Military watchers in recent years have made much of the rapid modernization of China’s military, focusing primarily on the introduction of new platforms, such as the J-20 stealth fighter and the refurbished Varyag aircraft carrier, or advances in missile technology, such as the Dong Feng-21D “carrier killer.” To a large extent, this is also what the US Department of Defense’s latest report on the Chinese military released last week zeroed in on.
However, since 1995, tens of thousands of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been working on a project that, to date, has attracted surprisingly little attention. That this is the case befuddles the mind, as this endeavor, first revealed in a 2008 CCTV documentary and confirmed by the PLA’s China Defense Daily in December 2009, has the potential to alter the strategic balance in the Pacific. Stunningly, the new Pentagon report only makes one brief mention of that development.
The project in question is a 5,000km tunnel, dubbed the “underground Great Wall,” which the Second Artillery has been digging in the mountainous regions of Hebei Province. The Second Artillery is in charge of China’s ballistic missile arsenal, including its strategic nuclear deterrent, though the latter falls under direct command of the Central Military Commission.
According to reports, the tunnel is being built to store China’s nuclear arsenal.
Officially, China has a “no first use” nuclear policy, meaning that its nuclear deterrent is contingent on its ability to sustain and survive a first strike. Given its reported depth of hundreds of meters underground, the tunnel would play a large role in ensuring China’s nuclear arsenal weathers an initial attack, even one that includes several nuclear weapons, so that it can counterattack.
Beyond survivability, the tunnel would make it far more difficult for US and allied imagery intelligence satellites to detect and locate China’s nuclear launchers. According to a recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists on China’s nuclear capabilities, the Second Artillery has an arsenal consisting of about 155 nuclear warheads ready to be deployed on six types of land-based missiles (other estimates put the number of warheads at about 400).
Worryingly, it is not known whether China has installed what are known as Permissive Action Links devices that “lock” nuclear warheads until the proper codes have been provided, usually by the president, to ensure civilian control over nuclear weapons.
Once everything is stored underground, and given that China tends to decouple warheads from the missiles, it will be next to impossible to quantify China’s entire nuclear arsenal. Not only would 5,000km of storage allow for a greatly expanded arsenal, but transport capabilities within the tunnel could allow for the launch of nuclear weapons from a number of locations along the tunnel.
A speaker at the Asian Strategic Studies Conference in Newport, Rhode Island, earlier this month said that, based on bits of information he had pieced together, estimates of China’s nuclear inventory could be missing the mark by a wide margin (as with everything else concerning the PLA, the nuclear forces are shrouded in secrecy and ambiguity, forcing governments and analysts alike to make guesstimates). Any substantial increase in its arsenal would mean that Beijing’s limited deterrent is — or could become — far greater than what we have come to expect.
If this were to materialize, the entire strategic balance in Asia would be shaken and would inevitably force the US, the sole security guarantor in the region, to reassess how it calculates the risks and costs of intervention, such as during a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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