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Institute for National Strategic Studies

Strategic Trends in China

Nuclear Issues


MICHAEL NACHT, The University of Maryland
TOM WOODROW, Defense Intelligence Agency

Michael Nacht: This discussion will address three topics: How we know what we know about Chinese nuclear policy, the evolution of Chinese nuclear force policies and what we may expect in the future and finally, how the United States may be able to influence developments in Chinese nuclear policy

We do know little about Chinese nuclear policy. And what we do know carries a high degree of uncertainty, because the locus for the U.S. policy community that focuses on nuclear forces and doctrinal issues is the National Security Council's (NSC) Directorate on Defense and Arms Control. The NSC concentrates its efforts on the former-Soviet Union. Arms control issues are dealt with in U.S.-Russian bilateral and some multilateral fora-none of which is U.S.-China bilateral.

The main repository of knowledge on the nuclear issue in the NSC is simply not focused on China. Proliferation Directorate does focus on China but only in the context of its proliferation activities-ring magnet and missile sales to Pakistan and cruise missile sales to Iran. The evolution of Chinese nuclear force structure is not part of its purview. While China is perhaps the top priority for the East Asian Directorate of the NSC, Chinese nuclear policy is not a central concern.

In all, the evolution of Chinese nuclear force posture and doctrine is not attended to at the highest levels of the U.S. Government. It remains a "middle to low" priority in U.S. policy-making. This is unwise; luckily, it is likely to change. As Chinese nuclear force posture grows in importance to China itself, it will likewise grow in importance to the United States.

Our knowledge of Chinese nuclear forces and our understanding of their policies are dealt with primarily at the lower, working levels of the U.S. Government and in various nongovernmental fora. One of the fundamental dichotomies in this community is whether China has been adhering and will continue to adhere to a policy of what might be termed "minimum deterrence" or if that policy is changing. To all appearances, the Chinese continue to maintain a "minimum deterrent" comprising a small nuclear force that is widely dispersed, camouflaged, and maintained at lower levels of readiness.

Some scholars, including Iain Johnston of Harvard, believe that this policy is undergoing a transformation. As China becomes a great power, it judges that substantial nuclear forces are a litmus test of great power and is moving to improve both the quality and quantity of its nuclear force. These changes may be the harbinger of a shift in policy to "limited deterrence."

Based on numerous interactions with senior Chinese leadership figures, it seems that China is not committed to fundamentally altering its nuclear force posture. Some units within the PLA are pressuring the Chinese leadership to do so, but there is little evidence so far of the Chinese having "crossed the Rubicon" on nuclear policies.

The Chinese do say that they will respond to what they term "U.S. provocations" by enhancing their nuclear forces. A Chinese response might entail increasing both the numbers of launchers and weapons, MIRVing their forces, bolstering the penetration ability of Chinese missiles and generally allocating more resources to building nuclear infrastructure and improving the human capital available to Chinese nuclear forces.

Although the Chinese leadership is not yet committed to making major changes in China's nuclear force structure, there are some stimuli that might result in the creation of a more mature Chinese nuclear force. They include:

  • As the "economic pie" grows, China's leadership can dedicate more resources to the military in general and to the nuclear forces in particular. The stronger China becomes in a macroeconomic sense, the greater its potential for devoting more resources to its nuclear forces.

  • On a political level, Jiang Zemin is not a very strong leader; rather, he was "the right man for the job at the time." Jiang is, as a result, a compromiser, and he has come under pressure from the PLA to modernize China's nuclear forces. Given his political weakness, it is unlikely that he will be able to resist that pressure.

  • A third stimulus to growth and change in Chinese nuclear forces is the projected impact on China's nuclear forces and Chinese national security more generally, of the prospective deployment of U.S. theater missile defenses in the Asia-Pacific region. This stimulus is exceedingly powerful. Chinese concerns on this issue comprise four elements: Taiwan's receipt of more sophisticated systems; Japan's cooperation with the United States in developing systems such as THAAD, Navy lower tier, or even navy theaterwide; Naval systems that might be deployed in the South or East China Sea; national missile defense (NMD) for the continental United States (CONUS).

Each of these poses different problems and challenges to the Chinese. China is not concerned with growing Taiwanese military power, per se, but rather with the political consequences of that strength. That is, as Taiwanese economic and military strength grows, a move toward independence will begin to appear less risky. Of course, Taiwanese moves in that direction would be intolerable to the Chinese leadership and would elicit a harsh reaction. U.S. provision of TMD to Taiwan concerns China because it would bolster Taiwan's sense of military invulnerability.

Navy lower tier and theaterwide missile defense systems concern Chinese scientists because, in their modeling of nuclear exchanges with the United States, they ascribe high capabilities to these systems. In addition, they envision a networking of systems. They predict networking across systems-of radars and of command and control systems-in which a variety of TMD systems forward deployed in Asia provides a capability that amounts to boost-phase intercept of Chinese strategic nuclear forces. If that capability is coupled with an NMD system in the CONUS, the Chinese see their ability to threaten American territory as jeopardized.

