WASHINGTON--As China grows increasingly assertive on the world stage, the country is also aggressively expanding its nuclear forces. But this disturbing trend is being overshadowed by other issues.
Most officials, analysts and media in the United States and its allies are focused on the Chinese military’s growing arsenal of sophisticated conventional weapons, such as stealth fighters, aircraft carriers, submarines, anti-ship missiles, anti-satellite missiles and cyber-attack capabilities.
A recent report by the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center tells us: “China has the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world. It is developing and testing offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, qualitatively upgrading missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses.”
And according to the U.S. Defense Department, China is also developing and deploying new types of nuclear platforms, including road-mobile missile launchers and possibly "MIRV" technology that will enable China to put many nuclear warheads on a single missile.
In 2012, the Chinese tested a new JL-2 ballistic missile that could be placed on submarines as early as this year--a step that will give the Chinese navy its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.
The Chinese leaders’ motivation for these actions is more important than the actions themselves.
So why is Beijing pushing nuclear modernization at a time when the United States and Russia are significantly reducing their respective arsenals?
One possible explanation is that China wants to be seen as a superpower, and achieving closer nuclear parity with the United States would help it reach that goal. Chinese leaders may believe that being in the same atomic league as America will facilitate their efforts to establish the “new type of great power relations” that they are seeking.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, believes there’s some validity to that argument.
“I don’t think that there’s any evidence that they’re tremendously interested in (numerical) parity as a goal,” he told The Asahi Shimbun. “(But) if you think about the increasingly implausible argument for why the Communist Party should run China, you know, it has a lot to do with making China a strong and prosperous country. … I think there is a general tendency on the part of the Chinese leadership to seek the same advanced military capabilities that other big powers have.”
Another possibility is that Beijing fears that its current deterrent force is insufficient as the militaries of the United States and other countries improve their precision-attack capabilities.
“China is in the middle of a development of several new quick-launch ICBMs specifically to get away from the increased targeting capabilities of U.S. and Russian … forces,” Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun.
If Kristensen’s view is correct, China’s nuclear buildup could be seen simply as a defensive deterrence measure. But given the country’s recent history of undertaking actions that many consider provocative and hostile, China’s new nukes will not be welcomed by most countries in the region, including the United States.
“The United States … is watching closely the modernization and growth of China’s nuclear arsenal. The lack of transparency surrounding its nuclear programs, specifically their pace and scope, as well as the strategy and doctrine that guides them, raises questions about China’s long-term intentions,” the Defense Department said in a nuclear strategy report released in June.
Beijing’s atomic trajectory has two major implications for global nuclear arms control.
One is that it could make it more difficult for the United States and Russia to continue reducing the size of their arsenals without China’s participation in multilateral negotiations. The exact size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal is unknown, but most estimates put it in the low hundreds. If that stockpile expands, it will raise the floor for how low the United States is willing to go.
At a defense industry conference in July, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller said that reducing the number of deployed American nukes to 1,000, as the Obama administration has proposed, “does not raise issues of multipolarity (with China). But I think if you were to go substantially below the levels that we have talked about … then we would get into those questions.”
According to Lewis, domestic politics in Washington and Moscow also play into these decisions.
“The fact that the Chinese are increasing the size of their arsenal at a time when other people are coming down, that politically is a barrier (to further reductions) even if the overall Chinese numbers are not particularly high,” he said.
Another major concern elicited by China’s nuclear program is the possibility that it will spur nuclear proliferation, particularly in Japan, as Beijing and Tokyo are locked in disputes over the Senkaku Islands and other issues.
U.S. officials frequently reiterate their commitment to defend their Japanese friends, including through extended nuclear deterrence.
And the Obama administration has also undertaken a strategic rebalance to Asia, largely to reassure Tokyo and other governments that are concerned about a rising China. Washington understands that the consequences of Japan going nuclear could be dire.
“It is difficult to see how or why the U.S.-Japan alliance would survive a Japanese decision to acquire nuclear weapons,” warned Brad Roberts, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy in the Obama administration.
And on a regional level, Roberts believes that Japan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would generate “significantly adverse reactions” in Asia.
Nuclear experts also believe that getting The Bomb would be counterproductive for Tokyo.
“I don’t think there’s any circumstance in which it would make sense for Japan to build nuclear weapons,” Lewis said. “Ultimately, the only realistic security policy for Japan is one of close alliance with the United States, and that precludes a nuclear weapons program.”
Darryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, believes that even discussing the possibility of getting nukes is problematic for Tokyo.
“It’s absolutely not in Japan’s interest in talking about declaring a nuclear arsenal. I mean, that would make Japan more vulnerable, less secure in the future,” he told The Asahi Shimbun. “That kind of talk only would give China reason to accelerate its nuclear weapons modernization programs. It would only give the North Koreans yet another cynical excuse to build up their nuclear arsenal against their, you know, former colonial occupiers.”
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The author is a defense staff reporter at The Asahi Shimbun’s American General Bureau in Washington.
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