START and China: Really?

Sep 23, 2010

By: Kevin Kallmyer

As the debate over New START escalates, there has been a surge of op-eds about the treaty, both positive and negative. Just in the past two days, there have been two prominent articles that argue New START will undermine U.S. national security objectives regarding China. While many of the arguments both for and against START are suspect, this argument in particular deserves inspection.

Peter Brooks, of the Heritage Foundation, summarized the argument quite simply,

Beijing could become a nuclear peer competitor of Washington and Moscow in the not too distant future, in light of the expected arms cuts under New START.

Richard Fisher, of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, shared similar sentiments in the Washington Times. He argued that China is currently building up its nuclear forces, and may potentially be in the process of doubling or tripling its nuclear warhead numbers in an attempt to challenge the United States.

The fear that New START reductions hamper the United States’ ability to deter China, however, rests on a set of assumptions that just don’t match reality. To put New START in context, it’s necessary to understand U.S. and China nuclear force structure.

The New START treaty reduces the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 delivery vehicles for these nuclear warheads. The current limit on U.S. nuclear warheads is 2,220, set by the Moscow Treaty. That number makes START a 30% decrease in the deployed U.S. nuclear arsenal, depending on how one counts (for example, tactical nuclear warheads and the U.S. strategic reserve are not regulated by these treaties).

In contrast, China is estimated to have approximately 240 nuclear warheads, 180 of which are deployed. Of these, China only has 40 nuclear missiles that could reach the continental United States, and over the next 15 years, could likely only increase that number to around 100.

With these numbers in mind, conservative arguments that START will sacrifice U.S. national security to a rising China are suspect. The chance that China can become a nuclear peer to the United States is unlikely. Even if fears of Chinese military build-up prove true, the United States would still be left with nearly 15 times as many deliverable nuclear warheads. START is a very modest treaty, and Secretary of Defense Gates has stated that the United States will be able to, “maintain a strong and effective nuclear deterrent while modernizing our weapons to ensure they are safe, secure, and reliable, all within the limits of this new treaty.”

Further, the fears of Chinese nuclear modernization have been exaggerated. While China is modernizing its nuclear forces, it is necessary to evaluate both the pace and the rationale of this build-up to determine if it represents a threat to U.S. security.

First, Chinese nuclear modernization is not as effective as START opponents claim. China lacks the necessary fissile resources to substantially expand its nuclear arsenal. Gregory Kulacki, a Senior Analyst and Manager of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ China Project, explained that estimates of Chinese nuclear build-up are exaggerated,

The idea that China could build hundreds of warheads every year runs counter to U.S. estimates, which indicate that China does not have enough fissile material for such increases and is not producing more.

It is important to note, however, that China does have sufficient fissile material for more modest warhead increases, and that nothing prevents China from resuming fissile material production if necessary. Regardless, this observation does seem indicate that China is not planning on the massive increase in nuclear warheads that some allude to.

Further, Kulacki argued that if China were to develop new capabilities, such as making their missiles capable of carrying multiple warheads (MIRVing), then China would need to engage in missile and warhead tests that would tip the United States off.

Before China's missiles could carry multiple warheads, they would need to be flight-tested in this way, and U.S. early-warning satellites would give a clear indication of such tests. Moreover, China's existing nuclear warheads are believed to be too heavy for its missiles to carry multiple warheads. Developing lighter warheads would require a series of nuclear tests, which the international monitoring system would detect with high confidence.

Thus, if China does modernize its arsenal in an attempt to compete with the United States, they will have to engage in a series of provocative measures that would give the United States full knowledge of their intentions. Given that China is too far behind the United States for these capabilities to threaten the United States any time soon, the United States will have plenty of time to adapt and respond to such developments if they occur.

Secondly, while Chinese military modernization is understandably a worrying trend for U.S. national security planners, it does not represent the dire threat that START opponents characterize it as. The United States retains nuclear weapons for the purpose of deterrence, and Chinese military developments do not appear intended to challenge this purpose.

