On July 27, China became the first nation to fly a hypersonic glide vehicle — a manoeuvrable craft that travels at more than five times the speed of sound — around the earth.
The vehicle was propelled by a rocket that can fly over the South Pole, evading US missile defences which are focused on the North Pole — and giving the Chinese another way to hit targets in America.
This test was the latest in a series of revelations about China’s growing nuclear capabilities that have set off multiple alarm bells in Washington. Earlier this month, the Pentagon said it believes China has accelerated its nuclear plans and will quadruple its arsenal to at least 1,000 warheads by 2030.
Over the last two decades, China has stunned Washington with the relentless pace of its conventional military build-up, ranging from fighter jets and bombers to submarines and warships. Its navy is now by far the largest in the world.
But the combination of the hypersonic test and the warhead warning has now focused attention on a potentially dramatic shift taking place in Beijing’s nuclear posture.
Military leaders in Washington face two critical questions. After decades of gradual increases in its nuclear forces, is China pivoting to a less defensive approach that has the potential to significantly alter the balance of power in East Asia? And could this enable China to win a conflict with the US over Taiwan by neutralising the threat from American nuclear weapons?
General Mark Milley, chair of the US joint chiefs, described the test, which was first reported by the Financial Times, as very close to a “Sputnik moment”, referring to the Soviet Union putting a satellite in space in 1957.
“We’re witnessing one of the largest shifts in geostrategic power that the world has ever experienced,” Milley tells the FT.
“This shift is occurring alongside a fundamental change in the character of war,” Milley adds. “We need to act with urgency to develop capabilities across all domains — land, sea, air, space, cyber and our strategic nuclear forces — to address this evolving global landscape. We have to act now. Otherwise, we risk condemning our future generations to failure.”
While the Pentagon monitors the full range of military expansion being conducted by the People’s Liberation Army, the nuclear scale-up has commanded huge attention because it has happened so quickly.
Admiral Charles Richard, who commands US nuclear forces as head of Strategic Command, in August said the word “breathtaking may not be enough” to describe the expansion. General John Hyten, vice-chair of the joint chiefs of staff, recently added his own warning about the implications.
“All the hypersonic weapons they’re building, all of the nuclear weapons they’re building, are not meant for their own population,” Hyten said. “It’s meant for the US . . . We have to assume that, and we have to plan for that.”
Yet the Chinese expansion also plays into a debate in Washington about how the US should restructure its nuclear forces. Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, says China’s build-up has exposed the self-defeating outcome of US policy.
“The Bush and Obama administrations claimed that if we kept a nuclear weapons stockpile three or four times bigger than China, Beijing would be dissuaded from trying to match the US,” he says. “How’s that working out?”
Since China conducted its first atomic bomb test in 1964, it has maintained a minimum deterrence policy underpinned by a “lean and effective nuclear force”. It was tailored to ensure that China, which has a “no first use” policy, had just enough nuclear weapons to retaliate against any first strike.
According to Taylor Fravel, author of a book on the PLA called Active Defense, Chairman Mao Zedong in 1956 said China needed atomic bombs for deterrence, even as he described them as “paper tigers”.
“Whatever the final warhead number, this expansion is the most significant change in China’s nuclear weapons programme since testing its first atomic device,” Fravel says about the projections in the Pentagon’s China Military Power Report.
In its report, the Pentagon said the PLA Rocket Force would quadruple its stockpile to at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by the end of the decade — a dramatic doubling of its estimate from just last year.
In a development that would mark a major milestone, the Pentagon said China may now have a “nascent” nuclear triad — meaning land, sea and air-launched missiles — after it deployed a nuclear-capable bomber last year.
The PLA is also developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles that would carry multiple warheads, and is constructing hundreds of silos for land-based ICBMs. It also tested 250 ballistic missiles in 2020 — more than the rest of the world combined.
The Pentagon said China operationally fielded the DF-17, a medium-range missile equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle, in 2020. It has not said if the July test was a DF-17 because the details of the event remain classified.
Further illustrating the expansion, the Pentagon said China has more than 200 sensor and reconnaissance satellites in space, compared to 120 two years ago. The PLA has also started implementing a partial “launch-on-warning” posture, which would enable counterstrikes before an incoming US missile reached its target, rather than retaliating after a first strike had hit sites in China.
The Pentagon report and the hypersonic test have intensified a debate in Washington, and in the capitals of US allies from Japan to Australia, about why China appears to have decided to abandon its previous “lean” posture.
Given the rapid expansion, experts are debating whether China believes it needs a stronger “minimum” deterrent because of rising US capabilities, or whether it is abandoning its decades-long minimum deterrent posture.
“You don’t need to develop the kind of capabilities they’re developing for minimum deterrence,” Hyten said.
Some experts say China is enhancing its retaliatory capability to counter US advances in areas such as missile defence. China has become increasingly concerned about this since 2002 when the Bush administration pulled out of the Anti-ballistic missile treaty, which limited ground-based missile defence systems.
While the US argues its defences are meant for limited threats, such as North Korea, China may worry that, in the event of a broader conflict, a US first strike could destroy much of its nuclear forces and that Washington would then use its missile defences to knock out any incoming Chinese missiles that survived.
But others argue that Chinese president Xi Jinping wants to raise the stakes for Washington to ensure that the US does not try to use nuclear weapons to prevent China from taking military action against Taiwan.
“China is not developing its nuclear forces for some bolt out of the blue attack on America,” says Caitlin Talmadge, a nuclear expert at Georgetown University. “It’s trying to lock the US and China into a deeper ‘mutual vulnerability’ stalemate, so that the US cannot play the nuclear card in a conventional war, for example over Taiwan.”
