China’s nuclear arsenal will more than triple to 1,500 warheads by 2035, the Pentagon said last month in its annual report on the country’s military developments. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Defence estimated that China held approximately 200 warheads and predicted the tally to double within a decade. Only two years later, Beijing’s nuclear capability has already reached that mark and could approach Washington’s deployed warheads in the 2030s, Nikkei reports.
A senior defence official told CNN that the accelerated expansion of China’s nuclear stockpile reflects “a set of capabilities taking shape and new numbers in terms of what they’re looking to pursue that raise some questions about what their intent will be in the longer term.” The report, titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China”, also said that China conducted 135 ballistic missile tests in 2021, which is more than the rest of the world combined.
Concerns about the revival of nuclear competition began in June of last year, when satellite images revealed the construction of three missile silo fields in remote areas of northwestern China. The sites resemble existing facilities operated by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) known to house intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Signals intelligence showed 350-400 new silos in total that are likely designed to hold DF-41s—ICBMs that carry nuclear warheads as far as 9,300 miles.
The drivers of these developments are unclear given Beijing’s long-held commitment to a “minimum deterrence” employment strategy and defensive nuclear posture. The strategy of minimum deterrence holds that the sole purpose of developing and storing nuclear weapons is to deter adversarial nuclear powers by making the cost of a first strike unacceptably high. Historically, China’s nuclear stockpile has remained well below that of the United States because Chinese leaders have decided to deploy only the minimum quantity of operational ICBMs deemed necessary for deterrence.
Why is China installing hundreds of new silos? One assessment is that Beijing is merely attempting to strengthen the credibility of its nuclear deterrent and expand its bargaining power in future negotiations with Washington. This reasoning stems from a belief that Beijing’s primary concern remains maintaining a survivable second-strike force. According to Tong Zhao, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, some Chinese experts have argued that the PLARF needs a greater number of missiles to bypass the advanced missile defence systems owned by the United States. The new installations are positioned beyond the reach of U.S. conventional cruise missiles located in the region, thus denying the ability of the U.S. military to conduct a preemptive conventional strike.
However, the new missile bases may also reflect fundamental changes in China’s nuclear strategy that support the pursuit of great power ambitions. The silos violate the principle of minimum deterrence because there have been no recent changes in China’s security environment that warrant a rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal. It is unlikely that 1,500 warheads will be necessary in the near future if today, 400 of them satisfy the minimum requirements for deterrence.
Additionally, foreign intelligence shows that the PLARF may be changing the operation and maintenance of the ICBM silos. In the past, China’s nuclear warheads were stored separately from their delivery systems, indicating a peacetime status. But multiple sources confirmed that the PLARF has recently conducted Launch on Warning exercises. U.S. Strategic Command commander, Admiral Charles A. Richard, said: “increasing evidence suggests China has moved a portion of its nuclear force to a Launch on Warning (LOW) posture and are adopting a limited ‘high alert duty’ strategy.” The increasing readiness of China’s nuclear forces points to a significant revision of the country’s nuclear policy.
In sum, China is likely expanding its nuclear capabilities to gain a strategic edge over the United States and strengthen its coercive leverage over neighbouring countries, not just because of defensive aims. The PLA has already invested in the modernization of its conventional assets, such as armoured divisions and fifth-generation fighter jets. According to an estimate by defence consultancy LTSG, “the annual dollar value of PLA procurement is on course to eclipse that of the U.S. military by 2024.” Increasing the size and readiness of its nuclear forces will give PLA leadership the ability to execute any strategy Beijing chooses.
The full implications of this development for the United States have yet to unfold. On the one hand, the expansion of China’s nuclear capabilities increases the potential magnitude and scope of great power conflict. If limited warfare over Taiwan or disputed territory in the South China Sea escalated into a nuclear exchange, China’s nuclear missiles would likely survive a first strike by the U.S. military and stand a greater chance of penetrating U.S. missile defence systems. On the other hand, nuclear weapons often decrease the probability of war because state actors want to avoid mutually assured destruction.
In any case, the missile bases signal a fundamental shift in China’s nuclear force posture that will exert constant influence on the strategic calculus of Beijing and Washington as well as their crisis response in the long term. The U.S. Department of Defence is expected to spend more than $600 billion over the next decade to maintain and modernize its own nuclear arsenal, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Instead, the United States should redouble efforts to engage China in nuclear arms negotiations and bolster communication through diplomatic and military channels to prevent unintended escalation of future conflicts.
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