Finally, the evolution of the U.S.-Japan security relationship concerns the Chinese leadership because they are convinced that Japan is the long-term threat to Chinese security. The Chinese point to a deep militaristic strain in Japanese culture and to a fundamental U.S. misapprehension of Japanese ambition. China's view is that Japan is on a "holding operation" and has been on a "50 year sabbatical." Japan, in the Chinese view, has a plutonium stockpile and dedicated sea, air, and land forces for a reason. Ultimately, the Japanese goal is to project power, and China stands to be the loser in that event. That the United States is moving to strengthen the U.S.-Japan relationship shows the Chinese that the nature of the bilateral security relationship has been fundamentally altered from an anti-Soviet and anti-North Korean alliance to an anti-China alliance.

The combination of a growing economic pie, Jiang's political weakness, missile defense, and the potential Japan threat creates a major stimulus to the growth of Chinese nuclear forces. Nevertheless, the Chinese leadership is cautious and is aware that any move they make in this direction is likely to elicit a countermove by the United States Therefore, the Chinese leaders are not yet convinced that a deep investment in force modernization is necessary or wise.

At the same time, China is focusing its attention and energies on arms control. There has been a proliferation of arms control expertise in China and every major organizational unit of the Chinese Government that is involved in military affairs has an arms control capability. The devotion of chronically scarce resources to this area reflects a judgment by the Chinese leadership that China should be part of the international community, not a "rogue state." This is not to say that China is eager to comply with American wishes but rather that China wants a "seat at the table."

China has invested in arms control as an element of diplomacy and as an element of Chinese national security policy, which is well illustrated by the Chinese signature of the CTBT. There are two schools of thought that explain the Chinese willingness to sign this treaty. The first and dominant school holds that the political leadership overruled military objections by arguing in favor of integration into the world community. The second school argues that China signed only when it became clear that India was unalterably opposed to the treaty. Since the entry into force portion of the CTBT requires Indian accession, the treaty would never enter into force. Thus, China could reap the political benefits of signature while sacrificing nothing.

It is important to note that the Chinese have complied in a number of areas on the arms control front (NPT extension and nonnuclear areas such as the Chemical Weapons Convention), and there have been signs that they may even accede to the MTCR. Korea is another area of active Chinese cooperation. On the whole, China is making an effort to be a rule-maker rather than an outcast and rule-taker. In sum, a major new stimulus will be necessary before there is any substantial change in Chinese nuclear force posture. Currently, there is no consensus in China on this issue and views are evolving which are amenable to change.

Some final thoughts on Chinese perceptions of national security imperatives:

  • Foreign domination remains a concern for China.

  • Japan is China's 21st century threat, and China will not permit a repetition of history with Japan.

  • China remains a believer in the efficacy of raw power politics.

  • Taiwan is China's key foreign policy concern.

  • China has a poor understanding of how and why other nations see China as a threat.

  • China believes is has a great deal of clout in the United States because it sees the United States as dominated by commercial interests. At the same time, the United States is hard to gauge because of its propensity to use force.

  • China in the post-Deng era lacks a strategic vision, and Jiang Zemin lacks the political stature to convey a cohesive view of policy in the new world order.

  • China will be a significant player in world affairs but in an incremental fashion that is hard to predict. The United States will likely have a hard time influencing China.

Thomas Woodrow: This discussion is on China's nuclear capabilities rather than the size of the force. Although Chinese forces are small in number (press reports estimate China as having roughly 12 nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States), the Chinese view those missiles as a deterrent to U.S. nuclear blackmail or a nuclear first-strike. Those missiles, few in number as they are, are targeted against large U.S. cities. The Chinese believe that as long as they maintain their ability to destroy a percentage of U.S. cities, they have achieved their goal of deterring the United States Chinese nuclear forces have always been based around this belief; this is the reason the Chinese maintain a "no first use" strategy.

How do we define Chinese nuclear forces? Relative to the thousands of weapons both Russia and the United States still have at their disposal, Chinese nuclear forces are minuscule. Nevertheless, China currently has more ballistic missile firepower that can be directed against the United States than did the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Put another way, today Chinese nuclear forces are modernizing their equipment and tactics at a pace that far surpasses any other nation.

In discussing Chinese nuclear forces, it is best not to focus on the numbers, because the Chinese themselves do not, nor have they ever. The Chinese have always striven to create a retaliatory force that could inflict unacceptable damage on an enemy's forces and civilian population. That force, it was hoped, would be enough to deter an enemy from striking or even threatening to strike China with nuclear weapons or a large-scale conventional assault.

The Chinese originally developed their nuclear plans and force structure in response to what they saw as nuclear blackmail by the United States during the Korean War and during the Taiwan crises of the 1950s. When Chinese efforts to obtain nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union failed, China developed the atomic bomb on its own. The effort continued through the upheavals of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, culminating with the detonation of China's first atom bomb in 1964.

