China’s Nuclear Build-Up Could Make for a More Dangerous Future

Satellite photos recently obtained by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the Federation of American Scientists, and others appear to show that China is building vast fields of new missile silos in its sparsely populated western region. That has prompted fears that Beijing may be well on its way to possessing a much larger nuclear arsenal than anyone had expected and aspiring to rival the United States and Russia, the two countries that have traditionally dominated the global nuclear order. If this comes to pass, tripolarity will for the first time become the primary feature of that order, with concerning implications for nuclear stability. What’s more, in the current security environment characterized by heightened U.S. competition with both Beijing and Moscow, tripolarity would be especially bad news for Washington.

China first became a nuclear-armed state in the late 1960s, after it successfully tested its first nuclear device in 1964. Against all expectations, however, Beijing stuck to a quite limited nuclear posture thereafter, as Chinese leaders believed that nuclear weapons had limited utility. Their thinking rested on the belief that these weapons served only to prevent coercion and nuclear attack. So, Beijing adhered to an approach that called for possessing the “minimum means of reprisal,” or just enough weapons to provide some retaliatory capacity after suffering a nuclear attack. 

Unlike the two Cold War-era nuclear superpowers, then, Beijing did not integrate nuclear strategy with conventional military strategy or pursue any form of nuclear warfighting. It developed a nuclear force based on missiles rather than gravity bombs, because missiles are more appropriate for counterstrike purposes; did not mate nuclear warheads to missiles in peacetime; pledged not to conduct a nuclear strike before suffering a nuclear attack; and promised not to attack non-nuclear-armed countries. 

The Chinese leadership also wanted to maintain full control over the weapons, an objective easier met by maintaining a small nuclear arsenal and refusing to engage in arms races with the United States and the Soviet Union. Unlike some other nuclear-armed states, Beijing never delegated authority over nuclear strikes to senior military officers. It also gave the Second Artillery Force—the unit of the People’s Liberation Army, now renamed the Rocket Force, that was created in 1966 to control Chinese nuclear weapons—the sole mission of conducting a nuclear counterstrike. 

Starting in the early 2000s, as tensions increased in U.S.-China relations and as the Chinese economy grew rapidly, Beijing began to modernize and grow its nuclear arsenal—albeit at a slow pace. During this period, its stockpile of weapons grew modestly in size while Beijing prioritized qualitative improvement, seemingly to ensure that it kept pace with technological developments in the U.S. and could still mount a retaliatory attack against its main rival. Accordingly, China improved the mobility of its forces to make it difficult for the U.S. to locate and destroy them. It also diversified its platforms, notably by investing in a sea-based deterrent, because submarines are less predictable launch locations; extended the range of its missiles to target the US homeland; and invested in multiple independent reentry vehicles to increase its chances of penetrating U.S. missile defenses.

The silo news now appears to indicate that China may finally be in catch-up mode with the U.S. and Russia, and, therefore, that a new nuclear order characterized by tripolarity could be in the offing.

Yet after Xi Jinping’s ascension to power in 2012, and in the context of mounting tensions with Washington, Beijing ramped up its modernization efforts and began to embrace new missions for its arsenal, including tactical nuclear strikes and nuclear warfighting. It developed and deployed intermediate-range systems like the DF-26, which is a dual system and has what military analysts call “hot swapping” capability, meaning it can rapidly shift between launching nuclear and conventional warheads, in addition to being accurate and having a sufficiently long range to reach Guam, a U.S. territory and key military outpost. Beijing, in other words, seemingly became interested in developing a first-strike capability against U.S. nuclear and conventional forces, as opposed to just possessing retaliatory second-strike options. 

In recent years, reports also surfaced that China was modernizing its nuclear command-and-control systems and conducting exercises to improve force readiness, including by mating warheads to missiles and possibly moving to a posture allowing Beijing to launch a retaliatory strike upon detection of an incoming enemy attack on its territory, known as “launch-on-warning.” Finally, China made no secret of its investments in cyber and space capabilities, and of its adoption of a deterrence posture that relies increasingly on assets from different domains, not just nuclear. Beijing has worked hard to integrate these capabilities, notably through the establishment of a new Strategic Support Force in 2015.

The recent discovery of the new missile silo fields suggests that, in addition to perfecting its technology, China may now also be in the process of massively increasing the size of its arsenal. In hindsight, Xi had suggested that a build-up was coming. Since taking power, he has systematically emphasized the importance of the Rocket Force and, in 2017, as U.S.-China relations became more overtly competitive, he stated that China would have “the dominant position” in the world by 2049. It was not surprising, then, to hear him call for the military to “accelerate the construction of advanced strategic deterrent” capabilities in March, just a few months before the new missile silos were discovered. Behind this decision seems to be the belief that China can only truly dominate its rivals if it comes close to, reaches parity with, or even surpasses American and Russian nuclear stockpiles.

For years, U.S. government officials and experts speculated whether (or when) China would abandon minimum deterrence and build up its nuclear arsenal. In recent years, several analysts have explained that China already de facto transitioned from minimum deterrence to limited deterrence due to the qualitative improvement of its arsenal and the new missions Beijing seemed to have embraced. While some observers have advanced alternative explanations, the silo news now appears to indicate that China may finally be in catch-up mode with the U.S. and Russia, and, therefore, that a new nuclear order characterized by tripolarity could be in the offing.

Such a tripolar order would have many important implications. At the macro level, nuclear instability would likely increase. Scholars have long suggested that triangular interactions between states are generally unstable and prone to conflict. The late international relations professor Martin Wight, for instance, explained that “triangles tend to be mobile figures of shifting alliances and negotiations,” adding that “like duels, [they] are relationships of conflict, and are resolved by war.” Other research has reached similar conclusions. 

Such a tripolar nuclear order would be particularly problematic for the U.S. because it would likely get the short end of the stick. Washington is increasingly competing with both Moscow and Beijing, yet the latter two are expanding and deepening their strategic cooperation to counter the United States. To be sure, Russia and China are not nuclear allies, and that is unlikely to change in the near term, whereas the United States has nuclear alliances with France, the United Kingdom and NATO. Still, a major nuclear build-up by China would almost certainly put the United States in a less advantageous position than today.

It is tempting, in these circumstances, to consider arms control as the solution. Following the extension of the U.S.-Russia New START agreement earlier this year, and in the context of ongoing strategic stability talks between American and Russian diplomats, it is possible to conceptualize various arms control arrangements that would involve China, be they trilateral or multilateral. An alternative could be to jump-start a separate U.S.-China negotiating track. The challenge, however, will be to get Chinese buy-in. Beijing has rejected any form of engagement on nuclear issues, including on crisis management, and so far, neither inducement nor pressure has worked to change its mind. So, unless there is a breakthrough, expect a bumpy, perhaps even dangerous nuclear future.

David Santoro is president and CEO of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum. He is the editor of a new volume, “U.S.-China Nuclear Relations: The Impact of Strategic Triangles (Lynne Rienner, May 2021). Follow him on Twitter @DavidSantoro1.

Miles Pomper is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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