The concern inside the Pentagon comes as US-China relations are mired in a perilous state, riven by disputes over technology, tariffs and human rights, as well as military rivalry.
President Joe Biden is expected to raise concerns about China’s nuclear acceleration when he holds a virtual meeting with Xi Jinping on Monday evening, Washington time. But Beijing has over the years resisted calls to open arms control talks with Washington and stresses that the US and Russia both have much bigger arsenals than China.
By far the most dangerous hotspot is Taiwan, as China flies record sorties of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, testing the country’s defences and trying to intimidate the government in Taipei.
Vipin Narang, a nuclear security expert at MIT, believes China is engaging in an “eye-popping” nuclear expansion because it thinks “the risk of a conventional war with the US is higher now than ever”.
He says the biggest risk is not nuclear war but “an exceptionally intense conventional war where China unloads its massive arsenal of conventional missiles in the Asia theatre without fear of US nuclear escalation”.
After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, critics said China would become more assertive over Taiwan as Biden had demonstrated little appetite for conflict. Biden argued that the withdrawal would allow the US to focus more on China.
Robert Ashley, a retired general who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency until a year ago, thinks Beijing has probably decided to expand its nuclear forces because it anticipated that the US would switch focus.
“China saw the US and its allies tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan as a window of strategic opportunity,” says Ashley. “If it thinks this window is closing because the US is making a move in terms of some kind of containment strategy, it might be accelerating its nuclear forces expansion so that it is not boxed in.”
Expanding nuclear options
While consensus is growing that China is abandoning minimum deterrence, a lack of transparency means it is unclear if it would go as far as to jettison “no first use”. Fravel notes that a larger force “gives China more potential options”.
Responding to the Pentagon report, the Chinese embassy accused the US of spending trillions of dollars to upgrade its own nuclear arsenal, echoing criticism from arms control advocates who say it does not need so many weapons. The US is also developing hypersonic weapons, as is Russia.
“The world will decide who is doing nuclear madness,” the embassy said.
China also said it stood behind its “no first use” policy, but some experts are sceptical. The Pentagon said some PLA officers had discussed using nuclear weapons first in the case where a non-nuclear attack “threatens the survival of the PLA’s nuclear force or the Chinese Communist party”.
James Mulvenon, a PLA expert at Sosi, a defence contractor, says a Chinese general once told US experts that China could not abandon “no first use” for reputational reasons but would find “operational workarounds”.
In September, a retired senior Chinese diplomat said Beijing may have to “fine-tune” its policy. Sha Zukang, a former ambassador for disarmament, said China may have to consider not applying “no first use” to the US until Washington and Beijing reached a mutual understanding on “no first use”.
Fiona Cunningham, a nuclear expert at the University of Pennsylvania, says questions remain about why China is building new silos and how it will use them. But she says the overall expansion means that China now has more nuclear options than when it possessed a more modest deterrent.
“A bigger, more accurate and diverse Chinese arsenal kept on higher alert would be consistent with a retaliatory-only strategy, but it also gives China options to use nuclear weapons first that it has not previously had,” she says, adding that this and dismal US-China ties mean “China’s nuclear modernisation has gutted US confidence in Beijing’s nuclear restraint”.
Richard, the US nuclear forces commander, says China is “building the capability to execute any plausible nuclear employment strategy” which he says is the “last brick in the wall of a military capable of coercion”. But he also stressed that it has much broader ramifications for the US military.
“Every operational plan in the Department of Defense and every other capability we have rests on an assumption that strategic deterrence will hold,” said Richard. “If . . . nuclear deterrence doesn’t hold, none of our other plans and no other capability that we have is going to work”.
Matthew Kroenig, the Atlantic Council author of a report on Chinese nuclear forces, says that while the US is clearly increasingly “vulnerable”, it should not concede the point and should continue to upgrade its arsenal.
“There is the danger that some US policymakers and lawmakers would give up on pursuing quantitative and qualitative strategic force advantages over China. They would throw up their hands and say, ‘Why does it matter? We are already vulnerable’,” says Kroenig, adding that allies would also worry.
Robert Soofer, the top Trump administration defence official for nuclear policy, says China wants to boost “mutual vulnerability” to undermine US alliances. He warns about the cold war phenomenon of “Finlandisation” where Helsinki was forced to support Soviet foreign policy goals because of the overwhelming military superiority of its neighbour.
“Japan, South Korea or Taiwan could develop nuclear weapons, or they could start to accommodate China,” he says. “China’s strategy is to expand its regional hegemony and influence and try to peel off allies from the US. The more nervous the allies become, the more they accommodate China.”
Michael McCaul and Mike Rogers, two senior Republican lawmakers, last week asked the Biden administration to share information about concerns raised by allies as it conducts a “nuclear posture review”.
Their letter came in response to a report in the FT that American allies were urging Biden not to make a big shift in nuclear policy by declaring a “sole purpose” posture that would outline the cases under which the US would use nuclear weapons. Critics say that would weaken the nuclear umbrella that provides allies with what is known as “extended deterrence”.
Philip Davidson, the recently retired head of US Indo-Pacific command who warned earlier this year that the PLA could take military action against Taiwan within six years, says people should see the Chinese conventional and nuclear expansion for what it is — a piercing wake-up call.
“We have to recognise that the Chinese Communist party is doing everything they said they would do to replace US global leadership with their leadership. Our future prosperity and our security are at stake.”
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