Currently, the Chinese lack the technical ability to detect an incoming first-strike and "launch on tactical warning" (launching missiles after detecting indications that your opponent has already launched). In order to develop these technical capabilities, the Chinese Government would be obliged to spend enormous sums of money building satellite constellations and command and control networks. Even if they did invest in such capabilities, the Chinese would gain only the ability to launch a small number of weapons at U.S. cities in a first strike. The result of such an attack would be an American retaliatory strike that would destroy China. Clearly, such a scenario is not in China's interest, nor is it reflected in their goals.

China will maintain a no-first-use policy because it fits well with China's overall deterrent strategy. Today China is incorporating newer technologies that will enhance and improve their deterrent. They are doing so only in an effort to improve their deterrence capabilities, not as part of a new nuclear adventurism. Chinese nuclear forces are currently at an important watershed. It is still composed largely of liquid-fueled, older missiles that are difficult to transport and require large numbers of troops to launch. In recent years, China has begun creating a new generation of road-mobile missiles that will demand far fewer troops to maintain, will be highly maneuverable in all types of terrain, and most importantly, will be highly survivable. Survivability and secrecy are absolutely critical to retaining the deterrent capability of Chinese nuclear forces. This is the primary reason Chinese nuclear forces are being modernized on such a large, wide-ranging scale. China does not plan to increase the number of its forces but instead to increase the deterrent effect of existing forces by enhancing their survivability.

One significant change is in the Chinese threat perception: the United States has replaced the Soviet Union as the primary long-term strategic threat. As part of the effort to increase their deterrent capability against the United States for the future, the Chinese are modernizing their ICBMs, MRBMs, SRBMs, and cruise missiles. This change in threat perception is also a central reason why China is incorporating solid-fuel, road-mobile technologies into its ICBM force. ICBMs currently in the Chinese inventory that could threaten the United States are silo-based, and China is probably concerned about their vulnerability to the high-technology weaponry at the disposal of the United States.

At the same time, the Chinese military has begun to use short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in a conventional setting. The Chinese military was profoundly affected by the Gulf War, in which they saw a large, Soviet-equipped and -trained force decimated by an allied force using high-technology missiles to decapitate enemy air defense and command and control capabilities. Chinese forces at the time were largely Soviet equipped and Soviet trained. The Chinese military was quick to draw the obvious conclusions and began to devise ways to escape their dilemma. One solution was the improvement of Chinese missile forces. These efforts have been fruitful, and Chinese missile forces are now top-notch. The Chinese have become enamored with the use of ballistic missiles in a conventional sense for regional scenarios (or what the Chinese call "regional warfare under high-technology conditions").

Where this trend is most obvious is in Chinese military capabilities that could be directed against Taiwan. In 1995 and 1996, the Chinese launched 10 CSS-6 (or, as it is known by its export designator, the M-9) missiles off the coast of Taiwan. These firings served several purposes, one of which was to test U.S. reactions. The Chinese clearly understand that Taiwan is the place where the seismic plates of Chinese and U.S. national interests collide. The Chinese strategic objective is to weaken the ties between the United States and Taiwan.

Washington barely reacted to the summer 1995 missile launches, and China was emboldened to repeat the firings on a larger scale and closer to Taiwan in 1996. During the second round of missile launches, it was China's strategic rocket forces, the Second Artillery, that fired the CSS-6 ballistic missiles. Until this point the Second Artillery's role had been strictly nuclear. Clearly, the Second Artillery has successfully lobbied to incorporate a new conventional role, an effort backed by the Chinese leadership.

The M-9 gives China the ability to exert military and political pressure within the region. As China continues to develop cruise missiles and additional solid-fuel missile capability, this will only increase. Chinese military writings cast these missiles in the same light in which the United States cast its own high-technology missiles in the Gulf War. That is, the Chinese military would use their rocket forces in a first-strike against Taiwan airfields, air defense, and command and control sites in an effort to degrade Taiwan air and air defense capabilities. Using missiles, this could be done quickly, and China could force Taiwan to agree to re-unification before the United States could become involved. Following the U.S. reaction to the 1996 missile launches, the Chinese military probably sees time as an even more critical factor in any decision to use force against Taiwan.

This is a new mission for the Chinese Second Artillery. In this context, it is worthwhile to address how a no-first-use policy might fit with Chinese regional goals. The Chinese delegate to the U.N. disarmament talks has asserted that since Taiwan is Chinese territory the Chinese no-first-use pledge does not apply. This is likely a signal of ambiguity in Chinese nuclear policy for areas China views as its sovereign territory.

The Washington policy community needs to pay closer attention to China's expanding ability to deliver destructive force against the United States over the next decade. Likewise, the issue of Taiwan should be examined more closely. Taiwan is one area where, because of conflicting U.S. and Chinese national goals and military capabilities, a crisis could spin out of control. If the United States plans to maintain a forward presence in Asia, it is critical that the United States pay more attention to the Taiwan issue and how the relationships between China and Taiwan and China and the United States evolve over the coming decade.

Perhaps the best way to understand China is the way China looks at itself-as a second-ranking power with huge regional and even global aspirations.


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