The Pentagon releases a yearly report entitled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.” While the Pentagon report states that China is “qualitatively and quantitatively” improving its forces, it has two important observations. First, despite China’s military developments and some statements by PLA officials, the Pentagon concluded that there is no evidence that China will change its military doctrine,

Beijing has consistently asserted that it adheres to a “no first use” (NFU) policy, stating it would use nuclear forces only in response to a nuclear strike against China. China’s NFU pledge consists of two parts—China will never use nuclear weapons first against any nuclear weapon state and China will never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon state or nuclear-weaponfree zone. However, there is some ambiguity over the conditions under which China’s NFU policy would or would not apply, including for example, whether strikes on what China considers its own territory, demonstration strikes, or high altitude bursts would constitute a first use. Moreover, some PLA officers have written publicly of the need to spell out conditions under which China might need to use nuclear weapons—for example, if an enemy’s conventional attack threatened the survival of China’s nuclear force, or of the regime itself. However, there has been no indication that national leaders are willing to attach such nuances and caveats to China’s “no first use” doctrine.

Additionally, the Pentagon concluded that Chinese military developments do not signal an attempt to develop an offensive nuclear strike force, but only to maintain a credible second-strike force, and therefore, are in line with its no first use policy,

Beijing’s official policy towards nuclear deterrence continues to focus on maintaining a nuclear force structure able to survive enemy attack and respond with sufficient strength to inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy. The new generation of mobile missiles, maneuvering and MIRV warheads, and penetration aids are intended to ensure the viability of China’s strategic deterrent in the face of continued advances in U.S. and, to a lesser extent, Russian strategic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; precision strike; and missile defense capabilities.

While Chinese policy statements are not necessarily the gold-standard for understanding China’s military and political intentions (they can be easily abandoned), these two observations are significant. China is a rising power, but they are rising on the tide of their economy, not military. If China was truly attempting to reach parity with U.S. nuclear forces, then China would have to shift a dramatic amount of resources into military development. Not only does that seem unnecessary from a military stand-point, it seems detrimental to their economy – China saw what happened to the Soviet Union as they spent their way to collapse in an attempt to keep pace with the U.S. military.

In contrast, if China has not yet decided to seek nuclear parity with the United States, ratification of New START is unlikely to be the “trip-wire” that sparks Chinese ambitions to close the gap. Thus, while China could potentially go into a full sprint in an attempt to reach parity with U.S. nuclear forces, neither it’s no first use policy, the specific weapon developments funded, nor its broad strategic interests indicate this would be the case, and START is unlikely to change any of those factors.

Lastly, START skeptics seem to view overwhelming nuclear primacy as the only means to deal with Chinese military developments. This belief seems short-sighted. First, START skeptics assume that nuclear weapons are the only way to approach Asian security and discount the administration’s attempts to strengthen non-nuclear deterrence capabilities. For example, the exclusive focus on nuclear weapons to contain China ignores alternative strategies such as conventional weapon developments or missile defense – both of which are being pursued by the Obama administration.

Second, and more importantly, United States rejection of New START would, in the mind of China, confirm the necessity of its military modernization plans, and if anything, would cause them to continue full-steam ahead. China has made its position on arms control clear. In its 2008 Defense White Paper, China stated that the United States and Russia, as the owners of 95% of all nuclear weapons, need to first reduce their arsenal drastically in order to “create the necessary conditions for the participation of other nuclear‐weapon states in the process of nuclear disarmament.” Thus, while START is only one small step forward, if the United States wants to compel China to reduce its current military developments, reductions like New START seem to be a good place to start.

It is difficult to argue that China is not developing new military capabilities. However, it’s necessary to evaluate the context of these actions. China is simply too far behind for these advances to indicate any real threat to U.S. national security, even if the United States implements START reductions. Further, while new military developments are occurring, it is unlikely that China has either the capabilities or the intent to abandon its current no first use policy for an offensive military posture. While it is unlikely that START would directly result in Chinese reductions, if the United States hopes to incorporate China into future arms control regimes, or push China to curb its military developments, ratification of New START seems to be a necessary step.