China's Nuclear Posture and Sino-U.S. Strategic Stability

China's Nuclear Posture and Sino-U.S. Strategic Stability

by Zihao Liu

The Sino-U.S. relationship is in a difficult place. The trade war has yet to ameliorate, while the security relationship has been steadily deteriorating, as evinced by the tension in the South China Sea. During this period of immense uncertainty, it is crucial that we pay sufficient attention to the most important aspect of Sino-U.S. relations that has largely been excluded from public discourse: strategic stability. A close examination reveals that China’s nuclear posture is distinct from that of the U.S. and Russia, since it possesses a credible, but very limited, nuclear arsenal and has self-established a high political threshold against its usage. Thus, China has a stable strategic relationship with the U.S., albeit one that is increasingly challenged by thorny issues such as the latter’s increasing ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities.  

Although China has never officially disclosed the number of its nuclear warheads, the best estimate is around 280, a number dwarfed by that of the U.S. and Russia (above 6,500 and 6,800, respectively). However, this number is contested by Prof. Phillip Karber’s alarmist analysis. Prof. Karber’s study claims that China’s expansive underground tunnel system (“the underground Great Wall”) and the fast pace of its ballistic missile deployment suggest that China could field as many as 3,000 nuclear weapons.

While disquieting at first glance, the study ignores two important facts. First, the tunnels were primarily designed to protect China’s existing missiles, rather than to store more missiles. Second, China requires a large number of conventional ballistic missiles, such as in a possible Taiwan scenario. In comparison, China’s plutonium and weapon-grade uranium possession provides a much more reasonable analytic framework. It is estimated that China has 2.9±0.6 tons of the former and 14±3 tons of the latter, in line with the assessed number of Chinese warheads.

China’s relatively limited warhead possession is coupled with a distinct operational doctrine. During peacetime, China’s strategic missiles do not aim at any country and are largely separated from nuclear warheads. The latter are mostly safeguarded at a storage facility in central China. Only when China faces nuclear threats will the strategic force enter into alert status, possibly leading to the distribution of warheads to missile bases. The 2008 China Defense White Paper outlines such a nuclear posture, suggesting that China does not regard instant nuclear retaliation as indispensable, in contrast with the launch-on-warning doctrine preferred by the U.S. and Russia.

Perhaps the most unique and intriguing aspect of China’s nuclear posture is its No-First-Use (NFU) doctrine, which strictly dictates that China will not use nuclear weapons first under any condition. China also pledges not to target or attack nuclear-free countries and regions with nuclear weapons, regardless of circumstances.

Although some have questioned the wisdom and credibility of China’s NFU policy, it has established a very high political threshold against the usage of nuclear weapons and signified China’s self-imposed ban on nuclear coercion. The NFU doctrine greatly contributes to the world’s strategic stability, as it decreases the risk of escalation in a crisis involving China. The doctrine stands in sharp contrast to the nuclear posture of the U.S., which in its Nuclear Posture Reviews has stated that it will consider the use of nuclear weapons in response to extreme circumstances, including significant non-nuclear contingencies.

The discrepancy can be explained by China’s philosophy of regarding nuclear weapons as a “paper tiger,” a concept dating back to the pre-nuclear Mao Zedong era. This philosophy views the destructive usage of nuclear weapons as extremely unlikely, leaving them with little practical value aside from empty nuclear blackmail. Consequently, China has since developed a strong taboo against the physical use of nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, China has been able to reach strategic stability with the U.S. China’s DF-5 and DF-31 inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are capable of credibly targeting and reaching the continental U.S., and the latter’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review acknowledges that the U.S. maintains a stable strategic relationship with China.

It would be a mistake to take this stability for granted, though. Currently, the most acute challenge is the United States’ efforts to comprehensively develop and expand global ballistic missile defense (BMD) abilities. While the U.S. has declared that its BMD system does not target Russia or China, it puts China’s credible nuclear retaliation capability in jeopardy. Given its enormous quantitative disadvantage, China cannot guarantee that what would be left of its nuclear missiles after a U.S. first strike would be able to penetrate the latter’s BMD network. The situation is further complicated by the introduction of more advanced U.S. interceptors, a development that pushes both countries toward a security dilemma: the U.S. will pursue more powerful BMD abilities and China will enlarge its nuclear stockpile as a countermeasure.  

As the U.S. withdraws from the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) treaty, in no small part due to China’s exclusion from it, it is crucial that we objectively assess China’s strategic ability and doctrine. While possessing a sizeable ballistic missile arsenal, China still confronts legitimate concern over the credibility of its nuclear capability. Moreover, because of China’s underdeveloped sea-based and air-based strategic assets, it remains reliant upon its quantitatively inferior land-based ICBMs, a strategy that magnifies the credibility problem. Although the U.S. would welcome China’s participation in the international strategic arms control regime, there is little possibility of this as of now, primarily because of China’s undersized nuclear arsenal. China could participate when it is on a more equal footing, but the process of attaining that status is in itself detrimental to strategic stability. Presently, China needs to actively engage the international community while implementing its nuclear doctrine. The maintenance of a frank and multileveled dialogue with the U.S. is a good start to preserving a strategic stability conducive to world peace.

Image: The Chinese Military

Courtesy of Brandon Atkinson / Flickr

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Zihao Liu is a Class of 2020 Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at the Fletcher School. He concentrates on International Business Relations & International Security. He hails from Kaifeng, Henan Province, China, and holds a B.A. in History from Cornell University.

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