China’s nuclear modernization concerns the United States and its Asian allies, but Washington has largely failed to engage Beijing effectively on nuclear strategy. The failure stems at least in part from China’s view that engagement narrowly focused on nuclear issues is a losing proposition. To make progress in his second term, President Obama should offer a broader vision for strategic cooperation that includes reducing nuclear risks by restraining competition in the conventional realm.
Over the last ten or fifteen years, the possibility of a conflict with China has become an ever more important focus of U.S. defense planning. With long-running wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, preparing for such a contingency has not always been the highest-profile item on the Pentagon’s agenda. But, the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia is clear evidence of where it believes the risk of interstate warfare, defined in terms of both likelihood and consequence, is greatest.
Sino-American military competition primarily plays out in the conventional domain, and escalation to nuclear use in a U.S.-Chinese conflict is thankfully much less likely than it was during the U.S.-Soviet standoff. Yet both Washington and Beijing still plan for a nuclear war—the ultimate in low-probability, high-consequence catastrophes. For this reason more than any other, the administration of Barack Obama, like the George W. Bush administration before it, has sought to manage the risk by engaging China in a strategic dialogue. The administration is virtually certain to continue these efforts in Obama’s second term.
Certainly, the Obama administration is also driven in part by a desire to create political and security conditions that would enable deep reductions in nuclear weapons, eventually leading to their abolition. One of these conditions is the integration of China’s nuclear arsenal into an arms control framework. However, other reasons to engage China on nuclear deterrence command broader political support. China is slowly expanding and modernizing its nuclear forces, sparking concern in both the United States and among Washington’s Asian allies, most notably Japan. These concerns are exacerbated by Beijing’s refusal to provide information about the size and structure of its arsenal. As long as these trends continue, all U.S. administrations—Democratic and Republican—are likely to try to press Beijing to be more transparent and to explain its motivations and intentions for modernization.
The Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia is clear evidence of where it believes the risk of interstate warfare is greatest.
As part of this modernization, China is in the process of deploying road-mobile missiles and developing submarine-launched ones to replace its older silo-based weapons, thereby significantly enhancing the survivability of its nuclear forces. It is also developing technologies to defeat U.S. ballistic missile defenses in an attempt to ensure that, should these missiles ever be used, their warheads would reach their targets.
China is also slowly expanding its nuclear forces. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Defense estimated that China had twenty intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the continental United States,1 and in 2010, a report placed that number between 30 and 35.2 In addition, China is developing the capability to place multiple warheads on a single missile. If Beijing deployed this technology, it could rapidly expand its nuclear forces, but there is no evidence it has yet done so.
So far, U.S. efforts to engage China on nuclear strategy have had limited success. Part of the reason may be that, given the United States’ huge qualitative and quantitative advantages in nuclear forces, China appears to view engagement narrowly focused on nuclear issues as a zero-sum game that it will likely lose. Strategic cooperation might appear more obviously mutually beneficial if it were based on a broader strategy of reducing nuclear risks by restraining competition in the conventional realm. Of course, there is a real possibility that an ambitious U.S. proposal to expand cooperation would be rebuffed by China. But, if Beijing does engage, the United States and China could make real progress toward managing a genuinely existential threat to both of them.
A Decade of Limited Progress
American efforts to engage China—at both the official and nongovernmental levels—have often attempted to separate nuclear deterrence from the rest of the bilateral relationship. The aim has been to discuss it either completely by itself or, occasionally, alongside other “strategic” issues, such as cybersecurity, space weapons, and missile defense. Most obviously, U.S. officials believe—and regularly and publicly exhort Beijing to understand—that greater transparency about China’s nuclear arsenal would, on its own, help stabilize the two states’ nuclear relationship.
This belief has influenced the way Washington has attempted to engage Beijing in private. The Bush administration sought a dialogue with China focused solely on nuclear strategy. Only one round of this dialogue was ever conducted, and that was in April 2008. The Obama administration’s efforts appear to have been somewhat broader but are still tightly focused compared to the full range of issues in the bilateral military relationship. Specifically, the United States and China held two rounds of a “strategic security dialogue” in May 2011 and May 2012. Very little information about the discussions is available, but the meetings seem to have originated with a suggestion made in January 2011 by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to his counterpart, General Liang Guanglie, that the two states should engage on “nuclear, missile defense, space, and cyber issues.” Whatever its agenda, the absence of information about this dialogue suggests it is at a fairly nascent stage.
