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CvT: Troubling Signs for US-China Nuclear Competition

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In the desert heat near the city of Hami in Eastern Xinjiang, the Chinese government is digging what appears to be a second field for the construction of nuclear missile silos. The discovery, made public on July 26, 2021, comes after aerial photographs of the initial silo field in the desert northwest of Yumen were published last June. The photos, first documented by researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies using satellite imagery, revealed the construction of what experts describe as over 100 new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

While no indication has been given for their intended use, analysts say that the silos could potentially house DF-41s, a Chinese ICBM capable of holding multiple warheads and reaching targets up to 9,300 miles away. If this is the case, the missile field, which contains roughly 120 silos, would store weapons capable of reaching the US homeland, adding a more precarious dimension to the US-China strategic competition. In addition, Chinese naval power is also growing at a rapid pace, with new nuclear submarines being integrated into the Chinese fleet as disclosed in a 2019 report published by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

According to nuclear experts Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda, the silo construction in both Yumen and Hami signifies the most ambitious expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal to date. For decades, China has operated roughly 20 silos for liquid-fuel D5 ICBMs. The construction of both fields, with the possibility of more silos being added in the established DF-5 deployment areas, could potentially increase the number of silos Beijing has under construction to 250, or more than ten times the number of operational ICBM silos today.

The nuclear build-up coincides with Beijing’s shifting security priorities in the region. First, these nuclear modernization efforts echo Beijing’s concerns that China’s nuclear deterrent is losing credibility as Washington and Moscow continue to progress with their own modernization programs. Advancements in Washington’s missile defense systems risk Beijing’s second-strike capability being rendered less effective. Chinese officials have warned as much in bilateral meetings clarifying that Beijing could potentially counter the US nuclear arsenal through its own nuclear build-up. Second, the modernization efforts coincide with China’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric. At the party’s centennial, President Xi Jinping declared that anyone who interferes with China’s ‘national rejuvenation’ will “have their heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel.” Media associated with the People’s Liberation Army also released a video promising to “incinerate” Japan with its own nuclear arsenal should it interfere with a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

The ramifications of Beijing’s expanding nuclear arsenal are manifold. Most notably, the potential for China to hold the US mainland in jeopardy could have dire implications on the credibility of US security guarantees towards its allies. Furthermore, if Beijing acquires a nuclear arsenal capable of absorbing a nuclear first-strike, the US would lose the leverage afforded to it by its nuclear deterrent. China could then be emboldened to act more freely in its periphery through conventional operations. Considering these scenarios, Washington continues to strengthenits own nuclear modernization campaign, while simultaneously pursuing efforts to bring Beijing to the table on arms control.

Implications of Chinese Nuclear Modernization

Some experts believe that Beijing’s initiative to build upon its relatively small nuclear arsenal signify an effort to bolster the survivability of its nuclear deterrent and enhance its ability to absorb a nuclear first-strike, rather than a transition from its standard no-first-use policy. However, anxiety in Washington persists. US policymakers fear that improved survivability will constrain Washington’s ability to employ damage limitation strategies in the event of all-out nuclear war. Specifically, some researchers have voiced concerns over the idea that Beijing is attempting to employ a “nuclear shell game,” a strategy first developed by the Pentagon during the Cold War. Essentially, Beijing could hypothetically house only a handful of nuclear warheads within the more than 100 newly-built silos. This, along with the fact that each silo is separated by over 700 square miles, would force Washington to utilize upwards of 240 nuclear missiles – two per silo – in a counter force strategy aimed at destroying Beijing’s nuclear arsenal.

Chinese nuclear modernization could also have ramifications on US allies, as well. Timothy Heath, an international defense researcher at the RAND corporation, stated that if Beijing acquires the ability to absorb a nuclear first-strike and retaliate with unacceptable damage to the US, then the credibility of the US nuclear umbrella would be called into question. If the US homeland became vulnerable to nuclear attack, then Washington could potentially be reluctant to carry out its security guarantees in the event of attack on US treaty allies. A non-nuclear treaty ally like Japan may then be tempted to acquire their own nuclear arsenal should it perceive the US extended deterrent to be unreliable. Heath continued, “the US will have to build anti-missile defenses or develop other ways of mitigating this danger if it wants to maintain the credibility of its alliance commitments in Asia.”

