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Event Information:

  • Mon

    Dr. Fiona Cunningham @NPWG

    5:30 pm - 7:00 pmNSSC Suite (2150 Shattuck Ave, Suite 230)


    China’s Rejection of Tactical Nuclear Weapons in the late Cold War

    After the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict, China never deployed a tactical nuclear weapons capability to halt a Soviet invasion across its northern borders. Existing scholarship on nuclear strategy indicates that nuclear-weapon states deploy tactical nuclear weapons if they face the threat of a stronger military invading their territory. China’s decision not to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to halt a Soviet invasion is therefore frequently attributed to its leaders’ distinctive beliefs that nuclear weapons are not useful on the battlefield. New Chinese-language sources indicate, however, that Chinese leaders gave much more serious consideration to the option of deploying tactical nuclear weapons than is recognized in the existing literature. Further, these sources reveal that Chinese leaders decided not to deploy those weapons for strategic reasons. I offer the most complete account of the Chinese elite decision-making processes and outcomes related to tactical nuclear weapons in the late 1970s and early 1980s, drawing on new primary and secondary sources. Deng Xiaoping personally supported the initiation of a research and development program for a neutron bomb in 1978. That year, Chinese leaders also canceled an air-launched tactical nuclear weapons program and were developing short-range ballistic missiles that could have been used as nuclear delivery systems. By the early 1980s, however, Chinese leaders decided to rely on conventional military options, rather than tactical nuclear weapons, for halting a future Soviet invasion. These findings have implications for China’s views of the role of non-strategic nuclear weapons in its nuclear relationship with the United States today.

    Fiona Cunningham is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. She received her PhD in 2018 from the Department of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she was a member of the Security Studies Program. Her dissertation explained China’s development of space, cyber and conventional missile force postures as substitutes for using nuclear weapons to coerce adversaries. Her research is based on extensive fieldwork, including a year-long dissertation research fellowship at the Renmin University of China, Beijing, in 2015-6. She was a Pre-Doctoral Fellow in the Cyber Security Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, in 2017-8. Her research on China's nuclear strategy has been published in the quarterly journal, International Security. Fiona holds a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and International Relations from the University of New South Wales and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Sydney, both with first-class honors. She was a research associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney from 2009 until 2012.

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