Enter the Dragon. With nukes. China is hugely expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal and appears to be changing its defence posture from only retaliating after absorbing a first strike to ‘launch on warning’ if it believes it is being attacked. It means the nuclear arms race now has Chinese characteristics and the world will be a more dangerous place.
Given the insane logic of MAD (mutually assured destruction) the Chinese move makes sense. Since it became a nuclear armed power in 1964 it has stuck to a policy of ‘minimum deterrence’ pledging not to build any more nuclear weapons than required to retaliate if attacked.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) estimates that China has never had more than about 350 warheads, well below the 4,000 or so in the American and Russian stockpiles. The People’s Republic says it would never strike first and has always kept most of its weapons on low alert, often storing the warheads separately from their launch pads. This is now changing.
The rationale behind Beijing’s move goes back to 2002 and the Bush Administration’s scrapping of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between Russia and the USA. Part of the text underpinned MAD by limiting each side’s missile defences, thus ensuring each could retaliate if attacked. Freed from this constraint, Washington has spent billions of dollars building a stateof- the-art missiles defence system.
China fears that if it attacked with nuclear weapons, American defences are now so good that it’s possible none of its retaliatory intercontinental ballistic missiles could break through. However, significantly increase your number of warheads, and you significantly increase the chances of many of them surviving a first strike and then being able to effectively retaliate.
This explains the construction of an 800-square-kilometre field in the desert near Hami in Xinjiang province in which, experts say, China is building more than 200 missile silos. The site was revealed by Matt Korda of FAS last month. He and colleague Hans Kristensen believe it is the ‘most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever’ and that China is building 10 times as many silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles as it has now. Korda’s discovery followed another earlier this year showing the construction of 120 missile silos near Yumen in Gansu province. The work at Hami and Yumen could result in China having around 800 warheads.
The escalation in Chinese nuclear capability will have serious implications. India, which has clashed with China along their joint border, is likely to follow suit and add to its stockpile of approximately 160 warheads. This in turn would lead Pakistan to increase its number above the 180 warheads it is currently thought to possess.
The Americans and Russians might be tempted to conclude that instead of trying to reduce their arsenals – they should increase them. Moscow currently has cordial relations with Beijing, but as we saw during the Cold War, that can change quickly.
Washington has been trying to engage China on the nuclear issue for two decades but without success. The Trump and Biden Administrations have both asked China to join the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (New START) which the USA holds with Russia. The Chinese always refuse. Their position was spelled out last year by Fu Cong, director-general of the Department of Arms Control of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, who said ‘Given the huge gap between the nuclear arsenal of China and those of US and Russia, it is unrealistic to expect China to join the two countries in a negotiation aimed at nuclear arms reduction’.
Earlier this month US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and expressed his ‘deep concern about the rapid growth of China’s nuclear weapons’ saying that Beijing had ‘deviated significantly from its nuclear strategy decades ago based on minimal deterrence’.
Such talk cuts little ice with China now that it is a superpower. If the Americans are going to draw Beijing into an arms control dialogue it will have to deal with it as an equal. It will also have to demonstrate good will and give hints about what it is willing to trade in return for China agreeing to step back from the arms race.