Red Balloon

Is Congress inflating the China threat?

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

You have to be pretty paranoid to see China as a direct nuclear threat to the United States, but that doesn’t stop some from trying.

A report to be released Wednesday by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, created by Congress, is just the latest in a line of studies that hype the China threat. This report, like others before it, raises concerns that China may be hiding hundreds of nuclear weapons in underground tunnels. This might be scary but for the fact that the Pentagon says it’s not true — and that even if it was, it would not directly affect U.S. national security.

Seemingly wringing its hands, the commission — chaired by Republican appointee Dennis Shea, and vice-chaired by Democratic appointee William Reinsch — worries that "numerous uncertainties remain about China’s nuclear warhead holdings" and that Beijing could have a larger nuclear stockpile than currently believed or could "obtain additional warheads, if so inclined." Citing unsubstantiated claims from Taiwan, Russia, and elsewhere, the commission recommends that Congress "assess disparities in estimates of the size and disposition of China’s nuclear forces."

The report goes so far as to question "the desirability of further cuts" to U.S. and Russian nuclear forces "without clearer information on China’s nuclear forces." President Obama has called for another round of U.S.-Russian reductions beyond those called for in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START.

But the U.S. Defense Department, for one, seems quite confident about how many bombs are in Beijing’s basement. In its 2012 annual report to Congress on China’s military, DOD said that China has "about 50-75" intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), "may" have an operational submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in two years, and is upgrading its small bomber fleet.

Moreover, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) has rejected previous claims that China’s nuclear arsenal is much larger than commonly thought. "I do not believe that China has hundreds or thousands more nuclear weapons than what the intelligence community has been saying," Gen. Robert Kehler said in August. "The Chinese arsenal is in the range of several hundred" nuclear warheads, he said.

Gen. Kelher is in accord with independent estimates that China has about 240 nuclear warheads.

For comparison, according to the Pentagon, the United States has about 5,000 nuclear warheads in its active stockpile — about 1,700 of which are deployed on missiles and bombers that can reach China. Of China’s 240 warheads, only 50-75 could be deployed on its single-warhead missiles that could reach the United States.

So, if the United States has a 20-to-1 advantage in nuclear weapons that can reach across the Pacific, why should Congress worry about China when thinking about arms reductions with Russia? It should not.

In fact, what we do know about the Chinese arsenal should make Congress more confident about U.S. arms reductions with Russia, not less.

First, although the U.S. military and the intelligence community do not believe that China’s arsenal is being undercounted, even if it was, the difference would not threaten the United States. The U.S. arsenal is survivable regardless of how many weapons China — or Russia — has. According to a May Defense Department report, the ability of U.S. weapons to survive an attack is more important than the number of weapons on either side. For example, the report said that Russian deployment of forces in numbers significantly above New START limits "would have little to no effect on the U.S. assured second-strike capabilities that underwrite our strategic deterrence posture."

Moscow — and by extension, Beijing — would not be able to achieve military advantage by "any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces," the report says, because sufficient U.S. forces would survive and be able to retaliate. This second-strike survivability comes primarily from Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, "a number of which are at sea at any given time." The report says that a nuclear first strike by Russia "will most likely not occur."

Second, although it may sound paradoxical, the United States should want China to have a survivable arsenal, too. China’s nuclear force is too small to pose a first strike threat to the United States. Instead, Beijing’s strategy is to field a nuclear force that could survive a U.S. first strike and respond to "inflict unacceptable damage to the enemy," as the Pentagon puts it. Thus, by being survivable, China does not need to match U.S. or Russian forces bomb-for-bomb, but needs just enough to make its adversaries think that a few missiles would be left after a first strike. So it is not necessarily a problem if China is fielding mobile missiles or SLBMs on submarines or hiding weapons in tunnels. In fact, the more survivable Beijing’s arsenal is, the smaller it can be.

What the commission fails to mention, oddly, is the role U.S. missile defenses play in motivating China’s modernization efforts. The 2012 Pentagon annual report says that China is developing a new generation of mobile missiles to ensure its strategic deterrent remains viable "in the face of continued missile defense advances in the United States." Ultimately, if the United States is really concerned about a Chinese nuclear arms build-up, then it needs to rethink its missile defense policy in Asia.

Yes, it would be nice if Beijing were more transparent about its arsenal, and from a nonproliferation perspective an expanding Chinese nuclear force is a concern. But from a strategic perspective, China’s nuclear force is no reason to complicate or delay the next round of U.S.-Russia arms reductions. Consultations with China are a great idea, but Washington and Moscow need to draw down their forces significantly before formally involving others in such negotiations.

Tom Z. Collina is Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, DC.

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