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Who’s Afraid of China’s Nukes?

November 22, 2021

In 1932, John Chamberlain lamented “the unwillingness of the liberal to continue with analysis once the process of analysis had become uncomfortable.”  He was critiquing the way Wilsonian liberals drifted into World War One.  Socialists and reformist progressives had thought seriously about both the causes of the war and the realistic consequences for American democracy if the nation opted in.  Liberals, he charged, couldn’t stomach such analysis and instead idealized the upside of succumbing to war fever.  

I think about Chamberlain’s quote a lot because America has a habit of making (and making worse) what it fears.  Why?  Because security experts often have shallow or poorly thought through theories underneath their foreign policy advocacy.  The interest of the national security crowd is in examining symptoms, not deeper causes.  They can’t stomach the wider frame on current events.  They can’t countenance the policy implications of root-cause analysis.  That is, they can’t stand the possibility that America’s choices undesirably affect the behavior of its rivals.  

I recently wrote about this problem in the context of US Asia policy for Foreign Affairs, which angered some people who really like missiles and really loathe China.  But something I didn’t have space to talk through adequately in that piece was how the defense community is responding to China’s nuclear modernization in unhelpful ways.  

If you’re not tracking the issue, China has been rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal after decades of being seemingly complacent with a posture of “minimum deterrence“—that is, just enough nuclear weapons to ensure they can retaliate if attacked (and therefore deter nuclear use by an adversary).  Beyond their minimum deterrence role, China’s nukes have historically served little purpose. China has long sworn by a no-first-use nuclear posture (though naturally most security pundits don’t believe it), avoided putting nuclear weapons on alert, and rarely bandied about nuclear threats. 

Yet, this year, China tested a hypersonic missile with a fractal orbital bombardment system (FOBS)—a capability that could potentially get past all US and ally missile defenses and early-warning radars. It’s also come to light that China has built more than 200 silos to house intercontinental ballistic missiles. If they all contained warheads (they currently don’t, as far as we know), then the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would have upwards of 350 nuclear weapons. There’s a debate in China now about whether it ought to alter its no-first-use posture toward the United States.  And the Pentagon’s latest China Military Power Report estimated that at its current pace, China could double its nuclear arsenal by 2027, and have 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030. In contrast with previous decades, this is a lot of change, and fast. 

The problem though isn’t that China’s modernizing its arsenal; it’s the wild-eyed way too many folks are reacting to it. In a sane world, to determine how to respond to something like this, you have to have a working theory that explains why the PLA is doing it. But because China’s nuclear expansion is happening in a context of ongoing rivalry, there’s a whole lot of fear-mongering and hyperbole going on. The kind that encourages us to think and act in irresponsible, self-harming ways because we can’t stomach the idea that China’s doing nuclear things we find threatening in direct response to our own nuclear largesse. 

Take one embarrassing example that goes by the name of US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). They called China’s expansion a “strategic breakout” that’s “explosive” and “breathtaking.” A couple months back when the silos were first revealed, USSTRATCOM public affairs tweeted away any ambiguity or analytical humility in favor of confirmation bias—“the public has discovered what we’ve been saying all along about the growing threat the world faces and the veil of secrecy that surrounds it.” 

Ok, Tom Clancy. Can you prove anything about Chinese intentions because of this discovery? No. Can you even stitch together a transparent line of reasoning about it? No. You can only inflate. The. THREAT. (cue ominous music).

There are sober analysts out there, like M. Taylor Fravel and Fiona Cunningham, who are not willing to jump to conclusions and are instead fashioning working hypotheses to serve as most-likely explanations for China’s nuclear shift. Their best assessment at the moment: “Chinese leaders believe that they now need to threaten the United States with greater nuclear damage to deter a U.S. nuclear first-strike: a handful of warheads is no longer enough.” 

This makes sense. China’s leadership just watched a madman approve budgets for a trillion-plus dollars of US nuclear modernization.  The same madman who made gratuitous threats of “fire and fury” against another nuclear state (North Korea). And this madman was sitting atop a nuclear arsenal several times the size of China’s capabilities. US nuclear superiority + US brinkmanship posturing + more than a trillion dollars of further US nuclear modernization = oh crap. Faced with that problem set, I’d be rethinking how to achieve minimum deterrence too.  

But for the sake of rigor, what are the competing hypotheses that might account for China’s nuclear modernization?  

Well, China could be seeking a bolt-from-the-blue first-strike nuclear capability. But China doesn’t benefit from nuking the US first when it already has an assured retaliation capability, and if it really wanted to launch a surprise attack it could do that with its current arsenal. That’s not a smart play, and therefore it’s unlikely to be why China’s modernizing in the way it currently is. 

Alternatively, China could be trying to achieve nuclear superiority itself.  Seeing as how nuclear superiority has enabled us to threaten others with impunity (though not to any great effect), the PLA might be trying to overtake the United States.  But, wait, what?  The upper estimate of China’s nuclear arsenal in 2030—if it keeps building out at breakneck speed—is 1,000 nukes.  The United States has some 3,750 nuclear warheads.  I’m not a math guy, but even if China sought nuclear superiority, it can’t credibly reach it anytime soon.  Or even anytime not soon.  And there’s no corroborating evidence to indicate this is what China’s doing anyway. 

An even crazier alt-hypothesis would be that China’s beefing up its nuclear arsenal to take on India.  It’s true they’ve got an unresolved territorial dispute in the Himalayas, and it’s true that India’s got nukes too.  But India only has something like 165 nuclear weapons, giving China a healthy margin of nuclear superiority without making any further changes.  So that doesn’t make sense, does it?  

For now, then, logic dictates that Fravel and Cunningham are probably right—China has looked into the abyss that is American militarism and decided that minimum deterrence requires a higher minimum.  But that doesn’t make any of this stuff a sign of impending attack, and it doesn’t necessarily speak to China’s strategic intentions either.  It speaks to the inescapable reality of mutual vulnerability. And that suggests maybe there’s nothing for the United States to gain from plowing money into nukes.

In order to reach this tentative conclusion though, you have to stomach the kind of analysis that American exceptionalism has proven it just can’t abide.  

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Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and a think tanker at lots of places around the world: a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada; a senior associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation & Disarmament (APLN); and the defence & strategy fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand. He also hosts The Un-Diplomatic Podcast.