Xi Jinping’s Thoughts on China’s Nuclear Weapons

April 1, 2024 | 9:00 am
Jean-Marc Ferré/UN
Gregory Kulacki
East Asia Project Manager

This blog was co-authored with UCS China analyst Robert Rust.

Last month UCS published a critique of a New York Times article that claimed Chinese military strategists, “are looking to nuclear weapons as not only a defensive shield, but as a potential sword — to intimidate and subjugate adversaries.” We examined the evidence and found it did not support that claim. 

However, there was one piece of evidence in the article we could not examine; a speech by Chinese leader Xi Jinping to China’s Second Artillery in December of 2012. The Second Artillery operates China’s conventional and nuclear missiles and was renamed the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force in 2016. We’ve since obtained a copy of that speech and found it doesn’t support the New York Times claim either. There is no language in Xi’s speech that suggests he thinks about the purpose of China’s nuclear arsenal differently than his predecessors. 

We posted the original Chinese text with an English translation. It is classified as an “internal publication” that should be “handled with care.” It was printed and distributed to all Chinese military officers at the regimental level and above by the General Political Department of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in February 2014.

Why is this speech worth reading?

UCS first learned about the speech ten years ago when a Chinese colleague drew our attention to language in a commentary on the speech by generals Wei Fenghe and Zhang Haiyang, the commander and party secretary of the Second Artillery at the time. Our colleague noticed it contained new language describing the alert level of Chinese missiles. He thought the two officers might be trying to influence Xi’s thinking. UCS took note of the new language in our 2016 report on a possible change in China’s nuclear posture. 

That report concluded China may shift some of its nuclear forces to what is called a “launch on warning” or “launch under attack” alert status that would give Chinese leaders the option to launch those nuclear missiles quickly before they could be destroyed by an incoming attack. Traditionally, China kept its nuclear missile force off-alert, and the Second Artillery trained to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike only after being struck first. Currently, China is believed to keep most of its nuclear warheads in storage, separated from the missiles that carry them, to prevent an accidental or unauthorized launch.

Although China may still be moving to a launch on warning posture, the full text of Xi’s December 2012 speech, and the phrase it contains related to alert levels, reveals Xi did not discuss nuclear strategy or announce an intention to put Chinese nuclear forces on alert. He addresses more general concerns about the combat readiness, ideological orientation, and human qualities of Chinese military officers. Every Chinese head of state since 1842, when the United Kingdom defeated Imperial China in the Opium War, shared the same concerns.  Xi did not say anything new, specific, or surprising. There is no language in his speech that justifies the suggestion he communicated aggressive new nuclear ambitions that day.

What did Xi say?

Xi began with perfunctory remarks on the importance of the Second Artillery. They were similar to remarks made by his predecessor, Hu Jintao, five years earlier, and by Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, on multiple occasions dating back to the early 1990s. General Anthony Cotton, the Commander of the United States Strategic Command, recently told Congress “the PRC leadership has stated that the expansion of nuclear capabilities is necessary to achieve great power status.” But prior PRC statements demonstrate its leaders believe China obtained that status decades ago; Hu and Jiang also tied China’s nuclear weapons to its “great power status.” Cotton later admits “the PRC’s long-term nuclear strategy and requirements remain unclear.” Nothing in Xi’s December 2012 speech indicates Xi intended to change China’s longstanding views on nuclear weapons. 

Xi previewed three things he believes China must do to preserve and improve the quality of its conventional and nuclear missile force. Most importantly, Xi said the force needs to be better prepared to fight in a new period when war seems more likely. But Xi also spoke about the importance of Chinese socialist ideology and the need to fight endemic corruption. 

The commentary by Wei and Zhang explained why Xi spoke about ideology. They described a nascent internal discussion about “depoliticizing” and “nationalizing” the Chinese military that would shift the allegiance of Chinese officers from the Chinese Communist Party to the Chinese nation. Xi sought to end that discussion by warning his officers they “must maintain the fundamental principle and system of absolute Party control over the military” and “consciously uphold the power and prestige of the Party Central Committee.” Throughout his tenure, Xi has tried to reassert the role of the Party in China’s economic and social life.  This remains his priority for the Chinese military. 

