Features | Security | East Asia

China’s Nuclear Option

Chinese policymakers say the country’s rapidly modernizing nuclear force is nothing to fear. They could do more to prove it.

Writing in the Liberation Army Daily, a prominent Chinese military newspaper, retired Maj. Gen. Xu Guangyu argued that China needed a limited nuclear force capable of surviving and retaliating against a first strike by any adversary. The article marked another effort by the Chinese leadership to display greater openness in its nuclear declaratory policy, and reinforces other statements and indications that China has adopted a ‘second-strike’ nuclear policy based on a minimal deterrent.

Yet, these and similar statements still might not be enough to overcome the reluctance of some US and Russian officials to reduce their countries’ nuclear forces much further without greater evidence that China will join the nuclear disarmament process.

Unlike the United States and Russia, the Chinese government has yet to adopt legally binding limits on its nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. Beijing’s nuclear policies are an important component of the global and regional balance of power and China is both a rising international power and the only acknowledged nuclear weapons state in East Asia. Constraining China’s nuclear build-up is a prerequisite for achieving further global nuclear arms control and for reassuring China’s anxious neighbours.

In terms of capabilities, Xu argued that Beijing sought a nuclear arsenal that ‘is able, should a foe launch an initial nuclear strike, to really possess, and to convince the other side that it faces, an intolerable second-strike nuclear capability, thereby deterring an enemy from using nuclear weapons against us.’ Xu, currently a researcher in the government-run China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, explained that his country’s nuclear capabilities ‘must make them grasp, without the least ambiguity, that we possess a deterrent.’

But although China appears to be modernizing its nuclear forces more rapidly than any of the five established nuclear weapons states, Xu sought to downplay foreign concerns, arguing that, ‘The most basic feature of China’s nuclear strategy, in a nutshell, is to be a deterrent but present no threat.’ Xu later told Reuters that his commentary intentionally sought to overcome concerns in India, Japan, and the United States about China’s nuclear modernization program.

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released by the Obama administration earlier this month stated ‘the United States and China’s Asian neighbours remain concerned about the pace and scope of China’s current military modernization efforts, including its quantitative and qualitative modernization of its nuclear capabilities….the lack of transparency surrounding its programs—their pace and scope as well as the strategy and doctrine guiding them—raises questions about China’s future strategic intentions.’

To overcome these apprehensions, and related unease about Russia’s nuclear programs, the NPR affirms that ‘the United States will pursue high-level, bilateral dialogues on strategic stability with both Russia and China which are aimed at fostering more stable, resilient, and transparent strategic relationships.’

According to the document, ‘With China, the purpose of a dialogue on strategic stability is to provide a venue and mechanism for each side to communicate its views about the other’s strategies, policies, and programs on nuclear weapons and other strategic capabilities. The goal of such a dialogue is to enhance confidence, improve transparency, and reduce mistrust.’

In addition, the NPR also states US intent to at some point involve China in the nuclear arms control negotiations, which have hitherto involved only the United States and Russia: ‘Over time, we will also engage with other nuclear weapon states, including China, on ways to expand the nuclear reduction process in the future. This process should include efforts to improve transparency of states’ nuclear policies, strategies, and programs.’

In its declaratory policy, the Chinese government has offered a comprehensive no-first-use pledge to all countries. In 1994, it submitted a draft Treaty on the No-First-Use of Nuclear Weapons at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament. In his address to the Conference last April, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called on the other nuclear weapons states to follow China’s example and announce blanket no-nuclear-first-use doctrines (‘we will not be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances’) and negative nuclear security assurances (‘we will unconditionally not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones’).

In his article, Xu also repeated the longstanding stance that China would never use nuclear weapons first. The Obama administration for its part committed the United States in the NPR not to employ US nuclear forces against any country that did not possess nuclear weapons and that adhered to its nuclear non-proliferation obligations. China, however, does not fall into this exclusion category.

The United States and Russia still possess approximately ten times as many deployed strategic nuclear warheads as China—whose totals approximate those of Britain or France, the other nuclear weapons states officially recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Although China doesn’t appear to be designing new types of nuclear weapons, it is improving the means it uses to carry them to their intended targets.

