Cooling the Nuclear Hotspot: Advocating a PRC Nuclear Umbrella for North Korea

By | January 16, 2013 | 5 Comments

A Chinese nuclear umbrella means the Unha is no longer needed. Photo via

A Chinese nuclear umbrella means the Unha is no longer needed. Photo via

[Update: Based on a conversation with arms control specialists Jeffrey Lewis, Andrea Berger, and Gregory Kulaki, we are most comfortable with the phrasing that the PRC "implicitly confirmed" that the Chinese government been informed of the DPRK intent to undertake a nuclear test between January 13-20. For further notes, please see the postscript to this essay. -- Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief ]

Chinese state media has been fairly consistent since the new year in its depiction of a stable, if not entirely happy, relationship between China and the DPRK. Quickly implicitly confirming rumors that North Korea had informed the PRC that it would be undertaking a third nuclear test between January 13-20, the Chinese media presented voices interpreting the step as “a sign of North Korea’s respect” for China. Other analysts relished the trouble that the DPRK could cause for Japan at a time when China is looking to finally exact revenge on Japan for the humiliations of the 1890s. Amid all of that, a voice emerged on the opinion pages of the Huanqiu Shibao, sometimes a foreign affairs tabloid of the People’s Daily, which advocated seeing the crisis as an opportunity.

Long Xingchun’s trial balloon  (砖引玉), translated here, is revolutionary. It is revolutionary for two reasons: 1) Makes major changes to 50 years of Chinese nuclear doctrine; 2) Indicates a plan or thoughts to plan for prying the nuclear weapon from Kim’s dead fingers and explicitly make DPRK a Chinese protectorate.  The International Department should be having some lively discussions with their North Korean counterparts soon.  But some of the concepts he espouses could lead to further steps toward a nuclear weapons free zone and should be met with Track II and Track 1.5 efforts to seize on the momentum.  Extending a Chinese nuclear umbrella, obviously, requires re-thinking of some aspects of China’s nearly 50 year nuclear doctrine.  If taken seriously, the U.S., China, and both Koreas will have to re-evaluate their conventional military forces in the region.  If its response to North Korea’s missile launch is any indicator, China is also concerned that continued DPRK nuclear provocations will drive Japan and Korea to become nuclear powers.  Chinese security and economic interests are clearly harmed in that eventuality. 

Long also describes a path for China to exert non-zero sum strength in a way that signifies a new great power relationship China has spoken of recently.  When these thoughts are refined and issued by more established and connected experts like Liu Jieyi, Shen Dingli ( a nuclear physicist in his own right) or Wu Chunsi we will know this concept is rapidly maturing.   — Roger Cavazos, coordinator

Long Xingchun [龙兴春]: It Doesn’t Hurt to Speak Clearly about China’s Nuclear Strategy [中国核政策,不妨讲清楚], Huanqiu Shibao, January 15, 2013. Translated independently by Franz Bleeker and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga; versions were then reconciled and re-edited by Adam Cathcart.

Historical experience from the past U.S.-Soviet confrontation [对峙] shows that nuclear weapons were a key factor in preventing the two powers from starting a hot war. Economic interdependence notwithstanding, nuclear deterrence has remained the most effective tool in avoiding war between the world’s great powers [世界大国]. Only by increasing the clarity, operability [可操作性] and credibility of China’s nuclear policy can China guarantee the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrence.

In 2005, National Defense University professor Major General Zhu Chenghu [朱成虎] said that should military clashes occur between China and America over the Taiwan issue, “China would have no choice but to draw on nuclear weapons [中国别无选择,只能动用核武].” Actually, he  wasn’t advocating a nuclear war with the United States, but sought to clarify China’s nuclear policy and make adversaries understand China’s bottom line.  His intent, therefore was to ensure clarity to maintain the strategic stability of U.S.-China relations.

China’s nuclear policy should achieve “strategic clarity and tactical vagueness [战略清晰,战术模糊].” Matters pertaining to use and non-use, and under which circumstances nuclear weapons can be used belongs to the strategic level and can be [made] completely clear. But how, and in which quantities, to use nuclear weapons, and if to use submarines or planes or nuclear guided missiles? These are questions of tactics and must remain ambiguous [必须模糊].

Beijing recently hardened their subway against nuclear and gas attacks.

Beijing recently hardened their subway against nuclear and gas attacks.  Photo via

China “has always abided by the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, at whatever time or under whatever kinds of circumstances.”  In reality, our policy for using nuclear weapons should limit [our ability] to attack other countries, but reserve our right to use them to defend ourselves. American military experts have already proposed attacking the Three Gorges Dam, the destruction of which would be far greater than several nuclear bombs. Because of this, China should clearly announce that “the destruction of the Three Gorges Dam will be considered a nuclear attack,” and that China will absolutely use nuclear weapons to retaliate. The clear premise of no first use and of first use will deter any foreign country from attacking Chinese soil by whatever means. [明确不首先使用和首先使用核武器的前提,让任何外国不敢对中国本土实施任何形式的军事打击].  Bleeker notes: Having clearly stated his belief that China should reserve the right to use nuclear retaliation against non-nuclear attacks, Long in this final sentence of the paragraph is either indulging in a fit of sarcasm, or attempting to maintain the traditional no-first-use innocence, or perhaps both.


