EYES EAST

A decade after the end of the Cold War, the world faces the risk of new strategic instability. Policymakers in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow are moving toward decisions that may unintentionally increase nuclear dangers. The heart of the problem lies in insufficient attention to the intersection of three policy currents: American missile defenses, U.S.-Russian nuclear diplomacy, and Chinese nuclear modernization. Unless all three are given full consideration, American decisions in coming months could lead China to initiate a major buildup of its nuclear forces, increase Sino-Russian strategic cooperation, and jeopardize both efforts at arms reduction and the effectiveness of any American missile defenses that are eventually deployed.

A lingering bipolar mindset has left China the forgotten nuclear power. It is time that Washington turned its eyes to the East and came to grips with the fact that over the next decade it will likely be China, not Russia or any rogue, whose nuclear weapons policy will concern America most. The People's Republic has been modernizing its modest nuclear arsenal for 20 years and will continue to do so regardless of the actions of other nations. But external developments will influence the final contours of China's nuclear modernization program. In fact, Western actions have already had some effect, and not for the better. The Gulf War and the air war over Kosovo, for example, reinforced Chinese worries that precision-guided conventional weapons could destroy China's existing nuclear second-strike capability.

Such concerns about the erosion of China's nuclear deterrent have been largely dismissed by Americans, whose debates about national missile defense (NMD) have centered instead on the emerging dangers of small-scale missile launches from countries such as North Korea or Iran. Apart from questions of technological feasibility, the greatest obstacle to the deployment of such defenses has been thought to be the negative effects they might have on U.S.-Russian arms control agreements. Yet Washington seems determined to proceed with NMD whether or not it can find some way to overcome the current disagreement with Russia on modifying the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

Less often discussed is the fact that whatever Moscow's reaction will be, Beijing will almost certainly regard the plans for the deployment of NMD as a challenge to its own nuclear deterrent. As a result, Chinese decision-makers may even now have begun worst-case planning to offset what they perceive to be an emerging threat. It is high time, therefore, to take a close look at China's current strategic posture, nuclear doctrine, and arms control strategy.

THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY

Examining China's strategic posture poses a major challenge, because China is quite deliberately the least transparent of the acknowledged nuclear powers. The American government keeps its own assessments of China's arsenal tightly classified, and so discussion must proceed on the basis of the limited data available.

China exploded its first nuclear device in October 1964, and its first hydrogen bomb shortly thereafter. All told, China has conducted 45 nuclear weapons tests in 33 years -- a number identical to Britain's, but far less than the 1,030 conducted by the United States. Until recently, Beijing invested only modestly in its nuclear forces, and as a 1996 signatory of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), it HAS accepted constraints on its modernization efforts.

China's nuclear force is designed for two types of missions: medium- and long-range strategic strikes (to which approximately two-thirds of its warheads are devoted), and tactical uses including low-yield bombs, artillery shells, atomic demolition mines, and possible short-range missiles (together accounting for the remaining one-third). The core of the strategic force is composed of ballistic missiles, most of which are tipped with conventional warheads and have ranges suitable for use within Eurasia. Reportedly, about 20 missiles -- a small fraction of the long-range strike force -- are capable of reaching targets in the continental United States. Because the bulk of China's aging missile force is liquid-fueled, the missiles are on a low state of alert, with fuel, warheads, and missiles all stored separately. At present Beijing has no ability to launch "on warning" -- that is, at short notice or once an attack has already begun -- but this will change once it deploys more advanced missiles in years to come.

China's emphasis on land-based missiles has stemmed in part from its apparent lack of success in developing other long-range delivery systems. Although Beijing has pursued the ability to launch missiles from the sea for decades, its current force reportedly consists of only one submarine, armed with 12 medium-range Julang 1 ballistic missiles. China has also devoted some effort to developing a nuclear bomber capability. But for the moment its few bombers remain old, highly vulnerable, and unable to reach the continental United States. China therefore lacks the full strategic "triad" (made up of land-, sea-, and air-based weapons) enjoyed by the United States and Russia.

Aware of these deficiencies, Beijing is intent on modernizing its missile force to improve its range, payload, accuracy, and survivability. It wants to be better able to penetrate enemy defenses, to have more advanced command, control, and communication systems, and to gain the ability to attack space-based assets. The availability of advanced Russian technologies has expanded China's wish list to include alternative delivery techniques such as cruise missiles and new submarines with ballistic missile launching capability.

