Having deceived the world about its nuclear capabilities while preparing for an arms race, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now using its increasing nuclear forces for virtual nuclear coercion. This new threat will continue until the United States, Japan, and Taiwan can restore the CCP’s sense of fear.
This dynamic is a familiar one for Taiwan. As the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) capabilities have grown, its inhibitions about conducting larger and more frequent coercive military demonstrations have shrunk. The PLA now more openly practices for the destruction of Taiwan’s democracy and the murder of its citizens.
In the nuclear realm, the CCP for decades abjured nuclear transparency and nuclear arms control for its weapons, while it carefully cultivated an image of nuclear restraint. This nuclear deception was summed up in China’s 2019 Defence White Paper:
“China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security.”
The era of a “minimum” Chinese nuclear force is over; China has spent the last three decades preparing for a nuclear arms race. Such conclusions flow from recent revelations that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is now building at least 136 new silos at two locations, most likely for a new version of its latest 6 to 10-warhead-capable DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Starting with open-source estimates of a PLA nuclear warhead count of about 350, this means a possible 816 to 1,360 warheads if all silos are filled with DF-41s. The Pentagon warns that additional DF-41 units could also be based on railroads, with notably more warheads there.
A new JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile may carry up to 6 warheads, so yet more warheads. Informal Chinese sources also mention an even larger silo-based ICBM, sometimes called the DF-45. All of this means that warhead numbers will continue to increase.
By the middle of this decade the PLA could have more deployed nuclear warheads than the 1,357 currently deployed on United States SLBMs and ICBMs, meaning Chinese oaths about restraint were lies.
The 2019 White Paper also states: “China pursues a nuclear strategy of self-defense, the goal of which is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.”
However, the PLARF’s latest DF-41 ICBM silo field is located in Gansu Province. Along with nearby underground DF-31A unit, the PLARF will soon have enough warheads to conduct a possible first strike against 400 US Minuteman ICBM silos in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming.
Chinese and Russian cooperation in “missile defense” over most of the last decade means they are preparing for joint “missile offense.” Perhaps they assess that threatening Washington with twice as many nuclear warheads will prevent it from stopping a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
So, China’s era of a putative “nuclear strategy of self-defense” may well be over. As Dr. Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania has noted, the CCP is losing its sense of fear, and its aggression may not be deterred by the nuclear and conventional military might of the United States. [https://grici.or.jp/2386]
As the CCP began to use the PLA to directly coerce Taiwan after it reached a level of missile, air, and naval superiority over the island democracy, the CCP’s expectation of nuclear parity or superiority has released inhibitions against engaging in nuclear coercion.
After Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s July 5, 2020 suggestion that Japan might have to help defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, two videos emerged on the Liu Jun Tao Lue (六軍韜略), or “Wisdom & Strategies for 6 Armies” Chinese web page. CCP analyst Jennifer Zeng (曾錚) has noted the web page is either owned by, or has strong ties to, the PLA. [https://www.jenniferzengblog.com/home/2021/7/15/nuke-and-eliminate-japan-the-ccps-threat-and-its-long-term-goal-and-global-strategy]
One video begins by declaring, “When we liberate Taiwan, if Japan dares to intervene by force, even if it only deploys one soldier, one plane and one ship, we will not only return reciprocal fire, but also start a full-scale war against Japan. We will use nuclear bombs first. We will use nuclear bombs continuously until Japan declares unconditional surrender for the second time.”
But that’s not all. A second video describes how a Chinese war against Taiwan must include the even greater objective of the defeat of Japan, saying, “Attacking Japan is the main deployment. Start with Taiwan, culminate in Japan with full force, and end with Japan’s surrender.”
This video then continues, “after defeating Japan, we must take more severe measures than in World War II to partition Japan and completely eliminate the root causes of the war by dividing the four Japanese islands into four independent states… each of the four countries should be placed under the administration of China and Russia, with China and Russia stationing troops, and the Ryukyu Islands should be separated from Japan and placed under the administration of China or become an independent state.”
The video’s appearance on a Chinese web page means it had to be approved by Chinese Propaganda Department censors. Deletion of the two videos within days does not connote disapproval, but that Chinese authorities want to be able to deny having made such odious threats.
But now the world is warned. No future CCP declarations of a “nuclear strategy of self-defense” or No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons can be taken seriously. No governments henceforth can discount the possibility that China will strike first with nuclear weapons, use them massively to win wars, and use them to wreak horrible destruction on its target countries. China will also now increasingly add this “virtual nuclear terrorism” to its already growing use of conventional military and political-economic tools for campaigns of coercion.
The challenge now for Washington, Tokyo, and Taipei is to reconstruct the CCP’s sense of fear and doubt. Producing videos of intimate nuclear destruction of China’s 50 largest cities will be misplaced, the CCP has no human heart, no pangs of conscience at all for having killed 70 million Chinese, while now suggesting it is ready to kill millions of Japanese and Taiwanese.
Perhaps only by threatening its survival is it possible to arrest the CCP’s behavior. This first means that the United States, Britain, and France must increase their strategic and tactical nuclear arsenals to overcome combined China-Russia nuclear threats. A recent decision by the US Department of the Navy to eliminate funding for a new tactical nuclear-armed cruise missile will only serve to invite CCP contempt and aggression.
Second, Washington must double the funding to accelerate the development and deployment of new theater-range ballistic and cruise missiles, and make them available as appropriate to allies and partners like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan. Taipei should be offered new 500km to 2000km-range ballistic missiles to enable its immediate broad retaliation against PLA attack.
Since World War Two, Washington has aided China’s security by preventing nuclear weapons proliferation among US allies and partners, generosity that China used to buy time to build its own world-threatening nuclear arsenal — after turning Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran into nuclear missile states. It is time to publicly warn the CCP that such forbearance will cease, and that the security requirements of allies and partners will be the paramount US consideration.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a Senior Fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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