Strategic cooperation might appear more obviously mutually beneficial if it were based on a broader strategy of reducing nuclear risks by restraining competition in the conventional realm.
At a marginally more advanced stage is a dialogue between the five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including both China and the United States. Formally, this dialogue is focused on topics covered by the treaty (disarmament, nonproliferation, and nuclear energy), not bilateral U.S.-Chinese strategic issues. But, China has agreed to lead work on a glossary of nuclear terminology, which could help promote understanding during future bilateral discussions on nuclear deterrence.
In short, a decade’s worth of U.S. efforts to engage China on nuclear deterrence has led to three rounds of intermittent dialogue and a commitment to develop a glossary: hardly impressive progress. Rightly or wrongly, China apparently does not share the U.S. belief that narrowly focused engagement on nuclear issues would be mutually beneficial.
Why China has been reluctant to engage on nuclear issues is a matter for legitimate debate. Virtually all Chinese and many American analysts—particularly those who have studied Chinese documents—believe that Beijing’s policy is driven, to a significant degree, by a perceived threat from the United States. They argue that Beijing is genuinely concerned that, in a deep crisis, the United States might attempt to eliminate China’s nuclear arsenal with a preemptive “first strike” and that greater transparency could further undermine the survivability of its nuclear forces. In 2003, for instance, Chinese analyst Li Bin wrote that:
The survivability of [China’s] current ICBM force . . . relies on ambiguity surrounding numbers. Because China will not confirm or deny reports on the number of its ICBMs, other states cannot have confidence in any estimates. An attacker considering launching a first strike against China would be uncertain of China’s retaliatory capacity. This is how China’s nuclear deterrent works today.3
By contrast, other U.S. analysts believe that China’s opacity and its modernization program are geared toward unilateral gain. They worry Beijing has concluded that a more robust Chinese nuclear arsenal would deter the United States from intervening in a regional conflict, thus undermining U.S. defense commitments in East Asia.
While less discussed, it is also possible that internal considerations, not just external ones, shape Chinese policy significantly. After all, U.S. and Soviet/Russian nuclear weapons decisions—particularly over procurement—were not based solely (or perhaps even mostly) on cold-blooded cost-benefit calculations. They were shaped by bureaucratic and political factors. The administration of John F. Kennedy, for example, increased defense spending, which included the construction of more nuclear weapons, to stimulate the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, according to an authoritative study of Soviet nuclear policy based on interviews with senior decisionmakers conducted just after the collapse of communism, Soviet acquisitions policy was largely driven by the defense-industrial sector’s use of “its political clout to deliver more weapons than the armed services asked for and even to build new weapon systems that the operational military did not want.”4 While the specific internal factors at play in China may be rather different, there is little reason to suppose that they are absent.
Whatever the reason for China’s recalcitrance, there are advantages to presenting Beijing with an agenda for strategic cooperation that is more attractive than the one currently on offer. If China’s policy is defensively orientated, it might respond positively to a proposed agenda that is more obviously mutually beneficial. If engagement is currently being stymied by internal factors, a more attractive agenda might motivate it to overcome political or bureaucratic roadblocks. By contrast, Beijing’s refusal to engage with a more attractive offer would provide some evidence that Chinese policy is offensively orientated, which would be a potentially valuable insight—although such evidence, it must be recognized, would hardly be conclusive.
The Inseparability of Nuclear and Conventional Security Dynamics
Conventional weapons that are not usually deemed “strategic” can be inextricably linked to nuclear dynamics. At the most general level, the overall state of the conventional balance can significantly affect nuclear doctrine. Many nuclear-armed states facing a conventionally stronger adversary—including the United States during the Cold War and Russia and Pakistan today—have openly advertised their nuclear weapons as an offset for their weakness.
