March 31, 2023
TOKYO – The United States fears China will abandon its “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons in the future and try to suppress U.S. military intervention with nuclear threats in the event of an emergency in Taiwan, which Washington believes the Chinese military will have the capability to invade by 2027.
“It is unclear whether the buildup of China’s nuclear arsenal may influence or change China’s nuclear strategy in the future,” stated the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military and security developments released in November.
Columbia University Prof. Richard Betts believes China may abandon its no first use policy if the country perceives a major threat to its territory or expects the move to have a deterrent effect in disputes over Taiwan or the South China Sea.
Even if Beijing does not change its no first use policy, some observers in the U.S. believe China would consider using nuclear weapons if its nuclear arsenal were targeted in a conventional war or the nation’s existence was threatened, rendering the policy irrelevant.
The Pentagon report estimated that China would likely possess a stockpile of about 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035.
The New START treaty between the U.S. and Russia on measures for strategic arms reduction set a deployment ceiling of 1,550 nuclear warheads each. Although it is difficult to make simple comparisons, China’s capacity could be close to that of the U.S. and Russia in the future.
The United States has been trying to bring China into its nuclear arms control framework, but China has refused on the grounds that its capabilities are smaller than that of the U.S. and Russia.
A former senior U.S. government official said Beijing of wielding the no first use pledge to tamp vigilance levels in the international community. According to the official, there is lingering suspicion that China will try to shift its policy stance when it catches up with the United States and Russia.
If a U.S.-Russia-China triangle of nuclear superpowers emerges, deterrence established to manage Cold War tensions will unravel.
Deepening ties between China and Russia will shift the nuclear balance, which would inevitably lead to further destabilization in the international order.