Xi also used the December 2012 speech to confront corruption, a defining feature of his tenure as China’s leader. He told his officers to “resolutely stamp out the phenomena of not abiding by the law.” Unfortunately, despite a decade of concerted effort, long-standing corrupt behavior remains a serious problem. Nearly 70 PLARF officers and soldiers were implicated in a recent corruption scandal, including their commander, Lt. General Li Yuchao. US intelligence officers leaked stories claiming Chinese missiles were filled with water instead of fuel, and that missile silo doors were defective. Wei, who, after his commentary on Xi’s speech, became a State Councilor and the Minister of Defense, may also be caught up in the scandal. 

The most important section of Xi’s 2012 speech discusses preparing “to fight and win wars.” Xi’s recommended preparations include perfecting “a functional and practical system for war planning” that can help China gain the initiative when forced to respond to “the military intervention of a strong enemy.” Specific tasks include adapting to “new generations of weapons” as well as “changes in the methods of warfighting.” That entails “improving strategic pre-positioning” and establishing an “operational duty system” that maintains “a high level of alert” during peacetime as well as wartime.

China’s subsequent decision to build several hundred new silos, which it may arm with new missiles that can be launched on warning of an incoming attack–like US silo-based ICBMs–is consistent with the general instructions on readiness Xi gave to the Second Artillery that day. The Chinese Academy of Military Science published an opinion on the implications of launching under attack in 2013, one year after Xi’s speech. But neither document justifies the New York Times assertion that Xi or his advisors “are looking to nuclear weapons as not only a defensive shield, but as a potential sword — to intimidate and subjugate adversaries.” 

How should we interpret what Xi said?

A plain text reading of Xi’s speech demonstrates the new Chinese leader repeated general concerns that troubled previous Chinese communist leaders for more than thirty years. Xi simply told his officers to be loyal to the Party, to weed out corruption, and to be better prepared to fight. There is nothing new or inherently aggressive in those admonitions.

It is possible Xi’s comments on readiness started a chain of events that eventually led to the construction of new missile silos. But if so, Xi noted the increased readiness those new silos might provide was necessary to prepare to respond to foreign military intervention. That sounds more defensive than aggressive. Moreover, moving to a “launch on warning” or “launch under attack” posture presumes the other side will strike first. The Chinese Academy of Military Science concluded such a change would not violate China’s long-standing commitment not to use nuclear weapons first at any time or under any circumstances. The academy’s primary concern was retaining a credible ability to retaliate, not preparing to launch a first strike.

The introduction to the volume of Xi speeches within which his remarks to the Second Artillery are contained mentioned a “new situation.” Xi brought it up in the final paragraph of his speech and in his remarks to non-military audiences on other occasions. During recent nuclear dialogues with the Biden administration, Chinese participants raised concerns about a perceived change in US behavior towards China. Maybe that’s the “new situation” that concerns Xi. A better understanding of that concern may lead to more constructive bilateral discussions on nuclear weapons.

Concluding recommendations

UCS is concerned about the future direction of Chinese nuclear weapons policy. We agree with Gen. Cotton that “the PRC’s long-term nuclear strategy and requirements remain unclear.” We urge influential US voices, including the media, to refrain from encouraging the public, and especially US decision-makers, to jump to conclusions the available evidence does not support. We also urge the Biden administration, and the US Congress, to wait until they have a clearer understanding of Chinese nuclear thinking before making precipitous decisions about the future of the US nuclear arsenal. 

About the author

More from Gregory

Gregory Kulacki collects information and conducts analysis on security problems in East Asia. He uses that information and analysis to facilitate constructive dialogue between scientists, scholars and legislators from the United States, China, Japan and South Korea who seek solutions to security problems that do not depend on the use or threat to use nuclear weapons.