Press Release

China’s Nuclear Arms Posture Examined in New Book from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – In October 1964, China simultaneously announced the success of its first nuclear test and pledged to the international community that it would never be the first country to use nuclear weapons. For more than 40 years, this “no-first-use” doctrine has guided China’s nuclear policy, resulting in a nuclear arsenal much smaller than those of the world’s four other major nuclear powers.

Yet United States military policy to develop and deploy space-based missile defense systems threatens China’s confidence in its ability to deter a nuclear attack, argues arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis in a new book from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age documents the history, development and principles behind China’s nuclear policy, and discusses China’s concerns about U.S. defense policy. Although internal factors continue to drive China’s decisions about its nuclear forces, Lewis suggests that the United States is passing up an opportunity to reassure Chinese leaders in favor of preparations for the preemptive use of nuclear weapons that Chinese leaders will find increasingly difficult to ignore.

Lewis reasons that while a major buildup of strategic forces in China is possible, China is more likely to acquire asymmetric means of hampering U.S. preemptive capabilities. These means may include countermeasures to defeat U.S. missile defenses, such as anti-satellite weapons, which China successfully tested earlier this year. Lewis argues that China’s longstanding policy of maintaining the minimum nuclear force necessary to deter attack is “fundamentally in the interest of the United States,” and that U.S. policymakers should, among other measures, commit to a bilateral no-first-use pledge rather than to space-based weapons and defense systems that undermine China’s security.

The Minimum Means of Reprisal is part of the American Academy’s Reconsidering the Rules of Space project, which is directed by the Academy’s Committee on International Security Studies. The project convenes experts from diverse fields to propose an international framework for the future use of space – commercial, scientific, and military. Other papers consider the physical laws governing the pursuit of security in space, United States space policy, Chinese and Russian perspectives on U.S. space plans, and the possible elements of a more comprehensive space security system. The project is supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. More information about the project and about the Committee on International Security Studies is available online, at

Jeffrey Lewis is Director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, post-partisan, public policy institute in Washington, D.C. He is a research affiliate with and former executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University. Lewis is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He created and maintains the leading blog on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation,

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. Current Academy research focuses on science and global security; social policy; the humanities and culture; and education. With headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Academy’s work is advanced by its 4,600 elected members, who are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business and public affairs from around the world. (




Reconsidering the Rules of Space

John David Steinbruner