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China’s nuclear build-up: The great distraction

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President Biden is reviewing America’s nuclear posture. By January, we should know what he thinks about U.S. nuclear weapons, what policies should govern them and how many we need. Congress is watching closely, and the Senate and House of Representatives are sure to debate the results; they always do. 

But this year will be different. A new player has entered the field — China. 

China is modernizing its nuclear forces. The recent discovery of three intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silo fields in remote regions west and north of Beijing point to a big build-up of weapons and a different strategy for their use. Since acquiring nuclear weapons from the Soviets, the Chinese have taken the stance that they would not build up a large and highly alert force but instead would be ready to retaliate. This “second strike deterrence posture” has served them well, but now the Chinese seem to have decided it is not enough. 

Which is why it is urgent that the Biden administration (and the Kremlin) get them to the table to ask them. Chinese nuclear force posture and strategy should be an equal concern in Washington and Moscow.

We can ask the Chinese separately, or together, but ask them we should. All three countries might even agree to take some early steps, such as exchanging deployment plans and information about nuclear doctrine. Such confidence-building measures would build mutual predictability and may stave off a nuclear arms race. 

Most importantly, we must not panic. Even if the Chinese deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles in each of their new silos, the U.S. will still have a large and capable nuclear force structure and many more nuclear warheads. Some authorities have predicted that the Chinese may be able to quadruple their warhead numbers in coming years. If one goes by the Stockholm Peace Research estimate of 350 Chinese warheads, then China would end up with 1,400 total warheads. That compares with over 4,000 warheads available for deployment in both the United States and Russia. We need to keep a sharp eye on what they are doing but not rush into making rash changes in our own nuclear forces. 

China may be a rising nuclear power, but its bigger agenda is building up its science and technology prowess. And this is where we need to focus as a competitor. We should ask ourselves: What is in the long-term U.S. national security interest? Where can we best spend our national treasure to ensure our future defense? Our defense budget funds are finite; we have to balance how best to spend them.

The focus should be not on nuclear weapons but on the new and emerging technologies that are rapidly maturing into military assets. Innovations in artificial intelligence, big data analysis, quantum computing and quantum sensing and biotechnology are where future defense capacity is being born. 

The Chinese have sworn to beat us at acquiring and exploiting every one of them. Their China 2025 and 2050 plans are designed to ensure that China will dominate the science and technology space at mid-century.

The United States needs to do everything it can to disrupt this Chinese rush to technological superiority. But we cannot do so if we let 100 ICBM silos distract us. These 70-year-old weapon systems have nothing to do with the future capabilities we must deploy if we are to maintain our national defense.

To achieve that goal, we must push the frontiers of science and innovation and prevent Chinese dominance. The U.S. has the talent and the institutions to do so — as long as we spend our resources wisely. 

But we are moving in the wrong direction. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), between 2000 and 2017, the share of basic research funded by the federal government declined from 58 percent to 42 percent. Other NSF indicators, such as the number of patents granted, also show a decline in U.S. performance.

Putting more resources into science and innovation does not mean that we should fail to modernize our nuclear forces. The program of record for nuclear modernization first put in place by President Obama continued to develop momentum during the Trump presidency as we began to exchange new weapons systems for old.

Some of them, such the Ohio-class submarines, are nearly 50 years old. They need to be replaced with new, quieter and more capable nuclear-armed submarines. It is still true that, for as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States must maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal.

But let us not let the Chinese push us into pouring our national treasure into nuclear weapons that we do not need. They will continue to go for broke to dominate science and technology achievement in this century, and this is where our attention needs to be.

We must keep a sharp eye on China’s nuclear deployments. But we have a long head start on them and can ensure that they do not surprise us in the nuclear space. If we fail to stay focused, we may find one day that they have achieved strategic superiority with entirely new military systems that we can neither defend against nor match.

Rose Gottemoeller is the Steven C. Házy Lecturer at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and its Center for International Security and Cooperation and the author of “Negotiating the New START Treaty.”

Tags Barack Obama China ICBM Joe Biden Made in China 2025 NATO Nuclear arms race Nuclear disarmament Nuclear strategy Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons Russia

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