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The Chinese Nuclear Program: was it Worth it? – Dennis Wang

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As one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the People’s Republic of China enjoys the privilege of keeping an arsenal of nuclear weapons. During the unstable political environment of the Cold War, China’s journey of obtaining these weapons has been fraught with difficulty. Was it worthwhile for the country’s leaders to acquire nuclear weapons? We will analyze the decision of Chinese leaders during the Cold War to obtain these weapons of mass destruction. With a discussion of China’ evolving security environment before and after getting nuclear weapons, I argue that it was a worthwhile endeavor. We will analyze the history of the Chinese program then discuss the importance of global flashpoints and their relationship with China’s security environment.

Through the fires of revolution, civil war, and foreign incursion, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took the throne to China while the Nationalist party escaped to Taiwan in 1949. As a nascent regime, the Chinese communists received financial and political assistance from the Soviet Union. It set out to enact several socialist reforms. However, states have yet to establish diplomatic relations with the CCP in this post-World War world. To the CCP, the world was a cold place.

As the Cold War intensified throughout the mid 20th century, China experienced formative, attitude-defining conflicts. From the battlefields of Korea to the borders of Russia and Taiwan, China was caught between the bipolar struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. National security became a prominent topic in the minds of Chinese policy-makers. Mutually assured destruction made direct confrontations between the two superpowers intolerable, but flashpoints can and will still occur elsewhere in the world. Residing in the communist camp, Cold War tensions and its consequent proxy wars threatened China’s regime integrity.

The Korean War was a security threat to China. After the North’s invasion of the South in 1950, U.S. President Harry S. Truman ordered nuclear-armed B-29s to the Pacific Fleet. This decision occurred during a time when some individuals in Washington even argued in favor of using nuclear weapons against Communist forces in Korea and China. To the one-year-old Chinese regime, outcomes in the Korean War were pivotal to regime legitimacy and its ability to galvanize the nation and create propaganda. However, defeat would, on the other hand, demoralize the country and threaten regime survival. U.S. General Douglas MacArthur infamously advanced the Korean War to the Chinese border, drawing ire and military pushback. To the Chinese, the American offensive has the potential to bring the frontier of Soviet-American rivalry to its very borders. Furthermore, the Chinese leadership faced political pressure from the Soviet Union to engage with the American troops. Thus, a combination of security and political pressures compelled the Chinese to become entangled in this conflict, pushing back American troops.

Another challenge to Chinese security arose during the First Taiwan Strait Crisis. The CCP government still considers the island of Taiwan to be under its jurisdiction and set out to militarily coerce the Nationalist government in Taiwan, sparking an artillery skirmish. The staunch anti-communist U.S. Eisenhower administration openly threatened China with its arsenal of nuclear weapons. The Chinese had little leverage against American nuclear compellence and was forced to back down. Not only did the country fear its security but it, similar to during the Korean War, also was under tremendous pressure from the Soviet Union to deescalate. Ultimately, lacking in credible nuclear deterrence and conventional arms ability, the humiliated CCP-led government backed down.

The relationship between China and the Soviet Union deteriorated rapidly in 1959 after an ideological fissure following Joseph Stalin’s death, leading to border clashes between the two countries. Concerned about a costly conventional war with the vast Chinese population, Soviet leaders contemplated the use of a nuclear first strike. Though the Chinese nuclear program had already started, its relative size did not offer second-strike capability, and the Soviet threat proved useful. The Chinese leaders joined the negotiation table and ultimately backed down to the Soviets. This conflict stoked fear in the Chinese leaders, with Mao Zedong notably leaving Beijing to avoid a nuclear strike. Furthermore, this event was the only instance in Chinese history when its atomic force had been put on full alert.

The border conflicts that arose soon after the founding of the People’s Republic spurred the nation to develop nuclear weapons. Pressured politically by the Soviet Union and militarily by the United States, China was forced to back down on multiple instances. From the security threat of the Korean War to the humiliation of backing down from border skirmishes, China’s unstable security environment motivated it to develop nuclear weapons. To Mao, it was imperative for the nation to gain nuclear deterrence in order for it to survive in the Anarchic international system. Thus, Mao negotiated with his Soviet counterpart and started his nuclear program in 1954 with Soviet assistance (note that this was before the Sino-Soviet split of 1960). The Soviet Union invited Chinese engineers for training and sent engineers to assist with the program. Under the support of its northern superpower, the Chinese, through sheltered pursuit successfully detonated its first nuclear device in 1964.