This could hold true for Taiwan, a non-treaty ally of the US, as well. Some Chinese strategists feel that a secure second-strike capability is all that is needed to prevent US nuclear coercion and intervention in the region, rather than having to achieve complete nuclear parity. They posit that the US would be unwilling to risk conflict on behalf of another country if it felt that nuclear escalation could be likely. In other words, constraining Washington’s range of options and undermining the US nuclear umbrella could give Beijing the opportunity to act more freely in conventional operations. This would include an effort by Beijing to escalate its efforts in the South and East China Seas, or potentially invade Taiwan.

The US Response

The Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress on Beijing’s growing military strength made note of Chinese nuclear modernization. In the report, the Pentagon outlines how Beijing’s nuclear arsenal will continue to diversify and increase its number of land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms. In doing so, Beijing is expected to double its nuclear stockpile – currently estimated to be in the low 200s – over the course of the next decade. Furthermore, the report suggested that Beijing is moving to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces.

While this year’s Nuclear Posture Review, the annual assessment of nuclear strategy and funding, has yet to be released, the Biden administration appears to be maintaining the nuclear modernization strategy started under former President Trump. According to President Joe Biden’s proposed budget, the administration is requesting US$43.2 billion in 2022 to sustain and modernize US nuclear delivery systems, warheads, and supporting infrastructure. In addition, US$27.7 billion and US$15.5 billion were requested for the Pentagon and the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), respectively. Overall, the spending proposal on nuclear weapons makes up roughly 5.7% of the total national defense request of US$753 billion.

That said, the administration’s spending proposals have been described as “minimally sufficient” according to a letter sent by the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) to lawmakers on July 23rd. “All NWC members believe that — for FY 2022 only — the DOE/NNSA budget request for Weapons Activities meets nuclear stockpile and stockpile stewardship requirements and contains minimally sufficient immediate investment to ensure a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent,” the letter stated. “However, NWC members also believe that this budget injects risk into the longer term schedule required to ensure modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.” The council made a point to say that it was only commenting on the fiscal 2022 budget, because plans for future years are still under development as the administration works on a new Nuclear Posture Review.

The Potential for Arms Control

To address these concerns, the US has attempted to launch bilateral arms reduction negotiations with China while simultaneously renegotiating the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. According to US officials, Beijing has thus far been resistant to these talks. Robert Wood, the US disarmament ambassador, stated “despite the PRC’s dramatic build-up of its nuclear arsenal, unfortunately it continues to resist discussing nuclear risk reduction bilaterally with the United States,” when speaking at the UN Conference on Disarmament on May 18th, 2021 in Geneva. The Chinese envoy, Ji Zhaoyu, responded at the same conference stating “we stand ready to carry out positive dialogue and exchange with all parties to jointly explore effective measures to reduce nuclear risk and to contribute to global strategic security.” The Biden administration has vowed to initiate dialogue with China, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the US will “pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal” on February 22nd, 2021.

While US officials have remained vague on how to achieve these goals, some experts have offered potential approaches for the future of engagement. Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, argued that the Biden Administration could propose a new bilateral nuclear security dialogue designed to clarify each country’s nuclear postures and establish better channels of communication for the purpose of reducing the potential for miscalculation in a crisis. The US State Department could then invite Chinese diplomats to jointly develop a plan to reinforce the existing dialogue on nuclear weapons policy and risk reduction among the US, China, France, Russia, and UK. This could include joint arms control verification exercises based on the US-Russian dialogue and negotiate a common system for reporting their respective nuclear weapons holdings. This would also require Washington to resist calls for the deployment of new US weapons deployments, including land-based IRBMs in Asia that could escalate nuclear tensions with China and give Beijing justification to continue expanding its arsenal.

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