Is China mimicking U.S. and Soviet Cold War strategic behavior by modernizing its DF-5 and possibly its DF-41 ballistic missiles to carry multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs)? The U.S. Department of Defense annual report to Congress on China’s military and security developments suggests this may be the case. According to the Pentagon, China’s deployment of MIRVed missiles and its broader missile modernization efforts are intended to strengthen its ability to counter U.S. and Russian missile defense systems while providing a hedge against Indian defense modernization. But some Chinese nuclear experts believe otherwise.
Professor Li Bin, a prominent interlocutor in these debates, claims, for instance, that Beijing is using decoys and other BMD countermeasures, but not MIRVs. Whatever the reality, the perception that China possesses MIRVs works in its favor. New Delhi, fearing that China could be on the verge of a counterforce capability, could be provoked into abandoning its characteristic restraint. Such were the fears the Soviets had about strengthened U.S. strategic capabilities when the latter started MIRVing in the early 1960s, which led to an escalated arms race between the two Cold War rivals. It is likely that we will see a repeat of this pattern whereby the same fears will be felt by India vis-à-vis Chinese MIRVing and by Pakistan vis-à-vis Indian MIRVing.
In “China’s Belated Embrace of MIRVs,” part of a new book — The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age — published by the Stimson Center, Jeffrey G. Lewis explores the dilemmas now confronting China after its 2015 decision to deploy MIRVs on its DF-5 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In Lewis’ opinion, Beijing sees MIRVs as attractive delivery systems in so far as they facilitate greater warhead accuracy and maintain a certain qualitative equivalence in technological capabilities vis-à-vis Washington.
MIRVs might also give China the technical edge it requires to counter nascent U.S. missile defenses. Yet, multiple-warhead missiles are not without serious drawbacks. One danger is that MIRVs — and the expansive targeting requirements they might engender — could draw the People’s Republic into a costly quantitative arms race with the United States. Lewis explores other possibilities in great detail including whether China’s deployment of MIRVs could lead to “classic forms of deterrence instability” and “operational entanglement” involving sea- and space-based forces, scenarios that could increase the likelihood of a nuclear exchange during a Sino-American conflict.
Beijing’s deployment of MIRVs clarifies several issues related to Chinese nuclear modernization. First, the modernization drive – through embracing MIRVs or building missile defenses – appears to be a reaction to burgeoning U.S. conventional precision-strike capabilities and the impending rejuvenation of the nuclear triad. In effect, China is engaged in a technological competition with the United States that it cannot escape despite its past efforts to maintain a restrained nuclear posture. No arms control arrangement appears to be on the horizon given prevalent U.S.-Chinese strategic dynamics, a concern for South Asia because China’s evolving nuclear posture motivates Indian modernization, and, in turn, Pakistan’s nuclear stockpiling. This underscores that the nuclear spiral in which India and Pakistan are engaged is driven by strategic competition between Beijing and Washington in addition to the subcontinental rivalry.
Second, China’s nuclear modernization indicates that Chinese leaders continue to worry that its nuclear forces remain vulnerable to a U.S. first strike, perhaps especially because China has a no first use (NFU) policy while the United States does not. The United States might be tempted to conduct a preemptive strike in the event of a crisis given its massive and precise conventional and nuclear capabilities.
Since Chinese ICBMs in silos – MIRVed or not – and mobile ICBMs might be targeted in a U.S. first strike, China’s incentives for deploying submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are growing. In such a crisis scenario, whether China has an NFU would not really matter. Once Chinese SLBMs are in the Pacific, the Sino-U.S. equation would become mutually vulnerable. This would also make the whole region more crisis prone since what Li Bin characterizes as “technical lagging” behind the United States will remain a concern in Chinese national security circles. Any increase in Chinese conventional or nuclear capabilities will create incentives for India to modernize, which in turn will justify Pakistan’s development of new doctrines and postures.
Strategic stability in the Asia-Pacific region is threatened by the Chinese-U.S. strategic competition, in which China is struggling to keep up. The United States could ameliorate the security dilemma for China by scaling back on its conventional and nuclear modernization, refreshing its pledge for nuclear disarmament and by signing a bilateral NFU with China, similar to the one China has with Russia. This gesture might also prompt India and China, and India and Pakistan, to consider bilateral NFU agreements, which would strengthen strategic stability in South Asia. In addition to bilateral NFU agreements, universal ratification and entry into force (EIF) of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is perhaps the single most important step through which the technological determinism prevalent in the strategic competition in Asia can be checked and moderated.
Put simply, absent hot testing of warhead designs, countries in Asia without robust testing legacies will struggle to produce small enough warheads to enable aggressive MIRVing. In order to generate the momentum for the closure and EIF of the CTBT, the United States and China can jointly lead the way by simultaneously ratifying the treaty and then inviting India and Pakistan to simultaneously sign and ratify the CTBT. It might sound like an idealistic solution to a complex problem, but this is the one with real potential for preventing not one, but multiple, nuclear holocausts.
Dr. Rabia Akhtar is Director, Centre for Security, Strategy, and Policy Research, University of Lahore. A version of this piece originally appeared at South Asian Voices (@SAVoices), on online platform for strategic analysis and debate hosted by the Stimson Center.