Source The Bulletin
CHICAGO, U.S.--The US Defense Department released a report this month that spotlights the Chinese military’s rapid nuclear modernization efforts. The report follows news earlier this year that China constructed potential intercontinental ballistic missile silos and tested an orbital hypersonic missile system.
China has also been at work strengthening its nuclear triad capability of land, sea, and air missiles. And the country is reportedly experimenting with new and perhaps exotic delivery technologies, while possibly shifting toward a launch on warning posture.
Chinese decision makers have never elaborated in public about speeding up China’s traditionally modest nuclear modernization program.
Then, in 2016, he instructed Rocket Force officials to “accelerate the pace of development and make a solid effort to bring strategic capabilities to a high level.”
“Our sea-based nuclear capabilities need to massively develop,” Xi told naval leaders during a 2018 submarine base inspection.
The additional emphasis on “accelerate” reveals his urgency to expedite the nuclear modernization process. What military rationale may have contributed to this development?
On a basic level, China may simply want to further assure its second-strike capability. The country has long relied on an uncertain second-strike capability as a deterrent, according to some Chinese nuclear experts.
Even considering Chinese strategists’ long-standing distrust of the US military, China’s projected nuclear buildup looks excessive for securing a basic second-strike capability.
Instead, China may be aiming to achieve some escalation management capabilities.
Since the 1980s, Chinese nuclear strategists have recognized that the threat of massive retaliation lacks credibility and could be considered too escalatory against a limited nuclear attack. Instead, they may have sought more sophisticated nuclear development and employment policies.
At the same time, China may be concerned that the US reemphasis on low-yield nuclear weapons in recent years indicates a lower threshold for nuclear use. China could de-escalate a nuclear conflict on its own terms by responding symmetrically or proportionately to limited US nuclear employment.
Admittedly, such missiles would also give China the capacity to initiate a limited nuclear strike in a regional conventional conflict, such as one over the Taiwan Strait. Yet China’s growing conventional military advantages within the First Island Chain could help reduce its incentive to do so.
Nevertheless, China may be concerned about US nuclear first use, given the shifting balance of conventional military power in the region. Indeed, many international analysts believe the Chinese paramount leader seeks to achieve national unification with Taiwan by 2049.
If China is capable of conducting proportionate nuclear retaliation at the theater level, it could deter Washington from escalating the conventional war to the nuclear level.
Even if deterrence fails, China’s accurate theater-range nuclear weapons would increase Beijing’s chances of achieving de-escalation on terms favorable to China.
If a regional nuclear conflict further escalates and the United States launches a limited nuclear strike on select military targets in China, Beijing might want to respond with a limited nuclear strike on select military targets on the US homeland.
For a limited nuclear strike, China could not simply launch more missiles to saturate US missile defenses, as that would obscure the limited nature and intention of the strike.
For this reason, China may be developing a more advanced nuclear force as a means to acquire escalation management capabilities. In particular, the reported development of an intercontinental hypersonic glider system could be useful in this regard.
China may have had trouble determining how much nuclear modernization is sufficient for securing a second-strike capability. But it may have had even more trouble deciding how much additional nuclear modernization is sufficient for acquiring a proper escalation management capability.
If China is indeed exploring nuclear escalation management options, the already-competitive US-China nuclear relationship would become much more acute.
The new Defense Department report asserts that China “probably seeks to keep at least a portion of its force on a [launch on warning] posture” and “has conducted exercises involving early warning of a nuclear strike and launch on warning responses” since 2017.
Given the US nuclear superiority, Chinese leaders might not be able to respond in kind. But this problem could be mitigated if Beijing publicly adopts the launch on warning.
Washington would then need to consider the possibility that Chinese leaders could order an immediate nuclear retaliation within minutes of detecting incoming US missiles and before any US threat of follow-on nuclear attack could be issued.
As a Chinese and world citizen, I am not alone in speculating about the Chinese government’s nuclear thinking. Senior Chinese diplomats in charge of relevant policy issues are not necessarily informed about the People’s Liberation Army’s nuclear capability development and policy deliberation.
If Beijing elaborated on the military rationale behind China’s nuclear expansion, it would help mitigate international anxieties.