With the relative unimportance of the old-school conflict between the forces of Light and Dark after the Cold War ended, strategic thinking - the mind-games of how nuclear deterrence needed to work, of what role nuclear weapons play in strategic planning, of what the basis should be for war-fighting capabilities, etc - basically disappeared from the view screen.
Well, it's back.
But with a dearly ironic difference.
Read this to see what I mean.
Back in the day NATO was faced with a potential foe - who made it quite clear in their own writings and actions that they considered war, if not inevitable, to be a clear part of the spectrum of political tools at their service. The Soviet Union and the delightfully named Warsaw Pact - delightfully so named because the shorthand became "WarPact" - were belligerent and not above shooting to kill when warning shots were perfectly adequate. Their doctrine - we now know this as a fact, while back in the day it was considered to be an extremist interpretation - was massive use of nuclear weapons to cripple NATO while sending in very large conventional forces to achieve quick victories at extreme cost to civilian populations. When it became clear that NATO could survive and that such a doctrine would be counter-productive at best, the move went to massive conventional forces to achieve "proper correlation of forces" to achieve needed battlefield superiority to be able to defeat NATO divisions in detail. The creation of Operational Maneuver Groups (OMG!) to break through the crust defense of NATO was the final strategic plan of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
NATO at first designed its forces as tripwires that would then result in nuclear strikes on WarPact forces entering NATO territories. When certain key countries realized that it would be political suicide if it became public knowledge that NATO's war fighting strategy was massive use of tactical nuclear weapons to destroy WarPact forces, this strategy had to change. While the WarPact chose to use its comparative advantages - large conscript armies coupled with products from heavy industry (tanks, artillery) - NATO chose to counter this with technology, developing extremely effective anti-tank weapons (the Soviets despaired of facing attack helicopters armed with TOW missiles) and long-reach weapons designed to dismantle the ability of the WarPact to actually wage war by crippling their logistics.
We know how this ended: the WarPact collapsed because they devoted too much of their less productive economic output to feeding the military with troops, weapons and logistics and ended up bankrupting their system long before anyone thought that their State would wither away. The NATO plan worked: substituting technology for mass led to the modern US war-fighting doctrine, of relatively small and mobile forces appearing at exactly the right place and the right time with the right weapons to destroy their enemies with minimal casualties, combining technology and information with war-fighting capabilities fine-tuned to achieving the goal of winning the battle with minimum casualties.
So, what does this have to do with China?
China sees itself confronted with a potential foe - who makes it quite clear in their own writings and actions that the deliberate use of force to resolve political confrontations is part and parcel of the spectrum of political tools at their service - that has overwhelming conventional superiority.
Now that's ironic.
Read the story at the link: China is saying, moving from a long-term no-first-use commitment to "we're going to nuke your fleet if you attack us" doctrine of nuclear weapons. They are deliberately lowering the nuclear threshold in order to avoid having to try to match their potential opponent in terms of conventional forces: back in the day, such a doctrine for NATO generated massive bad publicity and quite a bit of opposition (in no small part financed by the WarPact, but that is another story for another day) that ultimately led to the development of conventional weapons to do what nuclear weapons were to be used for.
Lowering the nuclear threshold becomes very, very dangerous when conflict looms: it really does imply that even a small attack will bring Armageddon, that there could be no doctrine of "limited war," that escalation to using nuclear weapons would be fast and unavoidable. If that is your policy, then you have to implement strategic planning that matches that policy (otherwise it is non-believable and invites provocation, since your opponent does not see you backing up your public statements with weapon systems).
Of course, what it does is lower the nuclear threshold and raise the specter of a nuclear war actually being fought, as once they are in use, there is little or no likelihood that the other side will not use them as well. What was a conventional war with lousy consequences for civilians becomes a nuclear war with absolutely devestating consequences for civilians.
The world is not going to be a safer place if this becomes really is becoming Chinese nuclear doctrine. That is the fundamental line that "peace movements" used to try to discredit NATO war fighting plans and doctrines, that these would make the risk of war greater, rather than less.
How ironic, don't you think?
It looks like we are heading back to the good old bad days of nuclear war-fighting doctrines.