One of the first tangible results of the Chinese modernization program will be the deployment in the near future of the new, long-range DF-31 missile, which was successfully tested in August 1999. The solid-fueled, road-mobile DF-31 has a range of about 8,000 km and will be targeted primarily against Russia and Asia -- though it will also be capable of attacking sites in northwestern America. A naval variant of the DF-31 is also planned, and a still-longer-range system, the DF-41, is under development. American analysts agree that China has long had the ability to equip its ballistic missiles to deliver multiple warheads but has chosen not to do so. They disagree, however, about whether China can target those multiple warheads independently -- that is, whether China has true MIRV capability.

China's deployment of short- and intermediate-range missiles, meanwhile, is increasing, particularly in Fujian province across the strait from Taiwan. The reported number of missiles deployed there grew from about 20 in the mid-1990s to between 160 and 200 in early 1999, and it is estimated that the number might rise to between 500 and 650 within five years. These missiles are generally thought to be tipped with conventional warheads, although some reports indicate they could be given nuclear payloads.

THE MAXIMUM FOR THE MINIMUM

From its start in the 1960s, China's nuclear posture has been one of "minimum deterrence": a small number of missiles are deployed in a pattern designed to ensure that if attacked first, the country would still be able to inflict unacceptable damage on its opponent. Minimum deterrence calls for potential retaliatory strikes against large "value" targets such as cities; it differs from "limited deterrence," which implies some nuclear war-fighting capabilities. Beijing's doctrine has been essentially a defensive one, designed to preempt nuclear blackmail and to guarantee China a place at the councils of the major powers.

Strong evidence suggests that the utility of this long-standing doctrine is currently being questioned. Some Western observers, for example, interpret the modernization program as representing a shift from minimum to limited deterrence. Others see a differentiation and diversification of Chinese doctrine taking place, which would ultimately yield a credible minimum deterrent against the United States and Russia, a more aggressive posture of limited deterrence for China's theater (i.e. shorter-range) nuclear forces, and an offensively configured, war-fighting posture for its conventional missile force. The possibility of a military confrontation with Washington over Taiwan dominates this debate. Chinese analysts seem to have concluded that more nuclear muscle is needed to avoid being coerced, and Beijing apparently believes that advanced missile capabilities offer the prospect of leverage it can use to secure the island's reunification with the mainland.

How big China's nuclear force becomes is largely a matter of will, not capability. Beijing certainly has more than enough fissile material for a substantial increase in its nuclear arsenal. It can also afford a major expansion of its missile force. It is generally accepted that China could produce as many as a thousand new missiles, mostly short-range, within the next decade, and some reports indicate a Chinese capability to produce 10-12 new long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) per year.

An active Chinese MIRV program, of course, would dramatically increase the number of deliverable warheads. The U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China -- the Cox Committee -- concluded that China is capable of an "aggressive deployment of upward of 1,000 thermonuclear warheads on ICBMS by 2015." A recent unclassified National Intelligence Estimate, however, predicts a much smaller deployment amounting to tens of ICBMS capable of targeting the United States, including a few tens of more survivable, land- and sea-based mobile missiles with smaller nuclear warheads.

A DANGEROUS NEIGHBORHOOD

During the 1950s and 1960s, China's nuclear program was driven by challenges from the Soviet Union and the United States. Today both countries remain a profound concern for Beijing, but it has new worries as well, such as the emerging nuclear and missile capabilities in South Asia. (Here, of course, China's long-standing nuclear assistance to Pakistan is partly responsible for the problem.) Beijing's protestations that increased Indian nuclear capabilities will not produce a change in China's nuclear posture ring hollow. If India's Agni missile is deployed on mobile systems, as appears likely, this will further complicate Chinese nuclear planning. And if India moves to build a substantial number of warheads, Beijing will almost certainly resize and restructure its own nuclear arsenal.

Japan is another important factor in Beijing's nuclear calculus. Over the last decade, China has alternately feared that Japan would be drafted into a U.S.-led containment strategy or would be driven by a diminished American regional presence to confront China with its own nuclear force. Any deployment of theater missile defenses in Japan could provoke China to increase the number of weapons targeted there, including those with nuclear warheads.