The import of foreign expertise was crucial for the Chinese nuclear program. In addition to receiving support from Soviet scientists, Mao notably pushed for the return of Chinese scientists from abroad. For example, Qian Sanqiang described as the mastermind of Mao’s nuclear program, imported knowledge from meetings with scientists in East Germany. This program of knowledge import was crucial for the Chinese nuclear program, allowing it to “leapfrog” other countries in technological development, creating its first atomic bomb at breakneck speed. Indeed, had China not had the sheltered support from the Soviet Union, it would not of have developed the weapon at the pace that it had.

Nuclear weapons improved Chinese national security. For example, the country did not have nuclear weapons during the time of the Korean War. Due to the lack of Chinese nuclear deterrence, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur held a powerfully aggressive stance on the Korean peninsula. U.S. forces also contemplated pre-emptive atomic strikes against Chinese locations. On the other hand, had China acquired nuclear weapons during the Korean War, the United States would be more careful of its actions in fear of nuclear escalation. Nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula with China also had the potential to spark a more massive atomic conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, threatening mutually assured destruction, rendering restraint prudent. Furthermore, China’s nuclear weapons would compensate its inferiority in conventional arms. For example, Mao during the Korean War stressed the Maoist military doctrine of “people’s war”, a type of guerilla warfare utilizing attrition and sheer numbers. This strategy led to the tremendous number of Chinese casualties during the Korean War as they faced the technologically-superior U.S. force. The existence of nuclear weapons would allow China’s compensating of its inferior abilities through the doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate,” which is practiced by today’s Resurgent Russia in Europe. Similar to the way Russia compensates its weaker conventional abilities against NATO countries with nuclear weapons, a nuclear-armed China could better deter American incursion.

Today, a nuclear-armed China uses its arsenal of nuclear weapons for “minimal deterrence.” For example, it would be unthinkable for U.S. policy-makers to fathom a conflict with China on the scale of the Korean War. U.S. forces suffering a nuclear strike by China would be unacceptable to the casualty-averse American public that acts as a domestic constraint to foreign policy. Furthermore, China’s nuclear deterrence gives it the ability to escape security dilemmas with neighboring countries. China, for example, borders the most number of states in the world, some of which are critical of the country’s recent economic ascendance. Nukes can stymie this distrust from developing into security dilemmas; thus, for China, these weapons are a tool for regional stability with competitors like India and Japan.

In addition to the security benefit of nuclear weapons, China also gains political benefits from its nuclear weapons program. During the three conflicts mentioned in this article, China was forced to step down due to overwhelming political leverage of its atomic adversaries. Thus, the acquisition of nuclear weapons allows China to gain greater negotiation leverage in the shadow of mutually assured destruction as a looming threat. Nukes would have the potential to inflict unacceptable damage to Russian cities, U.S. Allies in East Asia, and also to the island of Taiwan, forcing these parties to become more friendly towards China.

The political leverage of China’s nuclear weapons also seeps into the country’s dealings with some of its new allies. One example is Pakistan, where Chinese engineers helped develop the weapons program of this South Asian country. This relationship is beneficial for both parties because it allows them to balance the nuclear relationship between the United States and India, creating a stabilizing balance of power in South Asia. The value of a Chinese alliance also applies to North Korea. In the event of a regime collapse in the North, China’s nuclear program gives it the expertise to safely defuse the northern atomic program, putting China in the best position to prevent a nuclear catastrophe on the Korean peninsula.