China has been an exception in this regard because it has pledged not to use nuclear weapons first, although there is a debate within the United States about the credibility of this commitment. In particular, some analysts believe that China would resort to the use of nuclear weapons to avoid defeat in a major conventional war. This debate aside, however, it is possible that if China fails in its current efforts to close the United States’ conventional advantage in the western Pacific, it may openly place a greater emphasis on nuclear weapons. Conversely, if China succeeds in gaining a meaningful conventional advantage, the United States might revert to a much greater role for nuclear weapons in fulfilling defense commitments to its allies.
Beyond these high-level dynamics, there are some much more direct—and pernicious—linkages between conventional and nuclear weapons in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. There is a vigorous conventional competition in the western Pacific, with the United States seeking to retain the ability to project power throughout the region and China seeking to deny it the ability to do so. In turn, Chinese efforts to deter and defeat U.S. power-projection capabilities are leading the United States to develop “strategic conventional” capabilities, which Beijing argues are forcing it to expand and modernize its nuclear forces.
To be concrete, China is developing both anti-satellite weapons and anti-access/area-denial capabilities. By using the former to destroy American communications, guidance, and reconnaissance satellites, China might hope to deny or impede the United States’ ability to project power. Chinese anti-access/area-denial capabilities are designed to hinder U.S. access to the western Pacific and its freedom of movement within the region. The highest-profile Chinese system designed to contribute to these operations is an anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D. Chinese military writings suggest that its primary target would be U.S. aircraft carriers.
Both anti-satellite weapons and anti-access/area-denial capabilities constitute important arguments within the United States for developing long-range, very fast conventional weapons in a program known as Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS). Two commanders of U.S. Strategic Command have, in public testimony before Congress, stated that CPGS weapons could be used to prevent further attacks in the event that China destroys a U.S. satellite. Meanwhile, the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review lists experimenting “with conventional prompt global strike prototypes” among its efforts to develop long-range strike capabilities to combat anti-access/area-denial threats.
Whether Chinese defense strategists concerned with “counterintervention” (as they term anti-access/area-denial operations) view CPGS as a particular threat is unclear. However, Chinese officials and analysts working on nuclear deterrence issues have expressed deep worries about the effect that CPGS could have on the survivability of China’s nuclear arsenal. In fact, Chinese concerns about the effect of advanced conventional capabilities on the nuclear balance may be more acute than more documented concerns about ballistic missile defense.5
Chinese concerns about the effect of advanced conventional capabilities on the nuclear balance may be more acute than more documented concerns about ballistic missile defense.
Moreover, U.S. missile defense deployments in East Asia are driven, at least in part, by Chinese conventional regional ballistic missiles, which include not only the DF-21D but also land-attack weapons that could be used to target U.S. and allied assets in Taiwan, Japan, and Guam. In public, U.S. officials have stressed the threat from North Korea in justifying recent plans to expand missile defenses in the region. Yet, the presence of missile defense assets in Taiwan is clear evidence that missiles from North Korea are not the only ones that the United States seeks to defeat. Indeed, in an oblique reference to a conflict with China, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has acknowledged that missile defense is designed to help “forward-deployed U.S. forces.”
Chinese analysts and officials certainly assume this to be the case. Li Bin, for example, has argued that the locations of planned U.S. radar installments provide evidence that Chinese ballistic missiles are targets for American defenses.6 However, Chinese concerns are not limited to the impact that these defenses may have on its arsenal of regional missiles. Beijing is also concerned that U.S. defenses could eventually be able to counter intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads, thus undermining China’s nuclear deterrent. There is little doubt that this concern partly motivates well-connected Chinese analysts’ criticism of U.S. plans to expand missile defenses in East Asia.
The Security Dilemma
These dynamics may be manifestations of a burgeoning “security dilemma.” A security dilemma is created when a state procures weapons for defensive purposes, inducing an adversary, who fears the buildup might be offensively oriented, to do likewise. The adversary’s buildup can, in turn, spark a countervailing reaction in the first state, resulting in an arms race.
Almost by definition, it is impossible for a state with a security dilemma to definitively identify it as such at the time. Washington cannot know for sure that China’s nuclear modernization or lack of transparency is a defensive reaction to a perceived first strike threat from the United States. For that matter, Beijing cannot be certain that U.S. strategic conventional weapons programs, not to mention the pivot, are defensively oriented and geared toward preventing China from using force to change the status quo. But it is clear that the United States and China have a shared interest in creating a process that will allow each to test the other’s intentions. Such cooperation could help mitigate the security dilemma, if indeed there is one.
