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China’s Nuclear Option (Page 2 of 3)

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.’

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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.

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