America’s recently published Nuclear Posture Review fails to understand the nature of nuclear challenges posed by China, and risks impairing Sino-US relations, warns Maxwell Downman
Every American president has the opportunity to put their stamp on US nuclear strategy. At the beginning of February, the Trump administration published its Nuclear Posture Review. This 100-page document contained an alarming and misguided approach to China that is likely to worsen relations between the two powers.
The US Nuclear Posture Review is a bold departure from Obama-era nuclear thinking, which sought to reduce the saliency of nuclear weapons globally. The review describes a return to ‘great power competition’ worldwide in which the US must maintain ‘tailored and flexible’ nuclear options to current and emerging threats. For this, the US intends to build two new low-yield nuclear weapons to use in ‘sub-strategic’ scenarios, as well as continue Obama’s modernisation of the US strategic triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers and nuclear submarines.
While US nuclear strategy is primarily aimed at deterring Russia, its nearest peer competitor, China also features heavily in the review. It describes China as a hostile power whose nuclear and non-nuclear modernisation presents a ‘major challenge to US interests in Asia’. It contends that conflict between the two would ‘have the potential for nuclear escalation’. Accordingly, the US needs to ‘credibly threaten intolerable damage’ to China ‘at any level of escalation’. New sub-strategic and limited nuclear options will allow the US to ‘respond effectively to Chinese limited nuclear use’.
China has opposed this characterisation of itself, calling on the US to ‘abandon its Cold War mentality’. At February’s Munich Security Conference, China reiterated its No-First Use policy to never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, seeking to assure the US that there ‘is no reason whatsoever for China to threaten the United States’ and urging it to ‘not use China or any other country as excuse’ for its own modernisation.
Indeed, the review fails to understand Chinese nuclear strategy. China does not intend to use nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict, especially in a limited way. Chinese nuclear strategy continues to be based around assured retaliation. For China, as long as it can credibly deliver a nuclear weapon to a US city, deterrence is achieved. This is why China maintains a relatively small arsenal of around 270 warheads, off-alert with the warheads decoupled from the missiles. Compare this to the US’s stockpile of 6,800 warheads, with 1,393 strategic warheads coupled on 660 delivery vehicles ready to launch on warning, plus 500 deployed non-strategic nuclear weapons.
China does, however, worry that the US intends to escape mutual vulnerability. Beijing believes that the US could avoid retaliation by combining a massive first strike on China’s nuclear facilities with ballistic missile defence to mop up any remaining incoming missiles. In bilateral nuclear dialogues, the US has refused to rule out a first strike on China, consistent with US strategic ambiguity, and is loath to accept vulnerabilities to the US mainland.
This Dr Strangelove-esque nightmare has prompted China to modernise its nuclear arsenal, to ensure its second-strike capability. This includes developing multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRV) and precise hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, to better penetrate US ballistic missile defence; new anti-satellite and cyber weapons to disrupt US nuclear command and control; and diversifying its nuclear platforms, to include a host of dual-capable missiles and the new Jin-class submarine, to increase its survivability.
Despite the modernisation of China’s strategic arsenal, none of this suggests it intends to use nuclear weapons first in an escalating conflict or in a limited fashion. The NPR itself contends that to use nuclear weapons in a ‘limited’ or ‘sub-strategic’ scenario, the US needs to keep all nuclear options on the table and have a variety of low-yield nuclear weapons on alert to credibly respond. Hence the US developing a new low-yield sea-launched nuclear ballistic missile and sea-launched cruise missile.
China has none of these. It has limited itself to never using nuclear weapons first and never against a non-nuclear weapon state. The United States has at least 10 different warheads available, including two dialable warheads with yields that can go as low as 0.3 kilotons and as large as 1.2 megatons – for reference,‘Little Boy’, dropped on Hiroshima, was 15 kilotons. China, in contrast, has only three high yield warheads, all over several hundred kilotons. Given these capabilities, it is extremely unlikely that China would or could resort to nuclear weapons first in territorial conflict over the South or East China Sea.
This is not to say China is a benign actor; but this US Nuclear Posture Review misunderstands the nuclear challenge of China. To date, China has been a reluctant nuclear actor. It has maintained a restrained nuclear arsenal compared to its economic and conventional military might, but has also been cautious of engaging in multilateral arms control and non-proliferation efforts. To avoid great power and nuclear conflict, the US should be seeking ways to ensure that China does not build up its nuclear arsenal and engages more proactively in international arms control and non-proliferation.
Unfortunately, the NPR fails on both these fronts. The modernisation and development of new nuclear weapons geared towards China’s alleged capability to engage in ‘limited strike’ will likely prompt China to continue its nuclear modernisation. The US forgets that, as the supreme military force globally, its adversaries will likely fear they are always playing catch-up.
If the US views China as a major nuclear threat, a far more effective strategy for dampening this would be to curb China’s future nuclear capacity, given the US’s overwhelming superiority. This could be done through the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).
Both the US and China have signed but not ratified the CTBT, which bans nuclear testing. China maintains it will not ratify the Treaty until the US does. If the US pressed for a joint ratification as a diplomatic initiative, it could prevent China from conducting nuclear tests needed to develop the sort of low-yield nuclear warhead required for a limited nuclear strike.
Similarly, constraining China’s ability to produce fissile material would mean that China would never be able to reach parity with the US’s nuclear arsenal. Currently the International Panel on Fissile Material estimates that China has about 14 tons of highly enriched uranium and three tons of weapon grade plutonium. The US has somewhere between 10 and 20 times as much. China has expressed a wish to resume stalled negotiations on FMCT.
Unfortunately, the Review has little to say on either of these. Beyond the vague expression of a willingness to ‘seek a dialogue with China’, it proposes no concrete steps. In fact it states that the US will not seek to ratify the CTBT and does not once mention the FMCT.
Trump’s nuclear strategy misunderstands China and is misguided. It presents little new in the way of curbing Chinese nuclear modernisation. In all likelihood, it will vindicate voices in the Chinese military establishment promoting nuclear modernisation, and could contribute to rolling back China’s restrained posture. Instead of solely painting China as a threat to be deterred, the US should be seeking a way to build a sustainable nuclear relationship that is cooperative rather than adversarial.