The mirage of China’s offensive nuclear strategy

Sep 17, 2023
Nuclear missiles in a row and flag of China concept on background - 3D rendered illustration

In previous articles, I’ve articulated why I adopted a skeptical and analytical mindset from a young age, particularly in the realm of geopolitical claims made by nation-states in the nuclear age. Now, let’s shift our focus to China’s nuclear strategy.

China, recognising that it couldn’t feasibly compete in the ongoing nuclear arms race, chose a “no first use” policy. This approach entailed maintaining a limited nuclear arsenal positioned for assured retaliation following an initial strike from any potential adversary.

In 1982, Premier Zhao Ziyang declared that China would “never be the first to use nuclear weapons,” a stance reiterated by leaders like President Hu Jintao in 2005 and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in 2010.

Here are some of the key points of the 2015 edition of the Chinese Military Strategy:

* China will not use nuclear weapons first at any time or under any circumstances.

* China will modernise its military in order to deter threats and protect its interests.

* China will maintain a “harmonious world” and will not seek hegemony.

* China will work with other countries to promote peace and stability.

What distinguishes China is the centralised control over nuclear forces, held by the party rather than the military. This approach has led China to maintain a smaller, second-strike capable nuclear arsenal, underpinned by a doctrine of “assured retaliation.”

Simultaneously, China’s “no first use” policy serves its diplomatic aims, signalling its unwillingness to partake in a nuclear arms race and offering assurances to other nations.

The current embodiment of this strategy is the DF-41, a road-mobile ICBM with a range of approximately 12,000-13,000 km. The DF-41 trades off its effectiveness as a counterforce weapon with its survivability.

Being mobile and easily camouflaged, they effectively guarantee China’s capacity for “assured retaliation” following an initial strike from any potential adversary, due to its mobility and ability to disperse to forward sites.

  1. Taylor Fravel in his book “Active Defence,” states that Marshal Nie Rongzhen believed putting the DF-41 ICBM in silos would be a “waste” because it reduced the mobility and survivability of the missiles.

The U.S. is projected to spend $756 billion on its nuclear arsenal between 2023 and 2032, according to the Congressional Budget Office. This significant new spending should raise concerns about the possibility that the military-industrial complex is exaggerating any potential threats from China.

Fast forward to November 2021, when reports from outlets like The New York Times and the Federation of American Scientists mentioned a large-scale deployment of Chinese land-based nuclear silos.

There were two glaring issues: One, building a land-based silo force contradicts established Chinese strategic doctrine. Two, the alleged silos near Yumen City, Hami, are spaced far closer together than the 10 km generally considered necessary for strategic deployments.

The notion of these being missile silos largely stems from the work of Michael Korda and is based on the use of air domes on some sites. Yet these structures are just as likely related to other kinds of construction—most possibly wind turbine foundations.

A one or two-year delay between the laying of a 5 MW wind turbine foundation and the actual erection of the turbine would not be unusual in such locations.

Moreover, it’s baffling that no one is questioning the coincidence that the location of these supposed silos is within ground zero of China’s three largest renewable energy projects. Employing Occam’s razor, a simpler explanation may be that these are wind turbine foundations, until proven otherwise.

In order to examine this question, I collaborated with a new colleague. GPT-4 to complete the following processes.

  1. **Data Collation**: We began by examining an Excel sheet containing global wind power projects. We isolated the relevant data, focusing on the project name, latitude, and longitude.
  1. **KML Conversion**: We converted the filtered data into a KML file, which can be easily imported into Google Earth for geographic visualisation.
  1. **China-Specific Projects**: To narrow down the focus, we created a separate KML file that only included wind power projects in China.
  1. **Missile Site Coordinates**: I provided approximate coordinates for alleged missile sites based on media reports. We created a KML file for these sites as well.
  1. **Proximity Analysis**: To test my theory, we calculated the distance between each alleged missile site and nearby wind farms. We used a 100 km radius as the threshold and created a KML file containing wind farms located within this distance from the missile sites.

The KML file can be downloaded from here.

And here are the three clusters of projects around the alleged missile sites.

Overall, the evidence suggests that China is committed to its “no first use” policy and is not substantially expanding its nuclear forces for a first-strike capability. Claims about large numbers of new missile silos should be viewed critically.

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