Might China someday have more nuclear warheads than the United States? Than Russia? Inconceivable as it may sound, this could come to pass, because China may just be starting a period of double- or triple-digit annual growth in its warhead numbers as the Obama administration sets its sights on further U.S. warhead reductions, with little hope that China will join a regime of negotiated nuclear stability. But even if it did, would nuclear “parity” with China be in America’s interest?
The new START Treaty signed in May commits the United States and Russia to a “parity” that reduces deployed nuclear warheads from 2,200 to 1,550 and reduces to 700 the number of deployed nuclear delivery vehicles. However, President Obama has made clear his intention to seek further reductions; late 2009 leaks to the press suggested further goals of 1,000 warheads or even fewer.
Since it started deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the 1980s, China has refused to join in nuclear weapons negotiations. This did not matter as long as China deployed a small number, about 20 liquid-fueled 13,000-kilometer-range DF-5s with single warheads, until early this decade. Furthermore, China had lulled many analysts by regularly suggesting that it adheres to a doctrine of “minimum deterrence” that abjures U.S.- or Russian-level warhead numbers. But China has also rejected U.S. and Soviet levels of nuclear “transparency” as part of its deterrence calculus, with the result that nobody knows its nuclear force goals.
China began modernizing its nuclear missile forces by mid-decade, replacing early DF-5s with a similar number of improved DF-5A missiles based in stationary silos and deploying the new 7,000-to-8,000-kilometer-range, solid-fueled and mobile DF-31 and the larger 11,200-plus-kilometer-range DF-31A. In its latest report to the Congress on China’s military released on Aug. 16, the Pentagon says there are less than 10 DF-31 and “10-15” DF-31A ICBMs, up to five more than reported in the previous year’s report, covering 2008. However, in the 2010 issue of “Military Balance,” Britain’s International Institute of Strategic Studies notes there is one brigade of 12 DF-31s and two brigades or 24 DF-31A ICBMs, indicating a possible increase of one new brigade from 2008 to 2009.
In addition, China may be close to fielding two more long-range nuclear missiles. First is the new 7,200-plus-kilometer-range JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile. Though reported to be experiencing developmental challenges, when completed, 12 each will go on the new Type 094 nuclear ballistic missile submarine, which the Pentagon estimates will number at least five, for a potential total of 60 missiles. Then there is a new yet-unidentified, larger ground-mobile ICBM which has been revealed in Chinese Internet-source images since 2007, but which the Pentagon did not publicly acknowledge until its latest China report. The distinguishing feature of the “DF-XX” is its use of a large ,16-wheel Russian-style transporter-erector-launcher (TEL), likely derived from Russian-Belarus technology imported in the late 1990s.
But here is where the real danger begins: The Pentagon also notes this new ICBM is “possibly capable of carrying multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRV).” Starting in 2002, the Pentagon’s China report noted the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) interest in developing multiple warheads, with more explicit language being used in the 2009 and 2010 reports. Might some PLA ICBMs already have multiple warheads? This analyst has been told by Asian military sources that the DF-31A already carries three warheads and that one deployed DF-5B carries five or six warheads. These sources speculate the new “DF-XX” may carry a similar number of warheads.
While it is not possible to confirm these disclosures from open sources, they point to an alarming possibility: China has crossed the multiple-warhead Rubicon and, with the possibility that it can build one brigade of DF-31A and DF-XX ICBMs a year, could be capable of annual double- or triple-digit increases in its deployed nuclear warheads. Chinese sources also suggest interest in developing longer-range versions of the JL-2, which could also be MIRV-capable. While a worst-case estimate, there is good reason to consider that China’s warhead numbers could exceed 500 by 2020.
In addition, China may also be on its way to fielding a national missile-defense system by the 2020s. Its recent, successful Jan. 11 missile warhead interception test marks the culmination of China’s second anti-ballistic missile (ABM) program; the first was ordered started by Mao Zedong in 1963 and was pursued until 1980. This stands in contrast with years of howling complaints by Chinese diplomats against American missile-defense programs and their fervent campaigning to ban outer-space weapons. Was this merely deception designed to limit American defensive programs while China gathered the capacity to pursue its own ABM and space-warfare programs?
These potential trends would logically cause one to ask: Why not talk to the Chinese about their nuclear strategic plans? Indeed, the administration’s April Nuclear Posture Review calls for “strategic assurance dialogues” with China. However, not only has China traditionally rejected any “negotiations” regarding its nuclear forces, it won’t even send its main nuclear missile forces commander on a courtesy visit to the United States. Normal military-to-military dialogue is regularly held hostage to Washington ending arms sales to democratic Taiwan.
But there is a deeper basic conflict: China wants to displace U.S. strategic leadership in Asia and is building military forces capable of defending its global interests, even if that means challenging the United States well beyond Asia. So until China achieves its desired level of global power, which may not include concepts of “parity,” China may have no interest in “negotiations” that limit or even inform others about its nuclear weapons plans.
But even if the United States and China could agree on nuclear parity, that may come at the cost of America’s Asian alliances. A larger and defended Chinese nuclear arsenal could greatly undermine the U.S. ability to extend its nuclear deterrent, accelerating the process of decoupling the United States from key allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia. America’s ability to deter China will decline further when the administration implements its Nuclear Posture Review decision to retire U.S. nuclear-armed TLAM-N cruise missiles carried by secure U.S. submarines, replacing them with tactical nuclear bombs carried by more vulnerable U.S. jet fighters. And then one must consider Russia and its increasing political-military cooperation with China. Might Russia someday “tilt” its nuclear forces with China’s to dissuade the United States from defending a future vital interest?
Countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and India are today facing increased Chinese military pressures. They and the United States are also increasingly pressed to fund conventional military forces needed to deter China. It is indeed legitimate to ask if the current START Treaty gives the United States the ability to deter both Russia and a China just starting its strategic nuclear buildup. Furthermore, might START and intended follow-on agreements bring Asia closer to an era of nuclear proliferation and unforeseen instability?
Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center and author of “China’s Military Modernization, Building for Regional and Global Reach” (Praeger, 2008).