Updates on Nuclear Proliferation
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One of Joe Biden’s most pressing missions when he took office was to save nuclear arms control. Two weeks after his inauguration, the US president extended the New Start treaty with Russia, a cornerstone of arms control that had left a strained relationship.
But the Biden administration is now forced to take on another nuclear challenge: China. Since June, experts have discovered more than 200 missile silos under construction in the country’s remote western deserts.
“We’ve been talking about China as a future problem for a very, very long time. Now China is clearly a nuclear problem,” said David Santoro, chairman of the Hawaii-based think tank Pacific Forum and co-organizer of the semi-official US-China nuclear dialogue for 15 years to 2019.
“We have known for some time that China is in a nuclear build-up situation. What is happening now is a faster build-up.”
Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen, the nuclear weapons experts who unveiled an 800-square-mile missile silo construction site in Xinjiang last week, said it was the “most significant expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal ever”.
They believe China is building ten times as many intercontinental ballistic missile silos as it currently has in operation. According to their calculations, the expansion exceeds the number of Russian silo-based ICBMs and equals at least half of the total US ICBM power.
Since the first nuclear test in 1964, China has adhered to a policy of “minimum deterrence”, promising not to acquire more nuclear capabilities than is necessary to retaliate against an attack and claiming it would never use nuclear weapons first.
As a result, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China would have about 350 nuclear warheads, a fraction of America’s 5,550 warheads.
Unlike the US and Russia, Beijing has traditionally kept much of its nuclear weapons at low levels and kept many nuclear warheads in a central repository, separate from their launchers. This was because of the policy of only striking after an enemy missile hit Chinese territory.
But those cornerstones of China’s nuclear doctrine are being eroded.
Beijing views Washington’s development of missile defense systems as a threat because it could render their minimal second strike capability useless. China is also concerned about US reconnaissance activities along the coast, where it has strategic assets, as well as US military assets in space.
During semi-official bilateral meetings, Chinese participants made it clear that Beijing could counteract these US strengths by building a larger and more advanced nuclear power.
Experts believe Beijing is moving towards a “launch on warning” stance. Rather than prepare to face an adversary’s first nuclear strike before retaliating, China would launch a counterattack as soon as it became aware that an attack on them was underway.
Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army has acquired more mobile ICBMs, making it more difficult for an adversary to detect nuclear weapons. They have also mounted more warheads on submarines and ballistic missiles, suitable for both conventional and nuclear munitions, such as the DF-26, a missile that can hit Guam, the US Pacific region.
US analysts warn that the changes are destabilizing. “They don’t have the command and control platforms to manage their sea and air platforms,” Pacific Forum’s Santoro said.
“On land you can keep warheads and launchers separate, but you can’t do that on a submarine. What we are concerned about is that we have commanders who could strike without a link to Beijing.”
However, Beijing seems to be taking even bigger steps.
“Technical-level considerations have motivated the modernization of China’s nuclear forces in recent years, but this is greater,” said Zhao Tong, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, of the missile silo program.
“The expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal is increasingly driven by a change in geopolitical perspective,” he said.
“There is a popular notion in Chinese policy that an increased nuclear arsenal could help China cope with perceived US strategic hostility,” he added. “They claim that Russia has been very determined to strengthen its interests and that Russia is respected, so they think that a bigger Chinese arsenal would also make the West respect us.”
Such thinking is supported from the top. Shortly after Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the Communist Party, he described the PLA’s missile forces as “the strategic support for the country’s status as a great power,” giving China’s nuclear weapons a high-profile geopolitical role it has never seen before. had played before.
In March, Xi urged the military to “accelerate the creation of enhanced strategic deterrent and joint war-fighting systems.” The comments were interpreted by Chinese analysts as the most explicit signal yet of top-level support for ramping up the development of the country’s nuclear forces.