China: the forgotten nuclear power no more

New evidence has surfaced that China may be expanding its nuclear arsenal – much more, and much faster than previously assumed.

Experts from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation obtained satellite images showing work underway on the construction of more than 100 new missile silos near Yumen.

The evidence, which dropped June 30, has since focused the minds of US national security experts – as might have been expected given Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s description of China as America’s “pacing challenge.”

The discussion is still fluid, but two interpretations are emerging. One offers that China is reacting to US actions and that Washington should pursue arms control with Beijing – negotiate to get both sides to limit their forces and avoid an arms race.

The other interpretation holds that the new discovery means that there is a nuclear dimension to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s promise that China will have “the dominant position” in the world by 2049, and that Washington should double down on deterrence, including by fully modernizing its nuclear arsenal and more.

Yet neither negotiating arms control nor strengthening deterrence is a straightforward solution – nor are the two necessarily mutually exclusive. The Chinese nuclear arsenal, like other facets of Chinese power, is going to be an enduring problem for the United States.

As Admiral John Aquilino, the new Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, put it during his confirmation hearing earlier this year: “China is a long-term challenge that must be ‘managed’ rather than ‘solved.’”

The arms control response

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of US-China strategic relations is aware that the United States is a major driver of China’s nuclear modernization program. Beijing is concerned by Washington’s nuclear superiority and its improved ability to find and destroy Chinese forces, or to intercept them with missile defenses.

China, plainly, fears that the United States might become capable of putting it in checkmate, achieving what Chinese diplomats call “absolute security.”

To solve that problem, Beijing has been expanding and perfecting its arsenal. In addition to building more nuclear weapons, it is investing in road-mobile missiles and sea-based platforms because these systems make it more difficult for Washington to target its forces, and it is adding multiple independent re-entry vehicles to its missiles to penetrate US missile defenses.

Of late, Beijing also seems to have embraced tactical nuclear use and nuclear warfighting options. In unofficial dialogs, Chinese strategists make clear that China’s modernization program is directed at the United States and, by extension, its allies.

Countering the United States and its allies is not the sole driver, however. In private discussions, Chinese strategists confess that Beijing is increasingly motivated by nuclear developments in India. As one such strategist explained: “Beijing now regards India as a deterrence problem, not as a proliferation problem.”

Chinese strategists are less forthcoming when asked whether Beijing considers Russia when it does defense planning, but some admit it is a factor.