Asia Defense

The US Should Admit Its Vulnerability to Chinese Nuclear Attacks

Acknowledging that MAD is once again at play will make U.S. nuclear deterrence more realistic.

By Ben Rimland for
The US Should Admit Its Vulnerability to Chinese Nuclear Attacks
Credit: U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration

Of all the pieces of Cold War-era jargon that have wormed their way into the cultural zeitgeist, none has been more pervasive (or sobering) than MAD, or mutual assured destruction. The strategic reasoning of MAD is as simple as it is deadly: two adversaries, each with vast numbers of deployed nuclear warheads on high alert, refrain from attacking one another out of fear of unacceptable retaliatory damage. With their adversary’s arsenal secured against even the most overwhelming assault, the reasoning follows, a country’s strategic planners would never engage in a first strike. It was this lethal logic that guided Cold War superpower relations after the development of the “trident” system of three-pronged deployment: bombers, land-based missiles, and submarine-delivered warheads. This dispersion guaranteed warhead survivability and ensured stability between the United States and the USSR, if at the expense of tremendous uncertainty over the performance of early warning systems.

With each superpower maintaining relatively similar numbers of deployed warheads, a delivery trident, and identical alert doctrines, American strategists were clear-eyed about the destabilizing effects of defensive vertical proliferation. Though the development of offensive systems continued, defenses largely sat dormant until the United States began to embrace Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems, and eventually withdrew from the 1972 ABM treaty. Even today, with America’s ABM architecture more fully fleshed out, American defense officials regularly (and frankly) speak of Russia’s arsenal as an existential threat to the United States.

By contrast, the Chinese arsenal had, for years, not approached the alert level or sophistication of the Soviet/Russian stockpile. With a force of around 300 warheads physically separated from their land-based missile systems, the Chinese stockpile has focused on survivability. The PRC government refrained from developing early warning systems and declared a no-first use policy. From the very first test of its nuclear capability in 1964, furthermore, the Chinese nuclear arsenal has been aimed at “protecting the Chinese people” against what the PRC labeled a policy of “U.S. threats to launch a nuclear war.” Coming little more than a decade after the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons against China to turn the tide of the Korean war, this was not simply propagandistic bluster. After the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis, China set about constructing a fearsome conventional force to push back against American regional power, yet largely left both its nuclear doctrine and systems alone. The United States, in response, did not shift its Cold War-era strategy of refusing to admit mutual vulnerability. With the sophistication of American precision munitions and defenses, U.S. policymakers did not want to encourage further Chinese vertical proliferation or goad the Chinese into thinking that they had become peer competitors of the United States.

This strategy has, however, largely backfired. For the first time in decades, China has resumed the technological development of its nuclear arsenal, constructing a road-mobile ICBM with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-Entry Vehicles (MIRV) and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Disturbingly, the People’s Liberation Army has successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), a system that would allow Chinese missiles to defeat American ABM systems. Finally, these technological changes arrive at a time of considerable debate within Chinese policy circles about the wisdom of placing their arsenal on a higher status of alert, with the leader of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (formerly the Second Artillery Corps) emphasizing that a recent visit by President Xi Jinping necessitated the creation of an arsenal “ready to go” in the event of a crisis. When considered together, these doctrinal and technological changes represent a direct strategic threat to the United States, and provide the Chinese with secure-second-strike capability — the insurance that their arsenal will survive any American first strike and, on heightened alert and with HGV technology, be able to effectively penetrate American ABM systems.

In light of these developments, the current American policy of strategic ambiguity is destabilizing at best and foolish at worst. Refusal to declare vulnerability to Chinese missiles only provides fodder for hawks within the PLA and Central Military Commission (CMC) who see further vertical proliferation as the only answer to what they perceive as American strategic jingoism. Though the suggestion that America’s strategic posture in East Asia is aggressive may surprise a U.S. policymaker, the fact remains that the United States has refused to rule out a nuclear first strike against China and maintains its warheads on high alert, ready to be launched in minutes. Given that the United States says the high alert status is not for launch on warning, but “launch under attack,” the result is an inchoate, jumbled “strategy” that does not effectively communicate how and when the United States would deploy its nuclear weapons against China. Half of the power of deterrence is clear communication, and so America’s nuclear deterrence policy against China serves to provoke rather than protect.

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With tensions among China, its neighbors, and the United States at a high, the time is now for America to shift its deterrence policy with regard to China. By declaring mutual vulnerability and slowing the development of ABM systems (which have already proven to be of dubious efficacy), the United States will adopt a clearer, more coherent strategic posture in East Asia, both reassuring allies and deterring adversaries. The adoption of mutual vulnerability will ensure that Chinese policymakers do not see vertical proliferation as the route to mutual respect, and will mitigate the need to adopt a higher alert status. By doing so, America ensures that, unlike the Russian arsenal, the Chinese stockpile does not fall victim to the same sort of early warning snafus that have, on multiple occasions, nearly prompted the Russians to launch their weapons by mistake or miscalculation.

None of this is to say that America should renege or capitulate on its core interests in East Asia. The United States should continue to press for greater integration and interoperability among its East Asian allies, with the goal of widespread participation in freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) to push back forcefully against repeated Chinese aggression. As always, North Korea represents a major threat, and American deployment of the THAAD ABM system to South Korea should go through as planned. With Chinese concerns over the deployment of the THAAD’s powerful search radar so close to Chinese territory, however, cleaning up America’s deterrence posture and strategic communication will go far towards mollifying Chinese defense planners with regard to the THAAD.

In the late 1980s, a strong American conventional presence in Europe, together with shrewd diplomatic maneuvering, led to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, removing an entire class of nuclear weapons from the battlespace. The political good will and reduced tensions from these nuclear negotiations led, in turn, to the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, largely spelling an end to the military tensions that defined the Cold War. A robust conventional presence in East Asia, combined with a more realistic American deterrence strategy, may present the best combination of sticks and carrots to induce greater Chinese cooperation in the rules-based order. Such an outcome would undoubtedly be beneficial to all involved, secure America’s continued place as the undisputed military hegemon in East Asia, and ensure China’s rise does not contribute to greater global instability.

Ben Rimland is an MPhil student in the Modern Japanese Studies department at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, where he studies maritime security and East Asia defense issues. He tweets at @brim1and.