China has thus far focused its resources on developing shorter-range nuclear forces capable of attacking targets in Japan, Taiwan, India, and eastern Russia, rather than intercontinental-range missiles and bombers. Xu’s commentary suggested that Beijing intended to field more of such strategic systems in coming years. He said that, ‘International experience shows the most effective second-strike capability is submarines.’ For that reason, Xu explained, SSBNs ‘and the upgraded missiles are a focus’ of the PRC’s current nuclear modernization drive.

Past Chinese efforts at developing submarines capable of launching long-range ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads have been largely unsuccessful—China’s sole, trouble-plagued Xia-class strategic submarine no longer appears operational. Instead, the Chinese Navy is deploying a next-generation ‘Jin-class’ strategic submarine that seems more capable. Furthermore, China is converting its liquid-fuel long-range ballistic missiles to ones that employ solid fuel, which are less vulnerable to a pre-emptive attack that would destroy them before launch. In general, solid-fuelled missiles are easier to maintain and can store their fuel inside the rocket, whereas liquid-fuelled missiles are more fragile and require a lengthy time to load their fuel, which is highly toxic. If they aren’t launched within a short time, their fuel must be removed and stored in special facilities.

But although the United States and Russia still have much larger nuclear forces than China, Washington and Moscow will find it difficult to reduce their arsenals considerably further unless Beijing restrains its nuclear modernization. Otherwise, US and Russian strategists would fear that China could exploit Russian-American nuclear reductions to strengthen its own nuclear forces in an effort to become an equivalent nuclear power.

Fears about Beijing’s ambitions have worried US and Japanese policy makers concerned about sustaining the credibility of the US extended nuclear deterrence guarantee to protect Japan against Chinese aggression. In the past, American pledges to defend Japan against a nuclear attack from China or North Korea have been a major, perhaps decisive, factor in dissuading Tokyo, which has advanced civilian nuclear capabilities, from developing its own nuclear weapons. A Chinese nuclear surge, even if it didn’t achieve absolute nuclear parity with the United States, would risk undermining Japanese faith in the credibility of US deterrence commitments.

Chinese government representatives deny that they would exploit the opportunity provided by further reductions in the size of the Russian and US nuclear arsenals to ‘sprint to parity.’  Yet, they have never formally affirmed a readiness to join the strategic nuclear arms negotiations once the Russian and American arsenals reached China’s lower level.

In his April 2009 speech in Geneva, Yang declined to commit China to joining international strategic arms reductions negotiations, at best suggesting that Beijing would consider eliminating its own nuclear weapons when everyone destroyed theirs: ‘As countries with the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, the United States and Russia bear special and primary responsibilities in nuclear disarmament. The two countries should continue to drastically reduce their nuclear arsenals so as to create necessary conditions for the eventual complete and thorough nuclear disarmament.’ Like Xu, Yang argued that China had ‘developed limited nuclear capabilities’ only ‘for the purpose of self-defence’ and had never deployed its nuclear forces in foreign countries or participated in a nuclear arms race.

Chinese analysts have tended to disparage previous Russian and American steps to decrease the size of their nuclear holdings. As in past cases, the signing earlier this month of the New START Treaty, which will require further cuts in the size of the Russian and US stockpiles of nuclear warheads and their delivery vehicles, has failed to entice Beijing into joining international strategic arms control negotiations. Indeed, Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, a scholar at China’s National Defense University, observed that, ‘Although there have been major reductions, their symbolic significance far surpasses their practical significance.’

But Chinese policymakers should realize they could see more progress in Russian-American arms reductions if Beijing would participate in the process. Securing a more binding commitment from the Chinese government than simple declarations of intent to restrain the country’s nuclear forces is essential for reassuring Washington and Moscow that further reducing their nuclear arsenals won’t risk undermining global and regional stability.

Richard Weitz writes a weekly column for The Diplomat on Asian defence and security. He is a senior fellow and director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis.