By Benjamin Schreer
At a recent ‘track 2’ meeting between Americans and Australians, China’s nuclear arsenal was the subject of considerable debate. In the view of one participant, Beijing’s actual number of strategic nuclear weapons is much higher than the official US intelligence estimate of 300 and could be as much as 1,300. He based his claim on the much-reported 2011 Georgetown University project (PDF) led by Professor Philipp Karber which concluded that China could have as many 3,000 nuclear weapons hidden in its vast ‘underground great wall’.
When Beijing recently released a new Defence White Paper (DWP), the New York Times ran an op-ed which argued that China had abandoned its long-standing nuclear ‘no first-use’ (NFU) policy because it didn’t get a mentioning in the document. If correct, such assessments would signal a major shift in China’s nuclear strategy. A Chinese arsenal of over 1,000 strategic warheads would basically lead to a Cold War-type situation of mutual assured destruction (MAD) in China’s nuclear relationship with the US and also in its dealings with Russia. A change in its nuclear doctrine would signal to the US and the rest of the region that Beijing now assigns nuclear weapons a major priority in its foreign, security and defence policy. It would also display Chinese anxieties about the heightened possibility of a preemptive strike by the US, with either conventional or nuclear weapons, against its nuclear forces.
To be sure, China has worked to improve the survivability of its nuclear strike capability, including the development of a new generation of nuclear-capable submarines. It’s also entirely possible that the number of its nuclear warheads is higher than official estimates. And Chinese strategists have repeatedly argued that there might contingencies when a strict adherence to ‘no first use’ would have to be reconsidered.
Nevertheless, just as we should analyse the PLA’s conventional modernisation in a cool-headed fashion, we should avoid alarmism about China’s nuclear capabilities. Speculation about the true numbers of Chinese strategic warheads is just that: speculation. In other words, Western analyses should avoid turning ‘could’ into ‘is’, as if we learned nothing from the Iraq WMD assessments. Otherwise we run the risk of replaying Cold War threat assessments in which the Soviets were said to be developing all sorts of magic weaponry which never saw the light of day. While it makes perfect sense from a Chinese perspective to improve its nuclear forces, particularly in the face of overwhelming US conventional strike capability, the survivability of its nuclear deterrent will probably depend much more on investments in infrastructure such as secure command and control systems than achieving ‘strategic parity’ with US and Russian nuclear forces in terms of warhead numbers.
Moreover, as analysts have convincingly argued, the omission of the ‘no first-use’ policy in China’s latest DWP doesn’t prove that Beijing’s nuclear doctrine has changed. On 8 April, the Chinese delegation to the UN Conference on Disarmament reiterated Beijing’s NFU pledge. Indeed, it’s hard to see why it would be in Beijing’s interest to unsettle the international community at a time when every PLA development is analysed through the lens of a changing strategic balance in Asia. In fact, the more confident China becomes in its second strike capability, the less the need for a change in its nuclear doctrine.
All good then? Not necessarily. China modernising its nuclear forces could seriously complicate relations with the United States and Asian neighbours. That’s because nuclear weapons rarely exist in a vacuum but are tied to power balances. Recent scholarship (PDF) points out that Beijing appears increasingly assured about its nuclear second-strike capability at a time when it has made considerable progress in projecting conventional military power in its ‘Near Seas’. In combination with a lack of comprehensive Sino-US dialogue on the nuclear balance, the emergence of a so-called ‘stability-instability paradox’ in East Asia looms large. That is, (over-) confidence in its ability to deter US military engagement through the threat of nuclear escalation to encourage the Chinese leadership to conduct conventional campaigns to change the status quo.
Unaddressed, there’s a growing danger of US-Sino crisis instability. From a US perspective, China’s nuclear weapons will become more critical in the emerging strategic competition for leadership in Asia. Note that in January this year, President Obama signed a new National Defense Authorization Act (PDF) (NDDA) which orders the Commander of the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) to submit a report by mid-August on the ‘underground tunnel network used by the People’s Republic of China with respect to the capability of the United States to use conventional and nuclear forces to neutralise such tunnels and what is stored within such tunnels’.
Further, allies in East Asia will look to their American ally to provide more visible nuclear extended deterrence commitments. While they’ll point to North Korea’s nuclear program, China’s new mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities will increasingly concern them. This suggests that nuclear weapons in Asia will be of growing not decreasing importance. Moreover, China, the US and its allies need to engage in serious dialogue at the political, military and academic level about what ‘strategic stability’ means in 21st century. Like it or not, some Cold War concepts and debate related to nuclear strategy, such as the question of whether and how nuclear war can be controlled, will make a surprising comeback.
Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI.