``The atomic bomb is nothing to be afraid of. China has millions of people. It cannot be bombed out of existence. If someone else can drop an atomic bomb, I can too. The death of 10 or 20 million people is nothing to be afraid of...``
Valiantly, militantly, cross the Yalu River!
To protect peace and defend the motherland
Is precisely to defend our hometowns!
China’s good sons and daughters,
Of one mind and heart, united tightly,
Resist America! Aid Koreans!
Defeat America, which has the heart of a wolf!
PVA battle song:
However, Mao Zedong often and famously referred to such weapons, and the great powers that wielded them, as nothing more than “paper tigers” – visibly fearsome but, in reality, a weak military asset and a bluff.
Disdain of nuclear weapons is evident in Chinese military and political thinking from the earliest days of Communist rule. In 1947, Mao wrote that “the atom bomb is a paper tiger that U.S. reactionaries use to scare people…the outcome of a war is decided by people, not by one or two new types of weapons.”
The strategic mindset of the People’s War continue to shape China’s military strategy throughout the propaganda-rich years of the Cultural Revolution to the present day, with highest emphasis consistently put on popular involvement in the state apparatus and the military maintenance of massive ground forces.
China’s lack of emphasis on the use of nuclear weapons in warfare continues to this day, even though the current state of its nuclear arsenal is unclear.
This implies a number below the United Kingdom’s 200 strategic nuclear deterrent. China is also the only nuclear-weapons state to provide a blanket security assurance that promises not to use its arsenal on non-nuclear belligerents or in nuclear-weapons-free zones under any circumstances.
These circumstances, combined with a long history of limited reliance on such weapons, imply that any future conflict with the PRC would not take the form of nuclear warfare. The current dynamics of China’s military expansion are only further proof of this, with new technology and military hardware aimed at fighting a conventional war with a technologically advanced opponent.
Indeed, China’s own 2004 white paper laid out strategic production and deployment plans (vaguely) to ready the country for conflict with highly advanced adversaries by mid-century. This strategic direction correlates with an overall minimization of the nuclear force to purely deterrent levels, as the use of general atomic force in a conflict with such a described opponent would do little to prevent the use of large, stealthy, sophisticated military forces.
China’s practical strategic doctrine, suggested and labeled in the West in successive Pentagon reports as the “island chain” doctrine, likely emphasizes securing regional hegemony by attaining preponderant operational power in both its own littoral (the first island chain) and the Western Pacific Ocean out to at least Japan and New Guinea (the second island chain). The dynamics of any potential future Chinese hegemony, whether internationally cooperative or aggressively militant, are the subject of constant debate in security communities around the world. However, the lack of focus on nuclear issues and the rise of a large conventional military-industrial production regime in China must be take into account.
Recent developments in the military forces of the People’s Liberation Army have included advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles that are designed to accurately deliver conventional payloads to distant targets. While some types of these missiles can be deployed with nuclear warheads, it is widely suggested that they are primarily aimed at neutralizing localized military assets in an invasion of Taiwan.
To meet its own goal of capably meeting technologically-advanced threats by mid-century, China will assuredly have to continue expanding its conventional military force structure to reflect its strategic needs.
Heavy investment in R&D that facilitates the production of new technologies will be an ongoing trend for the PLA.
However, there are no signs that China’s nuclear forces play anything but a deterrent role in future security calculations and, as mentioned above, various signs that China dismisses their effectiveness.
The final result of the growth of the PRC’s military capacity is, perhaps, that China’s nuclear perspective will be exported abroad.
After all, the extensive capabilities of any advanced military opponent reduce the tactical effectiveness of nuclear weapons in the field as those forces grow, diversify and become increasingly difficult to target with strategic warheads.