For its part, Beijing would benefit from calming the U.S. security concerns that are helping to drive American programs that it finds threatening—including CPGS and ballistic missile defense. Because these programs might be catalyzing Chinese modernization efforts and precluding transparency, Washington has an interest in easing Chinese concerns.
It is clear that the United States and China have a shared interest in creating a process that will allow each to test the other’s intentions.
These negative feedback loops are already creating friction in the extremely complex U.S.-China relationship. If left unchecked, they could create a qualitative or quantitative nuclear arms race. The U.S. Congress has already held hearings on—and expressed concern about—China’s nuclear modernization program. If this program continues unabated it could become a powerful domestic argument in the United States for the development of new nuclear warheads (if for no other reason than to symbolize that the United States still takes nuclear deterrence seriously). China’s modernization program is also creating concern that it seeks numerical parity with the United States and Russia, complicating further U.S.-Russian arms control—something that China certainly benefits from, even if it is not a party to any agreement. Both Beijing and Washington have a mutual interest in preventing these outcomes, the latter for reasons of cost if nothing else given the state of the U.S. budget.
Broadening the Agenda
A broadened agenda for U.S.-China strategic cooperation that includes the conventional domain should be viewed by leaders in both states as attractive. The basic principle of turning a perceived zero-sum game into a mutually beneficial one by linking issues is common to all areas of negotiation, from labor relations to nuclear arms control. That said, addressing the whole range of interlinked military issues in the U.S.-Chinese relationship is truly daunting—impossibly so for the time being.
Over the long term, it might be possible—through treaty or restraint—to develop a durable balance of conventional forces so that each state is confident in its ability to protect its vital interests without nuclear weapons. But profound political change will be needed to achieve such an outcome, much like in Europe toward the very end of the Cold War. NATO and the Warsaw Pact were only able to negotiate limits on conventional forces that effectively precluded the possibility of a surprise attack by either party after Moscow had started the process of internal reform that led to a thawing of the Cold War (and, ultimately, the Soviet Union’s demise). Today, realistically speaking, the United State and China should identify more modest steps that could help mitigate some of the most risky interactions between conventional and nuclear weapons.
For example, while the linkage between Chinese anti-access/area-denial capabilities, particularly the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, and the U.S. CPGS program could produce a potentially destabilizing buildup cycle, it could also be leveraged to enable strategic cooperation. The two states could inform one another about the number of weapons they intend to procure and deploy each year for, say, the next five years. A data exchange like this could help mitigate tendencies to base procurement on worst-case intelligence assessments.
Chinese involvement in this kind of transparency arrangement would not be as unprecedented as widely believed. In 1997, for instance, China, Russia, and three Central Asian Republics negotiated an agreement on conventional force limitations near their borders. This extremely long and detailed document (it runs to over 17,000 words in English) contains extensive provisions for data exchange and demonstrates that Beijing will agree to transparency measures if it views them to be in its interests.
Much more ambitiously, the United States and China could enact a ban on the encryption of diagnostic data, known as telemetry, transmitted during tests of agreed-upon long-range high-precision conventional weapons (such as the DF-21D and a U.S. CPGS system) to allow for more accurate capability assessments. Clearly, such a ban would require a substantial degree of trust to be built first and so cannot be a short-term ambition. But, the U.S.-Soviet agreement to ban telemetry encryption as part of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) demonstrates that, over time, confidence building on the necessary scale is possible.
One particular advantage of broadening the scope of strategic cooperation to include conventional forces is that it becomes possible to pair roughly symmetric capabilities. China’s nuclear arsenal is much smaller and less sophisticated than that of the United States, complicating efforts to persuade Beijing that it is in China’s interest to become more transparent. By contrast, while the DF-21D is less sophisticated than any of the systems being developed under the CPGS program, it is at a significantly more advanced stage of development. This rough symmetry makes confidence-building measures involving these capabilities more obviously beneficial to both parties.