The U.S. extends its nuclear umbrella to Asia through U.S. based assets like the B-2 “Shadow.” Photo courtesy

China has unconditionally committed itself to not using nuclear weapons against countries and territories without nuclear weapons. But if non-nuclear countries bring in nuclear weapons from another country or provide bases for nuclear strikes against China, such a country is no longer a non-nuclear country and becomes an object for Chinese nuclear retaliation (see note at bottom). Besides, America and other related nuclear countries have long been developing “tactical nuclear weapons” trying to make nuclear weapons usable [as conventional weapons]. If attacked with tactical nuclear weapons, should China apply nuclear retaliation? And where is the dividing line between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons?

The most important question to consider is whether China can provide a nuclear umbrella. Some bordering countries [中国周边有关国家] (Translator notes:  “Country, or countries” – plurals can’t be discerned in Chinese here. The “youguan” is here not translated, as it is perfectly clear which “pertaining to” country is being evoked.) are developing nuclear weapons in the hopes of guaranteeing their country’s security in the face of foreign military threats. If China can provide a reliable nuclear umbrella, this will improve the legitimacy of the international non-proliferation regime, be beneficial towards inducing the relevant countries to abandon their nuclear plans and thus cool the nuclear hotspot on China’s periphery. If a neighboring country were to suffer a foreign nuclear attack, the disastrous aftermath (灾难性后果; i.e. nuclear fallout) might not reach China, but such an event could still destroy the greater environment of peace and stability on China’s borders. A nuclear umbrella can prevent foreign powers from imposing war on China’s periphery.

various nuclear weapons

Various nuclear weapons of the umbrella, tested in the 1960s but not entirely consigned to the museum.

In order to improve our nuclear policy in accordance with the times, China should not change the basic spirit of its no-first use policy, but rather increase the reliability and practicality of its nuclear policy so as to adopt a more proactive approach to uphold world peace.

(The author, Long Xingchun, is a scholar at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.)

Postscript [Updated]: Explicitly stating: “…non-nuclear countries bring in nuclear weapons from another country or provide bases for nuclear strikes against China…” represents a MAJOR change in stated Chinese nuclear doctrine.  It also makes a very strong case for Theater Missile Defense.  The “non-nuclear countries” (Japan, ROK, Thailand, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and even Taiwan) can’t be sure that China won’t target them for merely hosting or allowing US forces to transit.  US forces never declare nuclear armed or unarmed status.  The statement is very de-stabilizing.

Gregory Kulaki points out the need to think more about the concept of a long line of continuous debate within the PRC military and policy communities over nuclear deterrence and doctrine. Within those broader strands, he argues, Long’s argument does not necessarily represent a revolutionary breakthrough. Recognizing that we are unable to bring closure to this particular debate, we can offer a few links and suggestions for readers who wish to go deeper into the history of the North Korean nuclear program and its somewhat fractious relationship with the Chinese. Jonathan Pollack’s book No Exit is an excellent starting point, as is a review of the same text by Jeffrey Lewis. Finally, Dr. Pollack talks about the broader politics of aid and the Chinese angle for nearly 90 minutes, which redeems every minute invested. He begins at about 17:45 of the talk about North Korea’s commitment to nuclear technology exchange dating back to 1956. We  are glad to include this video — with the above clarifications and additions to our piece thanks to the challenges and questions of our colleagues online. — Adam Cathcart & Roger Cavazos, SinoNK


  1. Thank you everyone for your insights, and comments. We knew when we saw the article that it was going to be interesting. Thank you to Franz Bleeker and Nathan Beachamp-Mustafaga for digging into the translation and Adam for finding the article.

    We also knew that in even 1,500 words we couldn’t capture all the nuances, arguments, history and lineage of deterrence, extended nuclear deterrence and the shifting strategic landscape in Asia in great detail.

    But we felt there were enough indicators, discussions, and Chinese not denying things to warrant discussion of the topic. We caveated a lot “trial balloon” “when we see certain folks discuss…” to try to convey the feeling this ain’t happening tomorrow. We know his comments do not represent the government, CACDA, MFA or any of those organizations. But we also know that they have not interposed any objection. His op-ed remains on the home page (as of this writing)

    This is where the comments come into play. We welcome the discussion. What do we look for? What openings are presented? Are the proposals worth pursuing? (I’m biased. I think they are worth discussing and say so). Where does the road lead? Really, it’s whatever thoughts you want to share and discuss.


  2. An article about Xi Jinping’s background and career would most probably have to be in accordance with specific guidelines from the propaganda department.

    One about a change in China’s no first-use policy (that’s what Long’s article is about, after all) won’t be that sensitive, but given Huanqiu Shibao‘s status, under the flag of People’s Daily, and given the sensitivity of the issue, it is no coincidental article by just one researcher either.

    It will be interesting to see if this debate continues publicly. One should note that it doesn’t need to be conducted publicly, and that it may as well be decided in discussions behind the walls of Zhongnanhai, the military headquarters, and scholars who are committed to remain silent about the deliberations.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Roger and JustRecently, much food for thought here.

    So, to mix metaphors, another big fish has swum forward with a message about North Korea and the other shoe is about to drop. Zhang Lian’gui arrives with a Huanqiu Shibao op-ed on…. how DPRK and Japan could have a major breakthrough. Obviously he hasn’t received marching orders to dress down the DPRK.

  4. As a very belated follow-up, Global Times carried another op-ed by Zhu Zhangping (no listed affiliation) explicitly stating that North Korea should abandon its weapons in return for protection under China’s nuclear umbrella:
    “What China should do now is to protect North Korea by offering nuclear umbrella just as the US does to Japan and South Korea, but also force it to accept China’s advice to abandon nuclear programs.”

  5. For another belated follow-up, Zhang Liangui vetoes the idea:

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