Last week I participated in a workshop on ‘Regional Views on Asia’s Multipolar Nuclear Future’ in Singapore, jointly organised by the National Bureau of Asian Research and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. My task was to address the potential implications of a more secure Chinese nuclear second-strike capability for its crisis behaviour and, ultimately, Sino-US crisis stability. While an argument can be made that it will enhance stability between the two major powers, it’s also important to point out some key challenges in this regard.
China has been modernising its nuclear arsenal for quite some time. Quantitatively, a conservative estimate is that China currently has about 250 nuclear warheads. However, the US intelligence community expects the number of long-range nuclear missiles capable of threatening the US homeland to more than double by the mid-2020s to over 100. China continues to replace its old liquid-fuel DF-3A Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) with solid-fuel, road-mobile DF-21 Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs). Moreover, of particular interest is Beijing’s effort to develop a nuclear triad. This includes investment in the new H6-K strategic bomber as well as a new class of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to be equipped with the new Julang-2 (J-2) Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM). Indeed, China’s first ever sea-based nuclear deterrent could have reached ‘initial operational capability’ (IOC) late last year.
The primary motivation behind China’s nuclear modernisation seems obvious: to increase the survivability of its second strike capability. However, this evolution occurs amidst a changing strategic context of Sino-US relations. Beijing requests recognition of its growing power by Washington, with many expecting it to contest US primacy in Asia. China’s nuclear modernisation is also accompanied by an unprecedented investment in conventional military capability to deny the US military freedom of operation in the Western Pacific. China’s growing confidence in its nuclear and conventional capabilities could result in Sino-US strategic relations being even more about a ‘balance of resolve’ than a simple ‘balance of power’. In other words, the superiority of the US nuclear and conventional arsenal might not be sufficient to prevent a Sino-US conflict.
Obviously, the key question is if and how the development of a more secure second-strike capability will influence China’s strategic behaviour. Given Beijing’s tradition of ambiguity and secrecy regarding nuclear strategy, it’s still very much subject to speculation. A positive interpretation is that China’s nuclear modernisation will increase Sino-US crisis stability by enhancing mutual vulnerability. It could minimise the risk of a disarming first strike by the US against China’s strategic forces, while maintaining America’s overwhelming conventional capability to respond to possible Chinese attempts to alter the regional status quo by force.
Yet, there are also a number of risks for Sino-US crisis stability. Chinese strategic decision-makers appear to be firm believers in the ‘stability-instability paradox’, e.g. clear firebreaks preventing a conventional escalation from spilling over into the nuclear domain. Chinese leaders could thus feel emboldened towards more coercive behaviour, assuming the US wouldn’t risk a conflict because of an (perceived) asymmetry of strategic interests. However, should the US refuse to back down, Chinese leaders could quickly face a dilemma. China’s nuclear infrastructure is closely tied to it’s conventional forces, particularly since the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps has increasingly also taken on conventional strike missions. But conventional strikes against critical military nodes in Mainland China will likely be part of a US military strategy and could be perceived by China as a (non-nuclear) strategic attack. In such a situation, Beijing’s nuclear ‘no first use’ (NFU) policy might no longer hold as indicated by more recent Chinese writings on nuclear policy. Finally, the development of a Chinese nuclear triad isn’t unproblematic. Command and control arrangements for nuclear submarines during crises are notoriously difficult, and it’s not entirely clear that China’s nuclear establishment has thought through the implications for Sino-US crisis stability.
Consequently, simply assuming that a growing Chinese nuclear arsenal equals greater Sino-US crisis stability is questionable. Indeed, both sides are still in search of a common understanding of what constitutes strategic stability under the new circumstances. As Brad Roberts points out, ‘major perception gaps’ continue to exist between Chinese and US analysts about strategic stability, despite progress being made through intensified dialogue. These include the utility of nuclear weapons during crisis, the effect of a more evolved US ballistic missile defence architecture on China’s nuclear deterrent, the implications of a new mix of nuclear and conventional weapons on both sides, and the value of official level nuclear dialogue.
Addressing these will be critical to ensure that a Sino-US crisis doesn’t get out of hand. Further, the US should intensify efforts to ‘assure’ allies such as Australia about the credibility of its defence commitments. In particular it needs to make clear that efforts to develop a new system of Sino-US strategic stability don’t come at the cost of regional countries’ interests to maintain the territorial status quo in East Asia. After all, the debate among Asian allies isn’t so much about the specific details of extended nuclear deterrence than it is about the future of US leadership in the region. However, since nuclear weapons will remain an inescapable part of Sino-US relations, Washington should also signal more clearly how it intends to use its (planned) modernised nuclear triad for extended deterrence purposes in Asia.
Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user EpicFireworks.