A video recently released by Chinese media directly threatens Japan with a nuclear first strike. The video states, “When we liberate Taiwan, if Japan dares to intervene by force, even if it only deploys one soldier, one plane and one ship, we will not only return reciprocal fire but also start a full-scale war against Japan. We will use nuclear bombs first”. This is a serious threat against a non-nuclear state coming from a power with a long declared ‘no first use’ nuclear policy. This clearly signals a departure from a strategy of minimum deterrence.
With the level of control possessed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it would be difficult to argue that the producers of the video went rogue with these threats. According to reports, the video was reposted by a CCP channel, making it likely that the video was intended as a coercive measure. To threaten the use of nuclear weapons in order to achieve a strategic foreign policy objective such as the invasion or “liberation” of a sovereign state is to use the nuclear arsenal potentially as a component of a Hybrid Warfare strategy. This use of nuclear coercion doesn’t align itself with a minimum deterrence strategy that aims to deter military aggression. A state employing a minimum deterrence strategy will generally possess just enough deliverable and survivable nuclear weapons to ensure a successful retaliatory strike.
Hybrid Warfare is defined as “a continuation of foreign policy, utilizing a combination of unconventional hard power and/or subversive instruments to achieve strategic objectives.” In the case of China’s Hybrid Warfare campaign against Taiwan, it has made nuclear threats against Japan as a warning against allied intervention. It has consistently conducted incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone using fighters and bombers. It has executed numerous cyber-attacks against Taiwan. It has released propaganda threatening Taiwan, and President Xi Jinping has pledged to “reunify” Taiwan with China and “smash” any attempts at formal independence. These measures aim to weaken Taiwan’s resistance and alliances, making it easier for the CCP to fulfill its objective of annexing the island.
The ancient Chinese strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu states, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. China’s display and threats of military power in addition to its propaganda and cyber-attacks aim to demonstrate to Taiwan and its allies that its “reunification” is a fait accompli and that the CCP will use any means, including nuclear weapons, to achieve this. The ultimate Chinese goals of this strategy, in line with Sun Tzu’s supreme art of war, are for the Taiwanese populace to realize that resistance is futile and willingly “reunify” with mainland China without a fight, and for Taiwan’s allies to realize that the protection of Taiwan is not worth the cost.
What makes China’s nuclear threat dangerous is not only the intent but the capability. China has deployed nuclear DF-21 medium-range ballistic missiles and nuclear DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles that have the range to strike any target in Japan. The use of these missiles against Japan would leave the Chinese arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles such as the silo-based DF-5, road-mobile DF-31, and newer DF-41 to be held in reserve in case the United States launches a strike in retaliation for an attack on its ally. China knows that these are calculations that must be made by the U.S., Japan, and its allies in defense of Taiwan. So what can be done to counter the CCP’s use of nuclear coercion as a component of Hybrid Warfare and its departure from a minimum deterrence strategy?
The first action should be to disregard China’s ‘no first use’ nuclear policy. This is a clear fallacy and must be recognized as such. China is modernizing its nuclear structure and using it to coerce. A ‘no first use’ policy, which China has allegedly committed to, only allows the use of nuclear weapons in retaliation for a nuclear strike. The U.S. and its allies need to disregard China’s ‘no first use’ claims in order to clearly establish strategies to counter nuclear coercion and deter possible Chinese use of nuclear weapons.
As the only power with the real capability to combat China in relation to Taiwan, it’s critical that the U.S. sends clear signals to deter China and reassure allies. The CCP must have no doubt that any use of nuclear weapons on a U.S. ally under the extended deterrence umbrella will be met with a retaliatory nuclear strike. This signaling can include public diplomatic reassurance to allies, deterrence flights of B-2 and B-52 nuclear-capable strategic bombers, the continuation of exercises such as Talisman-Sabre with Australia and the Malabar naval exercise with Quad partners, Japan, India and Australia, and the continuation of ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in the vicinity of disputed islands in the South China Sea.
The U.S. should consider all options, including negotiations with Japan to deploy land-based nuclear medium or intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Japanese territory. The offer of U.S. controlled missiles will act to prevent Japan from deciding to build its own nuclear weapon capability in response to the Chinese threat, thus preventing further nuclear proliferation. The U.S. should also recommence negotiations with Japan regarding the deployment of an Aegis Ashore or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system within Japanese territory to complement the naval units already equipped with Aegis. These tangible deployment options will reinforce signaling to mitigate Chinese miscalculation.
In 2014 Russian President, Vladimir Putin executed a Hybrid Warfare strategy against Ukraine to annex Crimea and unleash an ongoing war in the Donbas region. This has led to thousands of deaths and the downing of a civilian airliner. Putin wasn’t effectively deterred from this action. If China isn’t effectively deterred in its Hybrid Warfare strategy to take control of Taiwan, the consequences at best could be the annexation of Taiwan and the end of the U.S. alliance system. At worst, the consequences could be millions of deaths as a result of a nuclear strike. President Xi needs to understand without a doubt that any use of nuclear weapons or the invasion of Taiwan will have costs outweighing the benefits. The first action taken by the U.S. and its allies must be the recognition that China has moved on from its minimum deterrence strategy.
Adam Cabot has a Master’s in International Relations and is currently researching nuclear strategy.