The Threshold of the Chinese Nuclear Horn

Nuclear numbers: Assessing China’s threshold of ‘unacceptable damage’

Nuclear deterrence works on the principle of causing unacceptable damage in response to nuclear use. But what kind of damage do nations find unacceptable? How does one calculate what would be unacceptable to another? Answers to these questions are difficult, but important because a fair assessment of what the adversary would find unacceptable can help to right-size one’s own nuclear arsenal.

Different countries, like different individuals, have disparate thresholds of damage absorption. For instance, during the Cold War, the US concluded that the USSR would be deterred if 50% of Soviet industry and 25% of its population were to be destroyed. Meanwhile, President Kennedy’s hesitation to lose even one American city during the Cuban missile crisis revealed America’s low damage threshold.

Interestingly, in the case of Communist China, Premier Mao had created the image that his country had a high damage-taking capacity. Dismissing nuclear weapons as a “paper tiger”, he suggested that American nuclear use could not deter China because even if 50 million Chinese died, an equal number would survive to carry the country forward. But is this assumption true even today? How does modern China perceive damage?

The answer to this question should be of particular interest to India. Of course, the declared nuclear doctrines of no first use by India and China minimise the possibility of a deliberate nuclear war. But since India is compelled to retain a nuclear capability for deterrence, it also becomes necessary to premise the force structure on certain intelligent parameters. An assessment of the damage tolerance threshold of China is one of them.

Such an exercise requires a methodical and continuous study of China’s strategic culture so that one may avoid the pitfalls of mirror-imaging. Amongst the many factors that can help assess damage tolerance thresholds, five are particularly relevant. The first is to understand the historical experiences since a country that has been through more wars and experienced losses is expected to have a higher damage tolerance threshold. China has experienced severe upheavals such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. 45 million people are estimated to have died in these two events and several more suffered immense deprivation and misery. This, however, happened, in the 1960s-1970s. China’s participation in the Vietnam war too had ended in 1975. Modern China built since then, has little experience of sufferings caused by inter-state wars.

Secondly, damage acceptability depends on the nature of the political system, with the assumption being that a closed, authoritarian system would be able to take more damage than a democracy. While China is authoritarian, the Chinese Communist Party is extremely careful to sustain an image of legitimacy based on popular support. This, however, is not as easy to maintain today as it once was owing to society having become better educated, expressive and digitally connected. Therefore, the Party decision-making cannot afford to be insulated and ignore the mood of the masses.

The third factor is the level of economic development, since an economically well-off and materially aspirational society is believed to have a low stomach for damage. Given China’s pride in its economic achievements and with the large middle class having tasted a certain quality of life, it can be expected to be risk-averse and have a low damage tolerance level.

Fourthly, the damage threshold varies depending on the value a country places on the objective it seeks. The more a country is politically, economically and emotionally invested in the objective, the greater its willingness to bear damage. For instance, in case of a conflict over Taiwan, which China considers an existential threat, its threshold of damage is likely to be higher than in case of conflict in high Himalayas or over areas disputed with India.

Lastly, the nature of the leadership can push the threshold up or down, such that highly nationalist leaders, willing to take risks, have a higher damage absorption capacity. President Xi Jinping does appear to be more risk-loving than others. But, as the leader of a 90-million strong Party, even he cannot be averse to opinions of others. In fact, given the “China dream” that he has sold to his citizens, he has a larger “face” to defend too. And, any act that results in damage to his people can be perceived as his inability to control the situation and dent his image.

Contemporary China, therefore, appears to have a far lower threshold for taking damage than it once projected. This is further illustrated by the manner in which it sought to hide figures of the dead, both from the pandemic, as well as from the clash with Indian soldiers in Galwan valley. While non-transparency, and a tendency to play down losses, has always been a Chinese trait, this propensity is exacerbated by factors, such as its current demographic reality. The harsh imposition of one child policy has led to a situation where a young male bears responsibility for a number of aged family members. His untimely death, then, adversely impacts the wider society and popular sentiment. This is an even greater problem since the society is today better networked over digital platforms.

These, and more such insights, should help India to calculate the “right” size of its nuclear arsenal in order to signal credible deterrence. India has articulated the idea of credible minimum deterrence, which eschews excessive stockpile accumulation in favour of building just enough to cause unacceptable damage. And, as is apparent, contemporary China’s ability to absorb damage does not need much.

Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies.

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