It’s tempting to dismiss the story in Monday’s Wall Street Journal suggesting that China may have around 3,000 nuclear warheads as the kind of reporting that could only be considered ‘fair and balanced’ on Fox News, and so just ignore it. After all, as long ago as 2004, Jeffrey Lewis tracked down the origin of media reports cited by the Journal that China has 2,350 nuclear weapons. Embarrassingly, the source is an online essay based on bogus US intelligence information that was posted by a Singapore University student.
Moreover, it hardly seems worth wasting time explaining why it’s invalid to estimate the size of China’s contemporary arsenal by taking a 1960s US intelligence report that predicted how many warheads China would have in 1973, and then assuming that it has built up at a constant rate since then. What does make the article worth engaging with, however, is its inability to even try to understand China’s strategic challenges, and why it might go to some fairly extreme lengths to try to solve them.
The purpose of the Journal article is to raise awareness of China’s nuclear modernization and the ‘immense strategic leverage’ it would supposedly give China in a war. Now, I certainly don’t claim to know why China is modernizing its nuclear force. China’s modernization may be offensively orientated. Perhaps Beijing really does wish to change the status quo in its favour by force of nuclear arms. The ‘facts’ collected by the Journal, however, provide no evidence—for or against—these propositions.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The article focuses on the vast network of underground tunnels, the ‘Underground Great Wall,’ which China has built to protect its nuclear forces. ‘For decades,’ writes Bret Stephens in that knowing tone adopted by the Journal’s finest, ‘nuclear experts have understood that the key to “winning” a nuclear exchange is to have an effective second-strike capability, which in turn requires both a sizable and survivable force.’
Wrong. A survivable second-strike capability is the key to not losing a nuclear exchange. It ensures that an adversary can’t disarm you and then use nuclear threats to bend you to his will. Even if China had 3,000 warheads all mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles—which it doesn’t—it could still not disarm the United States. Apart from the inability of inaccurate Chinese missile to destroy hardened American silos, the four or more US submarines (each of which is armed with about 100 warheads) that are at sea at any given time ensure the invulnerability of the US deterrent.
By contrast, China does have reasonable grounds to fear that the United States is seeking a war-winning nuclear capability. The United States deploys something just shy of 2,000 strategic warheads, with more in reserve. Its delivery systems are exquisitely accurate. It’s developing conventional weapons designed to hunt down mobile missiles. And, on top of that, Washington has consistently refused requests from Beijing to explicitly state that the United States isn’t seeking the ability to eliminate China’s nuclear forces.