China's nuclear stockpile has become formidable since 1964. Image: Pacific Forum / iStock

Scientists say humanity’s ability to avoid military self-annihilation depends on a single principle: Countries that develop nuclear weapons must not use them offensively. This makes the pact informally known as “mutually assured destruction” work.

Perhaps even more important, the No First Use policy ensures that “defense” for a nuclear-armed power genuinely means defense – rather than being a word that provides a smokescreen for expansionist military development. Yet few people know the policy’s extraordinary history – and just which powers support it and which decline to.

The No First Use principle was first proposed by China in 1964, and has since been widely recognized as the linchpin on which humanity’s war-free future depends. China gained nuclear-weapons capability that year. Instead of demanding that all powers jointly agree on the principle, as some people recommended at the time, China’s leaders simply wrote an extraordinary letter to the global community.

Titled “Statement of the Government of the People’s Republic of China” and dated October 16, 1964, it was not the usual lawyer-written, bullet-pointed statement that people have come to expect with international declarations. It was a rather rambling missive that made the point that every nation had the right to defend itself with arms, but nuclear weapons were different.

They were a “paper tiger,” which existed for deterrence, not for actual use in attacks, the letter said. And they would surely be phased out as humanity learned to live in peace. Nuclear weapons were “created by man” and “certainly will be eliminated by man,” it said.

But the letter also delivered an epoch-making statement. Since every nation with such weapons claimed that they were for defense only, they could all simply declare that they would never be the first to use them. This would be necessary to make the people of the planet safe.

We’ll go first, the Chinese said. The key sentence they wrote was this: “The Chinese Government hereby solemnly declares that China will never at any time and under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons.”

What happened? Everyone acknowledged the logic of the deterrence principle – but looked the other way rather than following suit with similar pledges of their own.

Since then, the world’s most populous country has regularly reaffirmed its No First Use position over the past four decades to emphasize the “defense-means-defense” principle. But almost all other countries pointedly kept their fingers in their ears. China’s reaffirmations of the principle (such as in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011) have gone largely unreported in the international media. 

Public versus governments

In the decades following China’s proposal, Russia and the United States of America engaged in an arms race, developing stables of thousands of nuclear warheads, and avoiding pledges not to use them offensively. These nations nevertheless present their military nuclear capability using the word “defense.”

In general, we can see that China’s principle has been widely supported by public groups around the world, but has been resisted by governments. There has been just a single exception.

India followed suit in 1998, declaring a No First Use policy as it began to grow its own nuclear capabilities. In the late 1990s, there were hopes that the world’s other nuclear powers would follow the lead of the two Asian giants, but these were quickly dashed.

Clever game

The US has played an aggressive game extremely cleverly. The country has a huge arsenal of nuclear warheads (just under 6,000), but has kept the number slightly below the number that the Soviet Union/Russia is said to have (just over 6,000). This allows the US military-industrial complex constantly to ask for more public funding.

Yet at the same time, through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization it dominates, the US has immediate access to a much larger number of functioning, well-maintained weapons than Moscow.

Meanwhile, anti-war public groups around the world, including in Western nations, have repeatedly called for their governments to follow the China-India lead. In 1999, soon after India joined China’s position, Germany formally called on its NATO allies to also adopt a No First Use policy, but other partners followed the promptings of the organization’s strongest partners and refused.

Some countries (Russia, Pakistan, the United States, the United Kingdom and France) stated in print that they would only use their nuclear weapons as a response to an attack or invasion. However, these statements do not specify nuclear attacks, and they give themselves the right to define what might constitute an attack.

In other words, they could simply declare that some sort of incursion has occurred – a cyberattack on a NATO member, for example – and then feel free to “nuke” the people to whom they have assigned blame.

Partial exception

There is one more partial exception worth noting. Like the United States, Russia has refused to sign a No First Use principle. However, Moscow did sign a bilateral No First Use contract with China. This ensures that a large portion of the eastern part of the Eurasian super-continent is more likely to remain free of nuclear-level war.

In China, some military strategists have worried that their country, by making a principled stand that has been largely ignored by the rest of the world, has put itself at a disadvantage. Others have argued that it is still worthwhile to maintain it. The No First Use policy shows that China’s defense industry is primarily for defense, and reinforces China’s overall strategy of “peaceful rise.”

Will China stick to it?

But will China keep its promise? There’s no evidence that it won’t, and the country clearly has a demonstrable disinclination to enter wars far from home.

Yet the US strategy of making increasingly provocative moves in Taiwan to goad China into making a military response is a worry. Many fear that the US will call on its supporters in Taiwan to declare independence, forcing China to make an aggressive move. 

Reasons for optimism

Yet there are two reasons for optimism. First, even if the US did trigger a skirmish over Taiwan, China would be extremely unlikely to use nuclear weapons in its own territory or waters.

Second, the country has shown an impressive degree of patience. During eight months of violent anti-China riots in 2019 in Hong Kong, Beijing resisted the temptation to intervene with its military there, even though there was an army base literally next door to the Hong Kong government’s besieged legislative building.

This extraordinary degree of patience came as a surprise to strategists (and a disappointment, surely, to Western powers). The violence in Hong Kong had largely ebbed away by the end of the year with no involvement of any kind from mainland China. Patience, it appears, is an unusually powerful weapon.  

Conclusion? There are no guarantees in life; yet with China, India and Russia all having signed up to a No First Use nuclear policy in this region, the average citizen of East Asia may have good reason to feel slightly safer than her or his counterpart elsewhere on the planet, and particularly in Europe.

As for the moral victory, the Chinese writers of the 1964 letter won that battle 48 years ago, but their assumption that the Western powers and Russia would follow suit was too idealistic. Yet the principle of No First Use, even if most nations of the world did not sign it, has been followed in practice, so far.

The nuclear tiger, so far, has indeed turned out to be made of paper. All sides surely hope that remains true.

Nury Vittachi is managing editor of Fridayeveryday, a Hong Kong-based publication on Chinese culture. Previously, he was assistant editor at the South China Morning Post and at the Far Eastern Economic Review.