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The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) describes China as a hostile great power pursuing “assertive military initiatives” and new “ways and means to counter U.S. conventional military capabilities.” It says these pursuits are “a major challenge to U.S. interests in Asia” that “increase the potential for military confrontation with the United States and its allies and partners.” The document claims to have prepared a new nuclear strategy specially tailored for such a confrontation.
China, on the other hand, is not prepared to fight a nuclear war with United States. Chinese nuclear strategists don’t think that is likely to happen, at least as long as China remains able to retaliate after the United States strikes first. That’s not a high bar to meet, which is why China’s nuclear arsenal remains small and, for the time being, off alert.
Chinese strategists do worry the United States may mistakenly believe it could avoid Chinese nuclear retaliation by combining a massive first strike with a ballistic missile defense good enough to intercept whatever a first strike might miss. U.S. government participants in bilateral nuclear dialogues with China refuse to admit U.S. vulnerability to Chinese nuclear retaliation, and refuse to assure their Chinese counterparts that a U.S. first strike against China is off the table, consistent with broader U.S. nuclear strategy. China’s comparatively modest modernization efforts are designed to insure enough ICBMs survive to retaliate and that these survivors can penetrate US missile defenses. In the absence of a no first use commitment from the United States, these improvements are needed to assure China’s leaders their U.S. counterparts won’t take the risk of attacking China with nuclear weapons.
The authors of Trump’s NPR don’t appear to realize this. While admitting that “China’s declaratory policy and doctrine have not changed,” the Trump administration worries that “its lack of transparency regarding the scope and scale of its modernization program raises questions about its future intent.” The NPR seeks to address that concern with a “range of graduated nuclear response options” that “prevent Beijing from concluding it could secure an advantage through a limited use of its theatre nuclear capabilities.” There is little evidence that preparing to fight a limited nuclear war is a goal of China’s nuclear modernization program. In fact, despite China’s unwillingness to disclose much information about its nuclear capabilities, there is quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.
The good news is that the NPR expresses a willingness to “seek a dialogue with China” to “help manage the risks of miscalculation and misperception.” Chinese colleagues report that recent high-level exchanges with Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson were well-received by the Chinese leadership. Unfortunately, the limited time available and the range of issues discussed at these meetings, including the North Korea crisis and trade relations, suggest a detailed conversation about nuclear weapons policy is unlikely to get put on their agenda any time soon.
The Balance of Nuclear Forces
A quick comparison of US and Chinese nuclear forces demonstrates the scales are heavily weighted in favor of the United States, calling into question the NPR’s argument for new U.S. nuclear capabilities on the basis of Chinese capabilities.
China has a few hundred nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make several hundred more. The United States has 4,480 nuclear warheads (active and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more.
China could deliver 75 to 100 of those nuclear warheads to targets in the United States via ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and a maximum of 60 more on its soon to be 60 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The United States could deliver as many as 800 nuclear warheads on its 400 ICBMs and a maximum of 2,976 warheads on its 248 SLBMs. The United States also currently deploys 1,010 nuclear gravity bombs and 528 nuclear-armed cruise missiles that are delivered by aircraft. China does not currently deploy any of its nuclear weapons on aircraft.
In addition to this huge quantitative advantage, the United States also enjoys an uncontestable qualitative edge. The United States has seven different types of nuclear warheads, two of which have adjustable yields. In other words, the “graduated nuclear response options” proposed by the NPR already exist. Currently, the United States has the capability to strike Chinese targets with nuclear warheads with yields as small 0.3 kilotons and as large as 1.2 megatons, and there are 11 other yield options in between. It’s hard to imagine why the Trump administration feels it needs even more options to respond to China, which only has three very high-yield options: a several hundred kiloton warhead for its solid-fueled ICBMs and SLBMs, a two megaton warhead for its liquid-fueled intermediate range missile and a five megaton warhead for its liquid-fueled ICBM.
Chinese Constraints and Possible Responses
This U.S. qualitative edge is also unlikely to change. China conducted a total of 45 nuclear weapons tests before ceasing explosive nuclear testing after signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996; in comparison, the United States conducted 1,056 tests before signing the CTBT. If China wanted to develop the kind of “graduated nuclear response options” the United States already possesses, it would need to test them, which would require it to walk away from the CTBT. The United States and Russia would then feel free to do the same, making it even more difficult for China to reach even an approximate qualitative parity with the United States.
Numerical parity is also virtually unattainable for China. It doesn’t have the fissile material and would have to produce a lot more. The International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) estimates China has about 14 tons of highly enriched uranium and close to three tons of weapon-grade plutonium. By comparison, the IPFM estimates the United States currently has 253 tons of highly enriched uranium and 38.3 tons of plutonium in or available for weapons—10 to 20 times as much as China.
Even if China initiated a massive crash program to seek nuclear parity with the United States it would take many years to catch up. China is not as transparent as other nuclear weapons states, but a resumption of explosive testing and large scale fissile material production would be hard to hide. The United States would have plenty of time to take notice and respond.
Moreover, while China has the economic and technical resources to try to compete in a nuclear arms race with the United States, it is unlikely to do so. The Chinese leadership has made its view clear that nuclear weapons have only one strategic purpose: to assure that an adversary will never attack China with nuclear weapons for fear of nuclear retaliation. Immediately after China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, the Chinese government issued its only declaration of intent, which stated, “China will never at any time or under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons.” Likewise, a few days after the Trump NPR was released, China’s Ministry of Defense announced China still abides by “the principle of no first use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.” Indeed, the NPR itself seems to tacitly recognize that—unlike Russia—China has forsworn first use. A leading Chinese nuclear policy expert observed that in addition to “emphasizing the only purpose of China’s nuclear weapons is to prevent a nuclear attack,” China can continue to focus its modest modernization effort on “increasing the survivability of China’s nuclear weapons and its ability to penetrate missile defenses.”
Best Options for the United States
Rather than asking Congress to acquire more “graduated nuclear response options,” the best way to address U.S. and allied concerns about China’s nuclear modernization program is to constrain China with two binding international arms control agreements: the CTBT and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).
Both China and the United States have signed the CTBT but have not yet ratified it. Ratification and entry into force of the CTBT would verifiably prevent China from resuming the explosive nuclear testing it would need to develop reliable variable yield or low-yield nuclear warheads like those the United States already possesses.
International negotiations on an agreement to halt the production of the fissile materials used to make nuclear warheads stalled several decades ago. Reinvigorating those negotiations and obtaining the entry into force of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) would verifiably cap the size of China’s nuclear arsenal at its current level.
During bilateral nuclear dialogues, Chinese participants have told their U.S. counterparts China will ratify the CTBT when the United States does. They want to see what conditions the U.S. Senate would place on U.S. ratification in order to respond to those qualifications when China ratifies. Likewise, Chinese negotiators at the U.N. Conference on Disarmament (UNCD) have expressed support for resuming negotiations on the FMCT. Hopefully, the hostile characterization of Chinese intentions contained in the Trump NPR, accompanied by its discussion of elevated preparations for nuclear war with China, will not weaken Chinese support for these two key agreements.
Concerned members of Congress, and the American public, should push the Trump administration to ratify the CTBT and negotiate an FMCT while this window of opportunity with China remains open.