For a long time, China has followed the maxim that it “will not fire the first shot”. It seems that China attaches great importance to “shooting” and even greater importance to “shooting first”. As early as the 1960s, China put forward the precept of “no first use of nuclear weapons”, which was directed at other nuclear-weapon States. For all non-nuclear-weapon States in the world, China has maintained its commitment not to use nuclear weapons against them “at any time and under any circumstances”.
It would be immoral (and possibly even criminal) to shoot first, so in order to be ethical/legal, China has pledged not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. Recently, there has been a heightening of this (doctrine of) self-restraint, with some scholars calling for “no firing of the first shot” in a non-nuclear weapons context as well. For example, some people have advocated “no firing of the first shot” in the backdrop of the current confrontation between China and India in the Sino-Indian border region, which is clearly an example of self-restraint in the context of conventional armed conflict. Similar voices have been heard in the context of other disputes over sovereignty and rights in our neighbourhood, such as those in the East and South China Seas.
One has to ask, what is the purpose of ownership of a gun? Obviously to protect one’s interests. What kind of interest ? It has to be a legitimate interest, obviously. What, then, is the core interest among myriad interests? According to the White Paper on China’s Peaceful Development published by the Information Office of China’s State Council in 2011, China’s core interests are six: national sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity, national reunification, the national political system established by China’s Constitution and general social stability, as well as basic assurance of sustainable economic and social development.
It is understandable that people want to safeguard the country’s core interests by peaceful means. However, since one speaks of protecting one’s core interests by not firing the first shot, it already implies that in a situation of the first shot being fired (by someone else), one will surely fire back. That means admitting that the purpose of having a gun is to fire under certain conditions. On the premise of protecting China’s core national interests, then, conditions have to apply on (the maxim of) not firing the first shot.
China’s first core national interest is “national sovereignty”. Just imagine, when foreign military aircraft carry out military reconnaissance operations in China’s airspace and do not change their behaviour, thus violating China’s sovereignty blatantly, is it still necessary for China to insist on not firing the first shot in order for ensuring the safety of the foreign crew members’ lives?
China’s second core national interest is “national security”. Just imagine, when a certain country(ies) or internal or external forces promote a policy of State terrorism/drug trafficking against China, and when China obtains sufficient evidence to fully prove that its national security is seriously threatened, is it still necessary to insist on not firing the first shot? Because that may encourage impunity in criminal institutions and individuals. There is another case: do we need to insist on no-first-use nuclear weapons when China’s nuclear weapons are exposed to a precision attack by an enemy non-nuclear-weapon State? In the event of a grievous loss of its (own) nuclear weapons, must China limit its retaliation against the enemy to reciprocal conventional force simply because the other side has only launched a conventional attack?
China’s third core national interest is “territorial integrity”. Just imagine, when the Japanese army entrenched in the North-East promoted the “independence” of the North-East and set up the so-called “Manchukuo”, the North-East Chinese army insisted on not firing the first shot and thus watched the country’s territory being lost. Can China today tolerate a repeat of that national humiliation? Of course not. The reason why that is not going to be possible in today’s China is that we are bound to resolutely resist any foreign invading army.
China’s fourth core national interest is “national reunification”. Taiwan is a part of Chinese territory that has not yet been reunited with the mainland. The Chinese mainland has done its utmost to promote peaceful reunification, but it will never give up the right to achieving reunification by non-peaceful means. In the face of the increasingly rampant forces of “Taiwan independence” and the increasingly obvious factors of interference from outside, the possibility of achieving reunification by non-peaceful means is bound to increase. According to the Anti-Secession Law promulgated by China in 2005, “‘if the Taiwan independence secessionist forces, in whatever name and by whatever means, cause Taiwan to secede from China, or if a major event occurs that will cause Taiwan to secede from China, or if the possibility of peaceful reunification is completely lost, the State may adopt non-peaceful and other non-peaceful means to achieve reunification as a necessary measure for defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Non-peaceful means may not necessarily mean war, but may well be war. In a war of national unification against secession, the (Chinese) mainland does not rule out the possibility of firing the first shot.
China’s fifth core national interest is “the stability of the national political system and the general social situation established by the Chinese Constitution.” In the face of challenges from internal and external hostile forces aimed at overthrowing the Chinese system and causing serious social unrest, China’s Constitution does not rule out the option of firing the first shot, both externally and internally. Of course, (the course of) actively resolving various contradictions and trying to mitigate various conflict factors can test our governance ability. However, various hostile forces at home and abroad had better not test the bottom line on the Chinese side.
China’s sixth core national interest is “the basic guarantee of sustainable economic and social development”. Normal international trade and commerce, international cooperation in food and energy, etc., are the basic guarantee for China’s sustainable economic and social development. If someone deliberately does not want the Chinese to have a good life, there will be serious consequences. For example, in the face of the pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden, the Chinese navy has long sent formations to escort the ships, so that the merchant ships of various countries on the route are safe. For those pirates who seek to kill people, Chinese soldiers have long since fired the first shot, although the gun is raised an inch higher.
Not firing the first shot was never (meant to be) an absolute and it is important to avoid turning it into a dogma. Nor has the United Nations ever forbidden firing first under any circumstances. Rather it has established that a preemptive strike can be legally made in the face of evidence that a country faces an imminent threat. Of course, the U.S. military action against Iraq in 2003 did not fit this bill, as the U.S. did not face an “imminent” threat from Iraq at that time.
I suggest that in the future, based on the UN norms on the legality of firing, as well as China’s consideration of protecting its core national interests and regional stability and world peace, China could project that it will exercise maximum restraint towards (the objective of) not firing the first shot, but can not guarantee no firing first. That would be a most ethical and law-abiding approach.
(The author is a Professor at Fudan University)