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China’s Transition to a More Credible Nuclear Deterrent: Implications and Challenges for the United States

Michael S. Chase

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This article examines the modernization of China’s nuclear missile force and assesses the implications for the U.S.

Main Argument

China’s “no first use” nuclear policy and assured retaliation strategy have remained relatively constant over the years. Recent doctrinal publications, however, suggest that the country’s nuclear missiles could also help deter conventional strategic attacks. Moreover, China is currently modernizing and expanding its nuclear force with the deployment of road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles and the development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile to arm its new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. After decades of reliance on a small and potentially vulnerable strategic deterrent, China is finally achieving the “lean and effective” nuclear force Chinese strategists believe their country needs to protect its security. As a result of these growing nuclear-deterrence capabilities, nuclear issues will likely assume greater importance in the U.S.-China relationship.

Policy Implications

  • China’s transition to a more secure second-strike capability is likely to contribute to greater strategic stability in the U.S.-China relationship, but China’s larger and more sophisticated nuclear force will also create challenges for U.S. policymakers. Trying to trump China’s retaliatory capability through a large-scale missile defense build-up would be costly and counterproductive for the U.S.
  • Instead, Washington should limit missile defenses intended to protect the U.S. homeland to a level appropriate for dealing with the much smaller threat posed by North Korea, and pursue strategic stability with China through mutual deterrence.
  • Washington should also continue pressing for an official U.S.-China dialogue on strategic deterrence, one that encompasses nuclear, space, cyber, and conventional military capabilities.


China’s Transition to a More Credible Nuclear Deterrent: Implications and Challenges for the United States


Michael S. Chase is an Associate Professor in the Warfare Analysis and Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Navy, Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.


For many years, China’s relatively small nuclear force and stated adherence to a policy of "no first use" (NFU) of nuclear weapons limited its salience in global debates about nuclear issues. However, the country’s growing strategic-deterrence capabilities suggest this will soon change. Indeed, as a result of China’s transition to a larger and more sophisticated nuclear force, which will be centered on road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) armed with submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), China is likely to become a more important consideration in such discussions. As the country’s strategic-deterrence capabilities grow, nuclear issues appear poised to assume greater significance in the U.S.-China security relationship. The reasons for their increasing importance include heightened U.S. attention to Asia-Pacific security issues, the changing balance of conventional military power in the region, rising tensions over maritime territorial disputes, and the implications of China’s growing nuclear capabilities for future arms control initiatives. [1]

China’s nuclear policy and strategy appear to have remained relatively constant over the years, but recent doctrinal publications suggest that Chinese strategists see a role for nuclear capabilities in deterring certain types of conventional strategic attacks. At the same time, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is modernizing its nuclear forces to enhance their survivability, increase their striking power, and counter missile-defense developments. Official Chinese sources indicate that Beijing’s goal is fielding a "lean and effective" nuclear force that meets its evolving national security needs. [2] China currently maintains the DF-3 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and DF-21 and DF-21A medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) for theater nuclear-deterrence missions. The country’s nuclear ICBM force consists of the older, limited-range DF-4, the silo-based DF-5, and the recently deployed road-mobile DF-31 and DF-31A. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, China is enhancing its silo-based systems, deploying more road-mobile ICBMs, and preparing to take its strategic deterrent to sea as a new generation of SSBNs enters service with the PLA Navy (PLAN). [3] (It should be noted, however, that the new submarines still await their intended armament, the JL-2 SLBM, which remains under development.) In addition, China may be developing a new road-mobile ICBM, possibly capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV). [4]

The transition to more advanced road-mobile ICBMs and SSBNs is particularly significant in that it provides China with a much more survivable nuclear force. Although the country’s limited nuclear transparency complicates efforts to predict future developments, recent trends offer a reasonable guide to understanding the likely future direction of Chinese nuclear force modernization. In recent years, China has focused on enhancing the survivability and striking power of its strategic deterrent. This suggests that over the next five to ten years, Beijing can be expected to continue shifting to a larger and more survivable nuclear force composed primarily of road-mobile ICBMs and SSBNs.

Even as China’s nuclear force continues to increase in size and sophistication, Beijing is highly unlikely to seek numerical parity with the United States and Russia, even if the U.S. and Russian arsenals fall to numbers well below current levels. According to General Jing Zhiyuan, former commander of the Second Artillery Force (which controls the PLA’s strategic missiles), China’s limited development of nuclear weapons "will not compete in quantity" with the nuclear superpowers. Instead, Jing writes that Beijing intends to maintain the "lowest level" of nuclear weapons that is sufficient to safeguard its national security. [5] Nonetheless, this statement indicates that China will deploy the forces it perceives as required for an assured retaliation capability, which is likely to entail considerable growth in the size of its nuclear missile force. Indeed, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the number of Chinese ICBMs capable of reaching the United States "probably will more than double" by 2025. [6]

China’s transition to a more secure second-strike capability will likely contribute to greater strategic stability in the U.S.-China relationship a goal...

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[1] See Elbridge A. Colby and Abraham M. Denmark, "Nuclear Weapons and U.S.-China Relations: A Way Forward," Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2013.

[2] Jing Zhiyuan, "Jianshe jinggan youxiao zhanlue daodan budui wei weihu shijie he anquan gongxian liliang" [Creating a Lean and Effective Strategic Missile Troop Contributing to International Nuclear Security], Zhongguo jundui 6, no. 2 (2010): 4-7.

[3] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012 (Washington, D.C., May 2012); and Ronald L. Burgess Jr., "Annual Threat Assessment," statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee, February 16, 2012, http://www.dia.mil/public-affairs/testimonies/2012-02-16.html. The May 2012 edition of the annual report on Chinese military power and the February 2012 testimony from the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency contain the most recent publicly available assessments by the U.S. government of China’s nuclear forces.

[4] Burgess, "Annual Threat Assessment."

[5] Jing, "Jianshe jinggan youxiao zhanlue daodan budui wei weihu shijie he anquan gongxian liliang."

[6] Burgess, "Annual Threat Assessment."