In the human sphere triangular relationships tend to be unstable until two of the parties either rebuild their previous relationship or forge another. China’s nuclear buildup has upended the previous bilateral United States and Soviet Union/Russian nuclear competition and stability. But China’s unwillingness to forge a new trilateral nuclear stability is pushing the United States, its allies, and partners that include Taiwan, into a new period of superpower strategic competition.
To its credit, in the midst of the Chinese Coronavirus pandemic and its blow to the US economy, compounded by political polarization following widespread protests and riots sparked by tragedy, the Trump Administration has spent most of this year reaching out to Russia and China to begin something never before sought: nuclear arms control negotiations by the world’s three nuclear superpowers.
There is now some urgency; on February 5, 2021 the 2010 New START Treaty expires, ending the limitation on US and Russian deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 each. This follows the Trump Administration’s February 1, 2019 suspension of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty due to Russian violations, meaning both parties are now able to build new 500km to 5,000km range missiles.
But China has added the most urgency. Over the last decade its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has secured Asian regional missile superiority with a force of 2,200 INF Treaty range theater ballistic and cruise missiles, according to US officials. In mid-June, evidence emerged on Chinese state television that the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) has just deployed its new 1,700km range Dong Feng DF-17 to a base near Tonghua, near the North Korean border. This is the world’s first theater-range missile to be armed with a hard-to-intercept hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) warhead, threatening US forces in Okinawa that may have to help defend Taiwan. Also, the PLARF has started a surge in the production of new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Before taking office, President-elect Donald Trump expressed his dissatisfaction with the evolving nuclear balance in a December 22, 2016 tweet, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such a time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
All US Administrations since the early 1990s have tried to privately discuss nuclear stability issues with China, but Trump has gone public. In his February 5, 2019 State of the Union address, Trump called on Russia and China to negotiate a new treaty to replace the failed INF Treaty, and then on August 2, 2019 disclosed that he had “discussed” this idea with Russian and Chinese leaders. At the end of February 2020, the Trump Administration revealed at the United Nations National Security Council that it had offered to discuss nuclear arms control with Russia and China. This past May 7, it was disclosed that Trump had again called Russian President Vladimir Putin to suggest China be involved in new nuclear negotiations. China was invited to but refused to join US-Russian nuclear talks to begin on June 22.
For decades China has refused all requests that it consider arms control agreements that would affect its nuclear weapons arsenal. It repeatedly stated that China’s nuclear strategy is defensive, simply to deter nuclear attack, with a policy of No-First-Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons; and reasserted claims that its nuclear forces are much smaller than those of the US and Russia, and that they must first be reduced before involving China. But in Asia today, China’s PLA has the largest force of nuclear-armed and dual-capable nuclear and non-nuclear armed ballistic and cruise missiles. In 2011 retired Russian Rocket Force Chief of Staff Victor Esin wrote that China may have 500 to 600 tactical nuclear weapons.
Having long lagged in its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the PLA now is in the midst of a surge in their development and production. In 2019 the US Department of Defense credited the PLARF with “90” land-based ICBMs. Most open sources estimate China has 300 to 400 warheads. But the PLA is now deploying, producing or developing six types of land-based ICBMs (DF-5B; DF-5C; DF-31A; DF-31AKG; DF-41-road; and DF-41 rail-based), and two types of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (JL-2 and JL-3). Five of these carry multiple warheads: DF-5B (3 warheads); DF-5C (10); DF-41 road/rail (6-10) and the JL-3 (3-6).
Amid its repeated refusal to join new nuclear negotiations, the apex voice of China’s state media called for a massive nuclear buildup. In what may be as close as you get to a press release from the Chinese Communist Party, on May 8 Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡錫進) stated, “China needs to expand the number of its nuclear warheads to 1,000 in a relatively short time.” He also called for “at least 100 Dong Feng-41 strategic missiles.” However, some informal Chinese sources indicate that the size of a PLARF missile Brigade may be increasing from 18 to 60 missiles, which raises the potential for China deploying thousands of warheads and adopting “active” or warfighting nuclear strategies.
China’s doing so would be consistent with its major strategic goals. China requires nuclear parity or superiority with the United States in order to deter the US from defending Taiwan from a PLA invasion. Without control of Taiwan and the destruction of its democracy, China cannot achieve hegemony in Asia. Nuclear superiority is also necessary for the CCP to meet its goal of having the most powerful global military power by 2050, to achieve a new global hegemony.
Even though ultimately it too will be threatened by China, Russia for now is not being helpful. On June 9, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that Russia would not help convince China to join new nuclear arms control negotiations, saying that was China’s “sovereign” choice. But Moscow’s calculation may be far more cynical. In the last decade China and Russia have embarked on a course of increasing strategic military cooperation. They held joint command post missile defense exercises in 2016 and 2017. Perhaps they are also planning missile “offense” cooperation, which means that a much larger Chinese nuclear force would favor Russia, which is also rapidly modernizing its nuclear forces.
All of this points to a need to give China and Russia incentives to begin sincere negotiations. The Trump Administration certainly has tried to convince China to join new nuclear talks with Russia. But it could also be the case that in 2016 Trump was prescient; the US may also have to modernize and significantly increase its nuclear forces before Russia and China see that it is in their interest to reduce these weapons. Leaving the INF Treaty now gives the US the opportunity to counter China’s and Russia’s dangerous superiority in theater missiles and tactical nuclear weapons. By 2023-2024 the US may be deploying new theater-range tactical nuclear armed cruise missiles and new ballistic and hypersonic missiles. Washington is already discussing their deployment with some Asian allies, although many may be deployed on US Navy ships and submarines. But the US also needs to offer some non-nuclear versions of these missiles to its allies, and to partners like Taiwan.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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