenance and acquisition of military systems and weapons. Moreover, India's armed forces are minuscule compared to China's in terms of naval and air capability and the nation still heavily relies on foreign defence production. Russia in particular plays an important role here, with a share of over 60%, as its ammunition is still generally cheaper than alternatives and better suited to Indian weapons systems, which date back to Soviet times. Unlike China, the war in Ukraine therefore has an immediate negative impact on India's military standing in the region, as food costs and weapon deliveries are affected by the Russo-Ukrainian war as well.


Not only are Chinese efforts and resources devoted to fighting the US over Taiwan, giving them a capability boost that India cannot match, India is also likely to become a diplomatic flashpoint between the world powers. While the regimes of China and Pakistan are beginning to view the West as a common enemy and proclaim an “irreplaceable all-weather friendship”, India is intensifying its economic and military cooperation with the US and was declared a major defence partner of the United States in 2016. Given this dynamic, China may see action against India as an opportunity to weaken US influence in the region. For this, China would not even have to become active itself. Even small changes in Chinese foreign policy could disturb the complicated balance between Pakistan and India and encourage military conflict.


Looking at India's own nuclear motivations and deterrence strategy, most of the attention is therefore on Pakistan, but policy makers in India are not completely ignoring the China factor. While Indian leaders assume Beijing’s focus will be on Taiwan, they understand that China claims the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and that Beijing may reassess how new uncertainty around nuclear use could serve to coerce or deter. In this context, for example, India deployed the nuclear-armed INS Arihant during the China-India border skirmish in 2020 to provide for another possible escalation measure. With Sino-India ties remaining at their lowest point in over 40 years and a region being violently contested between three nuclear-weapon states, further escalation would be counterproductive and likely devastating. A peaceful way out can only be achieved through diplomacy and communication. As one has seen how crisis might spiral and the unthinkable become reality in Europe, one shouldn’t be underestimating the risks that a next flareup between China or Pakistan and India could escalate out of control, whether by miscalculation or accident.


Conclusion

China is striving to become a great power and even surpass the USA in order to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Part of this ambition is to be able to challenge the West militarily. Whether it is Taiwan, the South China Sea or the Himalayas, China is trying to assert its newfound position in the Indo-Pacific and beyond with unprecedented aggressiveness. In this context, it is likely that its nuclear policy of “no first use” will be replaced by a more assertive policy. Combined with a larger nuclear arsenal, this would not only create a necessary deterrence for future military operations, but also enable it to close ranks with the USA and Russia. The war in Ukraine provides further incentive to change this decades-old policy, as Russia has drawn concrete limits to Western involvement, something China would want for its goals as well. A China without an NFU may also destabilise fragile relations between its close ally Pakistan and US-backed India, making military conflict between the two nuclear weapons powers more likely. The war in Ukraine therefore exacerbates the cascading security dilemmas around China, making a diplomatic solution increasingly difficult.

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