“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability… ,” tweeted U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump on December 22. He followed up later in a television interview, “Let it be an arms race...we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” A few hours earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin had also pledged to strengthen his country’s nuclear prowess.

Amid the resounding clamor about a renewed U.S.-Russian nuclear arms race, reflections on China’s longstanding nuclear arms policies have emerged in domestic media. Some have proposed the country “must thoroughly rebuild its own ideas,” and “China must not hesitate to strengthen strategic nuclear capabilities.”

Tong Zhao
Tong Zhao is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
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However, those Chinese commentators arguing for a much larger nuclear arsenal failed to answer three basic questions about nuclear weapons.

First, what is the purpose of developing nuclear weapons? No country will easily resort to using nuclear weapons considering their devastating impact on civilians and the environment. When two hostile parties both have credible nuclear arsenals, neither would gain a strategic advantage by first using their arsenal as that would result in the “lose-lose” scenario of mutual destruction. Nuclear arms are, therefore, essentially weapons of strategic deterrence. As multiple Chinese leaders have pointed out, nuclear weapons’ only role is to prevent other countries from launching a nuclear attack by demonstrating China’s own capabilities for a nuclear counter-attack. In comparison, a few countries, including the United States, have pinned excessive expectations on nuclear weapons by connecting nuclear strength to global leadership, and have thus embarked on a tortuous path of arms expansion. Only later did they find out that they had built too many, paying tremendous economic and political prices.

Second, how many nuclear weapons are needed to deter a nuclear attack? The yardstick for gauging whether a country has sufficient nuclear weapons is clear: If there is a nuclear attack from an enemy state, the victim has a sufficient quantity of nuclear weapons that some survive and can be used in an effective nuclear counterattack. Such credible capability for nuclear counterattack is essential for nuclear deterrence.

Generations of Chinese leaders have had a clear understanding of this requirement and have repeatedly stated that by developing nuclear weapons, China aims to have the minimum capability required to launch an effective nuclear counterattack. Developing a large-scale nuclear arsenal will not increase nuclear deterrence. For decades, China’s lean and effective nuclear force has deterred threats of nuclear attack, while its national economy has seen rapid progress. In contrast, the United States and Russia were trapped in the spiral of an arms race. In the end, the Soviet Union was economically broken and the country collapsed, verifying the Chinese leaders’ judgment that investing too much in nuclear weapons may weaken the country itself.

Decades of Chinese experience shows that, with respect to the offense-defense balance of nuclear weapons, the offense commands absolute advantages against the defense. Despite the United States’ absolute military superiority, China has managed to long secure the survivability of its nuclear arsenal as well as capabilities for a counterattack through increasing mobility and building reinforced underground facilities. China’s research on various countermeasures, including decoys and penetration aids, has maintained its ability to cope with future missile defense systems.

Third, what is the relationship between nuclear weapons and international status? China’s international status is based not only on its possession of nuclear weapons, but also on the fact that it has long followed a rational nuclear policy. China’s international status has improved—and is continuing to improve— precisely because of its policy to not engage in an arms race, and because its pledge not to use nuclear weapons first conforms to the wishes of the vast majority of non-nuclear weapons states.

Some people in China hold that a country’s international status derives from its nuclear prowess, and that the United States would no longer be “arrogant” if China’s nuclear arsenal became as strong. They argue that China’s nuclear arsenal is “seriously out of sync with our special position as the world’s second largest economy,” and that “in terms of nuclear strength, China must be on a par with the United States.” In fact, the size of a state’s nuclear arsenal doesn’t affect U.S. “arrogance”: In the real world, the United States is a lot more “polite” to China than to Russia, even though Russia’s nuclear arsenal is almost as lethal as that of the United States.

Particularly today, a country’s soft power and international status have more positive and effective new sources, such as economic miracles, scientific and technological breakthroughs, good neighborly ties, international peace-keeping contributions, and cultural influence, among others. Chinese political and diplomatic practices have long transcended the idea of seeking international respect through building nuclear weapons. Instead of enhancing Chinese security, developing nuclear capabilities beyond those necessary to launch credible nuclear counterattacks will only increase neighboring countries’ concerns that China may attempt “nuclear blackmail” and will thus end up undermining its attempt to preserve its international image and win global respect.

From a long-term perspective, ultimate global disarmament has always been China’s goal. For its own security and global stability, China, as a responsible power, should play a positive leadership role in such a crucial project for world peace and adhere to a cool-headed, prudent, and well-thought-out nuclear policy. Nuclear powers like the United States and Russia should also reflect on their own nuclear policies and refrain from becoming negative examples.

A version of this article was originally published in China-U.S. Focus.