As for Russia, Chinese thinking is conflicted. First and foremost, China appreciates Russia as a key source of advanced technology. At the same time the Chinese also seem concerned that despite having signed a no-first-use agreement with them, Russia has subsequently elaborated conditions under which it would indeed consider a first strike. If Russia were to deploy enhanced strategic defenses to protect its nuclear forces, China would be even more inclined to enlarge its own nuclear forces in order to retain a secure retaliatory capability.

The Chinese are skeptical, meanwhile, about Washington's professed commitment to de-emphasizing nuclear weapons in its current and future defense policy. Beijing thinks that the Pentagon remains committed to the centrality of such weapons in U.S. strategy, and it interprets U.S. reluctance to embrace a no-first-use doctrine as an indication of American planning for the use of nuclear weapons preemptively. China believes that the United States has a huge current quantitative advantage in destructive capability and will be able to increase its qualitative lead, as well, thanks to its greater technological sophistication. Furthermore, China believes that since U.S. counterforce capabilities can eliminate most of China's current second-strike capability, the addition of even a thin U.S. missile defense system would usher in a world in which the United States could dictate terms.

American officials and pundits have given considerable thought to the problem of constructing a missile defense system large enough to neutralize any threat from North Korea or the Persian Gulf but not so large as to render current Russian forces useless. The missing ingredient in these calculations has been China, which poses a particular problem because the size of its nuclear missile force is much closer to that of the so-called rogues than it is to Russia's. Even a thin U.S. NMD system could be viewed by Beijing as degrading China's nuclear deterrent. A move toward such a system could therefore motivate the Chinese to adjust their strategy and doctrine to compensate, by building larger forces and developing countermeasures to overwhelm U.S. defenses. This in turn would probably cause the United States to shift toward thicker defenses, creating a spiral that could become, if not a full arms race, then at least a jog. The initial American move would thus end up complicating the very problem that missile defenses were supposed to solve.

Beijing's initial response to U.S. NMD planning was signaled by its October 1999 announcement of a program earmarking an additional $9.7 billion to boost its second-strike capabilities. If the United States proceeds to deploy some 200 interceptors at two national sites (including one in Alaska) in the context of agreed minor amendments to the ABM treaty, China may well conclude that ensured penetration will require a buildup of its own long-range missile force and possibly also the introduction of some MIRVS, along with other countermeasures. If the United States goes further and pursues a broad range of sea-, air-, and space-based missile defense systems, China may seek a far more substantial capacity for itself, one that would enable it to overwhelm both national and theater defenses with both conventional and nuclear missiles. And if the United States goes so far as to withdraw from the ABM treaty entirely, China is likely to embark on a full-scale drive for a far more powerful nuclear force, concluding that Russian and other critics have been correct in arguing that the United States has no intention of stopping with a thin defense aimed at rogues but intends to erect a strong defense against all comers.

Chinese rhetoric conveys Beijing's increasing wariness of American power and intentions -- a wariness that has already had an impact on Beijing's defense investment strategy and its willingness to support Washington's policy initiatives in other areas. The future of the Chinese nuclear program, nevertheless, is still up in the air, with three possibilities particularly likely. The first would involve China's trying to preserve or restore minimum deterrence with the United States by increasing the number of its ICBMS and enhancing their effectiveness in penetrating defenses. The second would involve China's concentrating more on India, remaining committed to minimum deterrence globally while moving toward more robust limited-deterrence strategies at the theater level. And the third would involve China's choosing to develop and deploy a force powerful enough to inflict significant pain on all adversaries in nearly all situations; here China would embrace limited deterrence across the board.

Elements of all three scenarios are visible in Beijing's present activities. For example, ongoing research and development of longer-range missiles and defensive countermeasures suggests movement in the direction of the first option. Large-scale deployment of missiles capable of targeting China's regional neighbors suggests the second option (albeit with a small nuclear component). And movement toward the third option can be inferred from ongoing investments and research, development, and deployment programs.

From Washington's perspective, the best outcome would be for China's nuclear forces to stay small and composed only of single-warhead missiles. The United States should seek to reduce the Chinese threat to American friends and allies in the region and try to ensure that China's strategic modernization does not block progress in reducing the Russian arsenal. The United States also has an interest in deploying viable theater missile defenses where they seem necessary, while taking care that Beijing does not see such deployments as gratuitously provocative. Securing these interests will require an understanding between Washington and Beijing on mutual intentions, capabilities, and future requirements.

