Could China Use Nuclear Weapons in War Over Taiwan?

In May, a group of experts, including former U.S. officials and sitting members of Congress, conducted an hours-long war game to simulate a potential U.S.-China battle over Taiwan in five years' time. The exercise—common in the Pentagon and at research institutes—concluded not with winning and losing sides, but with the alarming lesson that the next great power conflict could escalate very quickly.

As President Xi Jinping of China oversees a modernization of his country's armed forces with the help of a military budget that has nearly tripled under his watch, officials in Washington believe Beijing is building the capability to take Taiwan by force or at least compel it to "unify" with the mainland by the end of the decade.

The expansion of Chinese ground, air, naval, rocket and strategic support forces has inevitably included an enlargement of its nuclear arsenal, which the Pentagon estimates could reach 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.

Unlike Vladimir Putin's Russia, however, China's saber-rattling over Taiwan—whose democratically elected government has vowed to fight to preserve its freedoms—generally shies away from overt nuclear threats. Beijing has a publicly stated policy of "no first use" (NFU), which undertakes never to use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances. It also commits not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states.

"There is some ambiguity about conditions where Beijing's NFU policy would no longer apply," said the Defense Department's 2021 China Military Power Report, published in November.

"Some [People's Liberation Army] officers have discussed the [People's Republic of China] using nuclear weapons first in cases like when a conventional attack threatens the survival of the PLA's nuclear force or the [Chinese Communist Party] itself," the report noted.

Will China Use Nuclear Weapons In Taiwan?
Military vehicles carrying China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles take part in a military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

In the recent war game organized by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and broadcasted by NBC's Meet the Press in May, red and blue teams strategized in separate rooms and later each took turns to simulate likely moves by China and the United States.

The tabletop exercise began with the PLA conducting preemptive strikes on U.S. bases in the Pacific, having already assumed American forces would be militarily involved in the defense of Taiwan. The U.S. responded by hitting targets of value along China's coastline, all the while Taiwanese troops sought to repel the most ambitious amphibious landing since World War II.

But by the third round, the red team representing Beijing had already decided to conduct a nuclear weapons test, detonating a nuclear warhead off the coast of Hawaii in a show of force that was meant to discourage further U.S. actions rather than harm or kill Americans. The simulation ended before the blue team could respond.

"The game demonstrated that China's military modernization and expansion of its nuclear arsenal—not to mention the importance Beijing places on unification with Taiwan—mean that, in the real world, a fight between China and the United States could very well go nuclear," CNAS experts Stacie Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser wrote in a Foreign Affairs article last month.

"If the Chinese Communist Party decides to invade the island, its leaders may not be able to accept failure without seriously harming the regime's legitimacy. Thus, the CCP might be willing to take significant risks to ensure that the conflict ends on terms that it finds acceptable," they concluded.

Will China Use Nuclear Weapons In Taiwan?
Nuclear-capable missiles are displayed at a military parade to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, in Beijing on October 1, 2009. Feng Li/Getty Images

How the next Taiwan Strait crisis will develop is difficult to predict, but the chances of the clash escalating to global levels are very real. It is why, when asked about the likelihood of American involvement, senior U.S. officials say the priority is to ensure a conflict never happens—a strategy centered on the theory of deterrence.

Defense planners in Washington and Taipei want to increase the credibility of Taiwan's self-defense capability to ensure a Chinese invasion is as costly and unpalatable as possible, with the view that the high price of military action could change minds in Beijing.

But it cuts both ways. China's force buildup—with the assumption of outside intervention in mind—also aims to deter a U.S. response, the calculation being that neither Washington nor the American public can stomach the thought of heavy losses.

Last summer, U.S.-based nuclear security researchers discovered more than 200 new missile silos being constructed in the deserts of northwest China. Analysts are still unable to say whether each will be filled with the nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles they are built to house.

Around the same time, according to Financial Times reports in October, China carried out two hypersonic missile tests that greatly alarmed U.S. defense officials. The PLA had displayed a capability that the U.S. itself had yet to perfect—by developing a delivery system that could evade American missile defenses and target the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons.

The Pentagon's report on China's military power said it was still unclear how Beijing intends to deploy its expanded nuclear forces in the future. But Biden officials say they have been focused on "crisis communications and crisis management" since taking office in order to avoid an accidental conflict with Beijing—and their Chinese counterparts appear to be regularly picking up the phone.

Will China Use Nuclear Weapons In Taiwan?
The U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Pennsylvania cruises on the ocean surface circa 1990s. L Smith/Classicstock/Getty Images

Naturally, seeking clarity from within China's party-state system is not easy. But a reading of PLA doctrine by subject-matter experts can provide a different perspective, one in which a nuclear exchange during a fight over Taiwan is not an inevitability.

Gerald Brown, a Washington-based security analyst, tells Newsweek that a Chinese nuclear test during a Taiwan crisis is plausible, if unlikely. "However, it should be understood in context. The CCP is very unlikely to escalate to using nuclear weapons as an attack in a conflict over Taiwan, at least not escalating to that intentionally."

Brown argues: "The way the PLA appears to view nuclear deterrence is not necessarily to accomplish warfighting aims. Instead, they find nuclear weapons very ineffective warfighting tools, and put much more stock in conventional arms as well as controlling the cyber and space domains. Nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence operate, in the Chinese perception, adjacent to this."

"Nuclear weapons seek to constrain an adversary's nuclear capability, in order to prevent them from being able to use nuclear threats to coerce China. In this, the PLA is able to use nuclear deterrence to constrain the U.S. from using nuclear coercion, while simultaneously fighting conventional wars under conditions of nuclear deterrence," he says.

"These aren't to use nuclear weapons so much as they are to communicate this resolve and momentum," he concludes. "But the chance of using nuclear weapons on Taiwan itself remains very unlikely, and the PLA doesn't appear to envision them to be very useful in that situation."