The political benefit of China’s nuclear weapons program also allows the country to gain internal political benefits. During the founding of the People’s Republic, Mao famously stated that the “Chinese people have stood up,” referring to the century of humiliation suffered at the hands of Western powers. The acquirement of nuclear weapons by the new regime contributes to its legitimacy by fulfilling the Party’s mission to revitalize the nation. In terms of security, Chinese nuclear weapons now allowed it to be more secure in conflicts with countries like the Soviet Union and the United States, deterring military action against China. Thus, in future conflicts, the country will be less likely to suffer humiliation and lose face. These weapons can be seen as a symbol of prestige for the Chinese. As the only Asian country of the United Nations Security Council Permanent members, nuclear weapons are seen as a source of pride and is consistent with the CCP’s mission. To revitalize the nation after suffering defeat by Western powers during wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, being part of the Western club of nuclear-armed states strengthens Chinese nationalism and CCP rhetoric.

All in all, China’s security environment in the 21st century is vastly different compared to its 20th-century environment. During the Cold War, the country faced various existential threats due to the risk of a nuclear attack in conflicts like the Korean War, the Taiwan Strait Crisis, and the Soviet Border Crisis. Today, it would be unthinkable for foreign policy-makers to fathom a nuclear exchange with China in the shadow of atomic destruction. Since developing its program in the Cold War, China has continued to further solidify its deterrence capabilities with the creation of a nuclear triad, effectively making paralyzing first strikes against the country impossible. Using atomic submarines, the country has become more adventurous in surrounding waters and island disputes in the East and South China Seas. Indeed, China has become much more assertive in global affairs, taking a harder stance against Taiwan, South East Asia, and American allies in East Asia. In the South China Sea, the United States is more careful regarding its encounters with the Chinese in fear of a nuclear escalation. On the Korean Peninsula, the United States also have to become more accommodating to China, as the country becomes a more relevant stakeholder in issues on the peninsula like denuclearization. Chinese assertive is only on the rise. Militarily secure with its nuclear second-strike ability, the country can slowly consolidate its position in East Asia.

Observers should also note that while nuclear weapons have allowed China to become more assertive, they have the potential to increase the destructiveness of conflict with China. Famous China scholar Graham Allison coined the term the “Thucydides’ Trap,” theorizing that due to China’s rising global position, it may engage in war with the United States. Accidents do happen in international relations, and Allison invites observers to consider the South China Sea as an example of escalation. As China continues to become more assertive, a naval accident with the United States in the South Sea has the potential to escalate into all-out nuclear war. Due to internal political constraints of nationalism among others, China could use a nuclear weapon to protect its territorial integrity. Therefore, rather than a tool for stability, nuclear weapons could increase the stakes of international conflict with the United States.

Another perspective that observers should consider when studying the Chinese nuclear program and its effects is the phenomenon of the “stability-instability” paradox. A nuclear-armed, encouraged, and increasingly nationalistic China may engage in smaller-scale conflicts with its neighbors due to mutual nuclear deterrence. Candidates of conflict from the stability-instability paradox include India with its indigenous atomic program or Japan with its protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Thus, in the 21st century, observers may be to see more smaller-scale skirmishes between China and its surrounding countries such as in Kashmir and the Senkaku Islands.

However, all in all, China has experienced significant benefits from its development of a nuclear weapons program. Incentivized by humiliation in its conflicts with the United States and the Soviet Union, the country set out to develop a nuclear weapons program during the Cold War through the importation of foreign knowledge. These weapons have given China various benefits from military security to political leverage, and internal regime legitimacy. In the 21st century, it would not be likely for China to experience security threats to the degree that it has experienced during the Cold War. While leaders should be aware of the potential issues of nuclear escalation and the security-insecurity paradox, atomic weapons for China has contributed overall to a higher level of international participation. As China continues to rise economically, it will be interesting to see how its nuclear weapons program factors into political encounters with other states later in the 21st century.

However, all in all, China has experienced significant benefits from its development of a nuclear weapons program. Incentivized by humiliation in its conflicts with the United States and the Soviet Union, the country set out to develop a nuclear weapons program during the Cold War through the importation of foreign knowledge. These weapons have given China various benefits from military security to political leverage, and internal regime legitimacy. In the 21st century, it would not be likely for China to experience security threats to the degree that it has experienced during the Cold War. While leaders should be aware of the potential issues of nuclear escalation and the security-insecurity paradox, atomic weapons for China has contributed overall to a higher level of international participation. As China continues to rise economically, it will be interesting to see how its nuclear weapons program factors into political encounters with other states later in the 21st century.



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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !