The Chinese political leadership took the decision to embark on a programme to develop an independent strategic nuclear deterrence in the mid-1950s. The decision came as the result of painful lessons through the country’s confrontations with the nuclear-armed United States. During the 1950s Korean War, U.S. military planners repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapon against Chinese and North Korean forces. In the subsequent Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954-55, the Pentagon again recommended the use of nuclear weapons to stop a possible Chinese invasion of the Taiwan Island. In both occasions Moscow refused to offer its nuclear guarantee. The Chinese leadership concluded that only an independent nuclear capability could deter ‘nuclear blackmail’ against the country.
In October 1954, during his first visit to China after becoming the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev was told by Chinese leader that the country was considering developing its own nuclear programme. Khrushchev politely declined China’s request for assistance on nuclear weapons, but agreed to offer help with the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
In Spring 1956, the Chinese leadership called for a “March to Modern Science and Technology”, a national campaign to advance the country’s scientific and technological capabilities. Under the instructions of Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, the State Council established the Science Planning Commission with the task to draw up China’s first long-term R&D blueprint — the 12-Year Programme for Scientific and Technological Development (1956-1967). The plan, drafted by 800 Chinese scientists and Soviet advisers over six months, covered 616 research projects in 57 key areas of science and technology, including nuclear and modern jet (rocket) propulsion technology.
While China’s nuclear weapon research was still in theoretical study stage, the Chinese leadership already began to consider the nuclear delivery system. China’s obsolete aviation industry was incapable of producing modern bomber aircraft that could penetrate enemy air defence for nuclear strike. As a result, Chinese military planners followed the Soviet route to choose the ballistic missile as the means to deliver nuclear weapon. During his meeting with the Soviet chief military adviser in China on 12 January 1956, Chinese defence minister General Peng Dehuai revealed China’s plan to develop military rocketry technology and requested Soviet assistance.
In August 1956, Director of the Chinese State Planning Commission, Li Fuchun, wrote to Soviet Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers, Nikolai Bulganin, officially requesting for immediate Soviet assistance in the establishment and development of a Chinese missile programme. Much to the Chinese’s disappointment, a month later Moscow responded by suggesting China to start with educating relevant missile and rocket professionals, before establishing research and development institutions and manufacturing enterprises. Moscow agreed to send Soviet missile professionals to teach in Chinese universities, and accept 50 Chinese students to study missile-related subjects in Soviet universities.