SQUARING THE TRIANGLE

The old bipolar strategic model simply does not fit post-Cold War realities. In addition to obscuring an important Sino-Russian nuclear dynamic, the bipolar focus fails to acknowledge that at some point Washington and Moscow's build-downs will intersect with Beijing's buildup. Establishing longer-term security and stability will require that the United States recognize the inevitable interaction between any nuclear "floor" that the United States and Russia might establish (either inside or outside the ABM treaty) and the "ceiling" that China chooses to erect.

Is minimum deterrence among the three major powers feasible, and would it be stable? What new forms of arms racing might occur, involving not merely offensive weapons but defensive weapons and countermeasures as well? Even if the three powers somehow arrive at a common notion of offensive or defensive stability among themselves, how will this be affected by Chinese concerns over Indian nuclear forces? And how might Russia have to account for possible future proliferation along its southern periphery? These are the kinds of questions that the emerging strategic multipolarity forces us to ask.

China was generally opposed to arms control during the Cold War, seeing it as an instrument for preserving the hegemony of stronger powers. But this mindset has evolved in recent years, as has China's understanding of arms control issues. During the last decade China has signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the CTBT. China also supports the negotiation of a ban on the production of fissile materials and has agreed to bring its technology export practices more fully into compliance with international norms. In 1997 it joined the Zangger Committee, which, under the NPT, coordinates nuclear export policies. It has taken steps to address U.S. concerns about missile and chemical proliferation as well. There is no question that its current arms control and nonproliferation practices are significantly closer to U.S. preferences than they were a decade ago.

Nevertheless, Washington remains justifiably concerned about the depth of China's commitment to these undertakings. Reports continue to surface of disturbing Chinese transfers of weapons-related technologies and materials, and American officials believe China is not fully in compliance with its obligations under the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, to which it acceded in 1984.

The truth is that Beijing's arms control policies are ambiguous and in flux. Beijing may see arms control as part of an integrated set of policies aimed at enhancing national security and international stability. It may also view arms control negotiations as a way to increase leverage in bilateral ties with Washington, or as part of a larger effort to impose constraints on American freedom of action. And finally, it remains possible that Beijing pursues arms control at the rhetorical level but not in a way that has any actual impact on military decisions.

TO THE BARGAINING TABLE?

One consistent feature of Beijing's nuclear arms control policies over the years has been an avoidance of negotiated constraints on its modest arsenal. In the 1980s Beijing argued that it need not address arms control issues until the superpowers reduced their nuclear arsenals by 50 percent. When the United States and Russia then cut back by 60 percent, the Chinese switched to arguing that the Americans and the Russians should come down to China's level -- roughly 400 warheads -- before talks could commence. Today, with the United States and Russia continuing to build down and China modernizing, the old Chinese logic no longer applies, and the time is fast approaching for the United States to put China's intentions to the test.

The current environment, it is true, does not appear favorable for the negotiation of sweeping new formal arms control accords. China sees the American drift toward missile defense as irreversible, and thus is unlikely to accept any restraint on its missile forces. The United States, meanwhile, is unlikely to accept restraints itself, not least because it has not yet decided what role it wants nuclear weapons to play in its own post-Cold War defense strategy. Yet the real possibility that uncoordinated decisions by Washington, Moscow, and Beijing could set off new, unintended, offensive versus defensive arms competition makes some kind of high-level discussions on the subject imperative.

At a minimum, Washington needs to rethink its nuclear and missile defense policies to take Chinese concerns and possible reactions into account. American policymakers, for example, have yet to analyze how effective their planned national missile defenses may be if China implements MIRVS, adds several hundred warheads, or obtains better penetration aids, countermeasures, and targeting assistance from Russia.

The United States should also go further and try to reach some understanding with China about what the conditions might be for strategic stability in the Sino-U.S. relationship and how to handle regional proliferation and arms control issues in areas such as the Korean Peninsula, South Asia, and the Middle East. China may just prefer an open-ended nuclear modernization program to any framework that the United States suggests. But by not putting Chinese intentions to the test, American policymakers risk ending up with the worst of both worlds: missile defenses that are less effective than they might have been, and Chinese and Russian strategic responses that leave the United States less secure than before.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now