Other linkages—such as the connection between Chinese regional ballistic missiles and U.S. regional missile defenses—could also be exploited for strategic cooperation. Crucially, however, a necessary prerequisite to any progress in this direction is an official Sino-American dialogue broad enough to encompass all the relevant strategic interactions. The existing strategic security dialogue, while a step in the right direction, probably does not go far enough. While it appears to include nuclear weapons, missile defense, and space, it leaves out a number of critical pieces of the puzzle in the form of conventional U.S. power-projection capabilities and various Chinese efforts to defeat them.
Analysts and some government officials (particularly in Russia) have recently discussed bringing China into negotiations toward a multilateral arms control treaty. While this is a desirable long-term goal (that discussions among nuclear-armed states at both an official and unofficial level can advance), it is also a premature one. For multilateral arms control to have any chance of success, the dynamics that are driving Chinese modernization must be addressed. To the extent that these dynamics are related to Sino-U.S. strategic competition they must be addressed bilaterally.
Moreover, there are still large quantitative and qualitative gaps between U.S. and Chinese nuclear forces. For example, while China has 30 to 35 missiles, each armed with a single warhead, capable of reaching the United States according to the most recent detailed estimate from Department of Defense, the United States has over 1,000 deployed warheads capable of reaching China. Efforts by the United States in cooperation with Russia are needed to close this gap before China can reasonably participate in the negotiation of a limitations treaty.
The asymmetry between U.S. and Chinese nuclear forces also argues strongly against attempting to import the Cold War arms control framework wholesale into the U.S.-China relationship. While U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian treaties can provide useful ideas, such as the ban on telemetry encryption, the United States needs to take a novel approach to have a reasonable chance of receiving the reassurance it wants about China’s modernization.
Prospects for Success
It would be naïve to believe that expanding the scope or depth of strategic cooperation between the United States and China would be anything other than extremely difficult. While there is a compelling case to be made that expanded cooperation would be mutually beneficial, there is also the potential for significant resistance. Within the United States and among its allies, there would unquestionably be opposition to any form of cooperation that requires the United States to provide China with valuable information about U.S. plans and programs—even though China would be required to provide equally valuable information in return. Indeed, confidence-building measures that connect, for instance, Chinese regional ballistic missiles to U.S. regional missile defenses would probably be harder to “sell” than confidence-building measures purely within the nuclear realm. There is also absolutely no guarantee that Beijing will agree to participate; it might doubt U.S. sincerity, be unable to circumvent domestic obstacles, or, conceivably, view cooperation as fundamentally undesirable.
The potential benefits of trying to start wide-ranging strategic cooperation with China dwarf the downside risks.
That said, the potential benefits of trying to start wide-ranging strategic cooperation with China dwarf the downside risks. Strategic competition between the United States and China is not only expensive but adds friction to the bilateral relationship—a relationship that simultaneously holds more promise and carries more risk than any other. If strategic cooperation does nothing more than curb some pernicious aspects of this competition it would be worthwhile. If it catalyzes a co-evolutionary process in which deep cooperation builds strategic trust and strategic trust enables deeper cooperation, it could usher in a sea change.
1 Department of Defense, “Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” 2002, www.defense.gov/news/Jul2002/d20020712china.pdf, 27.
2 Department of Defense, “Military and Security Development Involving the People’s Republic of China,” 2010, www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/2010_cmpr_final.pdf, 66. If weapons capable of reaching Alaska are included, the number rose from about 30 in 2002 to between 45 and 65 in 2010.
3 Li Bin, “China and Nuclear Transparency,” in Transparency in Nuclear Warheads and Materials: The Political and Technical Dimensions, edited by Nicholas Zarimpas (Oxford: Oxford University Press for SIPRI, 2003), 55.
4 John G. Hines, Ellis M. Mishulovich, and John F. Shull, Soviet Intentions 1965–1985, Volume I, An Analytical Comparison of U.S.–Soviet Assessments During the Cold War (McLean, Va.: BDM Federal, 1995), 24–25, available from www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nukevault/ebb285.
5 Lora Saalman, China and the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, Carnegie Paper (Beijing: Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, 2011), http://carnegieendowment.org/files/china_posture_review.pdf, 9.
6 Li Bin, “China and the New U.S. Missile Defense in East Asia,” Proliferation Analysis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 6, 2012, http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/09/06/china-and-new-u.s.-missile-defense-in-east-asia/drth.