Coinciding with the largest Sino-Russian joint naval exercise to date and the decision by Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping to travel to Moscow as his first official visit, there are growing signs that strategic relations between China and Russia are on an upswing. Yet the nuclear and strategic relationship between these two powers remains largely unexamined, as do their long-term prospects for cooperation. In the culminating session of the “China and Russia Dialogues” and “Arms Control Seminar Series” for senior experts and the “China and Russia’s Future” and “Arms Control’s Future” for rising experts, Chinese scholars assembled to explore Sino-Russian strategic and nuclear ties. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman served as a speaker and moderator.

Russia’s and China’s Nuclear Evolution

A Chinese expert remarked that comparing China’s and Russia’s nuclear posture is difficult due to the marked disparities in their nuclear arsenals. He added that Russia and the United States are much more comparable, given their expansive nuclear triads. Despite Washington’s claims that it seeks to cooperate with Moscow on further nuclear reductions and to engage China among others in the future, much of this remains aspirational, he said. Moscow’s lukewarm response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin advocating bilateral reductions to 1000 deployed nuclear warheads, coupled with Russia’s plans to strengthen its nuclear deterrent, undermine Washington’s position, he added.

  • Moscow’s Nuclear Continuity: A Chinese expert noted that Russia continues to adhere to several key Cold War strategic elements, including maintaining its nuclear status, large nuclear arsenal, and mutually assured destruction posture vis-à-vis Washington. Given Moscow’s stated willingness to use nuclear weapons in the face of a national crisis, it still possesses a nuclear war-fighting strategy, he said. This is unlike Beijing, he added. Despite the fact that the Soviet Union made a no-first-use pledge, later followed by a Russian bilateral agreement with China, the Chinese expert noted that the commitment was later relinquished and lacks credibility given Russia’s overall nuclear posture.
  • Moscow’s Nuclear Shifts: A Chinese expert noted that Russia seeks to continue its nuclear power status by investing in such weapon systems as a heavy intercontinental ballistic missile, armed with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). He suggested that these expansions are intended to maintain the reliability and effectiveness of Russia’s nuclear force, as well as quantitative and qualitative parity with Washington. A U.S. expert added that Moscow’s nuclear pursuits also compensate for weaknesses in Russia’s conventional arsenal. She pointed out that Chinese analysts assert that Russia has shifted in its posture from no first use, to first use, to preemption with its:

    • Relinquishment in 1993 of the Soviet no-first-use pledge

    • Declarations in 1997 and 2000 on nuclear deterrence of conventional conflict and invasion

    • Orders in 1999 for tactical nuclear weapons expansion

    • Statements in 2006 and 2010 citing nuclear deterrence as a national security pillar

  • Beijing’s Nuclear Continuity: One Chinese expert noted that Beijing’s nuclear posture remains unchanged, featuring pursuit of global disarmament, no first use, and unconditional negative security assurances. While Moscow seeks parity with Washington, Beijing only seeks survival, stressed one Chinese participant. China forswears the use of nuclear weapons unless in retaliation against a nuclear strike, he added. Beijing learned the lessons of U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms racing, he added, and will not engage in a large-scale expansion of its nuclear weapons. One Chinese expert noted China will develop a “sufficient and reliable” (zugou de, kekao de) nuclear deterrent force. Given the costs of dismantling a nuclear arsenal, he stressed that it would not be in Beijing’s interest to develop large numbers of weapons that it would later have to eliminate.
  • Beijing’s Nuclear Shifts: A Chinese expert noted that while MIRVs give Moscow greater confidence vis-à-vis Washington, Beijing lacks such confidence when faced with U.S. redirection of its interceptor and radar expansion towards the Asia Pacific, with the cancellation of Phase IV of the ballistic missile defense (BMD) phased adaptive approach. He said that Chinese eschewal of MIRVs might change in the face of such threats. Chinese lacunae in early warning and missile decoys also weaken Beijing’s nuclear retaliatory ambiguity, he maintained. While the implications of BMD for Beijing receive less attention than those for Moscow, he noted that it poses a greater threat for China’s smaller nuclear arsenal. If Washington were to limit BMD, Beijing could consider capping its nuclear arsenal, he argued. Without compromise, China will continue its nuclear modernization in numbers and technology to potentially include counterforce and countervalue targets, as well as first strike, he said.

Linking Moscow, Beijing, and Washington

The likelihood of Beijing engaging in future nuclear reductions talks depends on the level to which Moscow and Washington are able to reduce their arsenals, according to a Chinese expert. While a number of U.S. experts suggest that early Chinese participation would be ill-advised, Russia has prioritized multilateralization and inclusion of China before nuclear talks proceed, a U.S. expert noted. She argued that this could have to do with Russia’s desire to stymie reductions due to the centrality of its nuclear arsenal and modernization aims, as well as lingering concerns over the level of transparency regarding China’s current arsenal and the potential for it to use Russian and U.S. reductions to sprint to parity.

  • U.S. BMD, PGS, and Space: A Chinese expert noted that given Washington’s pursuit of BMD and prompt global strike (PGS), the centrality of Russia’s nuclear arsenal in its national security strategy has grown. While the threat of U.S. BMD to Russia’s nuclear retaliatory capabilities is distant, it undermines bilateral nuclear and military balance. A Chinese expert noted that while PGS would not necessarily negate China’s and Russia’s retaliatory capabilities, it makes the use of conventional weapons against nuclear facilities more likely. Another Chinese expert added that the two countries share concerns over weaponization of outer space and its impact on strategic stability and arms racing. Given this, she noted that the chance of Sino-Russian nuclear conflict or tension is small.
  • Beyond Ideology Toward Insecurity: A U.S. participant noted that while Washington looms large in Russian threat perceptions, it is not the Kremlin’s only consideration. She explained that the economic and territorial challenges facing Russia, as well as its weakening of comprehensive national power, also pose challenges to the Sino-Russian relationship. She highlighted meetings at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, during which Russian participants lamented economic and power imbalances between Moscow and Beijing. She also noted lingering tensions in the Russian Far East illustrated by Moscow’s concerns over population and other pressures, as well as an incident in which the Russian Embassy in Beijing’s Weibo account was flooded with Chinese criticism over territory.
  • China-Russia Nuclear Road Ahead: While not often discussed openly, Beijing has real concerns over Russian shifts of military power to the Russian Far East and the Asia-Pacific, including deployment of nuclear-capable Su-27SM and Su-35 fighter aircraft, Voronezh early warning radar that can be used for detecting Chinese missile launches, and the reinvigoration of the Russian nuclear submarine forces and navy, said one U.S. expert. A Chinese participant noted the Kremlin has questions over the Great Wall Engineering Project—a network of underground tunnels in China thought by some to contain thousands of nuclear warheads. Yet he stressed that Moscow and Beijing are united in viewing Washington as their primary nuclear deterrence target. Pairing Russia and China as strategic challenges in U.S. official strategic documents and statements exacerbates this trend, he said. As such, Chinese and U.S. experts agreed that the United States remains the greatest factor strengthening Sino-Russian strategic relations.