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China’s nuclear developments reflect its growing ambition

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Discerning China’s ambition in the international arena is difficult because there are few empirical clues. Publicly available evidence is often alarming — particularly in the nuclear realm, given considerable advances in the Chinese nuclear arsenal. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has made improvements in the capability of its nuclear arsenal and in its growing strategic and intermediate nuclear systems. 

Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), has termed the recent growth of China’s nuclear weapons “the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in China’s history.” This was echoed by Adm. David Kriete, the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, who stated, “China is, and has been for the last couple of decades, on a very clear trajectory where they’re increasing the numbers of nuclear weapons that they field, they’re increasing the number and diversity of the delivery systems,” and will be “expanding its nuclear weapons production capabilities.”  

The PRC’s modern, strategic force supports a warfighting military posture and could target the entirety of U.S. military capability. This is a stark development, which stands in contrast to the historical role of Chinese nuclear forces primarily for retaliating against an opponent’s cities. The military parade on Oct. 1, 2019 — the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC — debuted the DF-41 solid-fueled, road-mobile ICBM, the DF-100/CJ-100 supersonic cruise missile, and the DF-17 with its hypersonic glide vehicle. Additionally, the PRC is modernizing its bomber force, historically the most neglected aspect of China’s nuclear forces. 

Estimates of the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal vary considerably, from fewer than 300 warheads to a significantly larger number, because China refuses to be transparent about its nuclear forces. What we do know is that the arsenal is growing rapidly. According to Rear Adm. Michael Brookes, director of intelligence for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, it has doubled in the past decade — and is on a trajectory to double yet again in the next decade.

This nuclear expansion has allowed China to shift from its minimal-deterrent retaliatory posture toward a first-use capability, which likely entails threatening limited nuclear options in a conflict with its enemies. Additionally, Beijing has articulated in its defense strategy the need to use asymmetric and preemptive attacks during high-intensity warfare, as well as the need to link geographically dispersed military forces in joint operations.  

Moreover, China’s renewed interest in developing theater weapons and ballistic missile defense systems has been incorporated into its military posture and has provided it with increasing ability to engage in conflict with its likely foes: India, Japan and the United States. China’s 2019 defense white paper places strong emphasis on political loyalty to the Communist Party and defense of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and recent commentary has emphasized the goal of incorporating Taiwan into its full control, even if by military force.  

China’s goal of transforming its military goes beyond regional interests. It focuses on building a world-class force by mid-21st century, while casting China’s military power in a benign light as a “staunch force for world peace, stability and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.” Equally worrisome, China emphasizes the protection of its overseas interests, including in Africa and Asia, which are clashing increasingly with interests of the U.S. and its allies. This is heightened by the PRC’s construction of military bases near critical maritime choke points (Djibouti, for example) through which key international trade must transit.   

Taking the 2019 white paper at its word compels two logical conclusions. First, Beijing seeks to acquire credible coercive extended nuclear capabilities to support its interests and allies abroad, and thus will continue to expand both the number and quality of its nuclear and conventional capabilities. Second, the U.S. cannot rule out that the PRC may rapidly increase its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems to make a bid for eventual nuclear superiority.

Unfortunately for international peace and the security of its neighbors, China’s determined and dramatic increase of its strategic capabilities, coupled with the lack of transparency about every aspect of its nuclear forces, underscores that its ambitions are not limited and very likely are expansionistic.  

Just as troublesome, China’s rejection of strategic stability and transparency by undertaking the secretive and accelerated growth of its arsenal, while rejecting any participation in arms control agreements, poses direct and deleterious consequences for U.S. security and the security of its allies.  

A final lamentable consequence of China’s nuclear modernization effort, as well as its prominent role in advancing nuclear proliferation, may be that it provokes both Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons themselves, further undermining strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific region. A key component of the necessary response is for the U.S. to have the appropriate conventional, space, missile defense and nuclear capabilities in the region to deter the threat from China while simultaneously reassuring U.S. allies.

Peter Huessy is founder and president of Geo-Strategic Analysis of Potomac, Md.  

Bradley A. Thayer is professor of political science at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”

Tags China and weapons of mass destruction Military strategy Nuclear weapons

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