China’s Happy to Sit Out the Nuclear Arms Race

While Putin and Trump push for bigger arsenals, Beijing has all the nukes it'll ever need.

Beijing, CHINA: Visitors walk past China's second nuclear missile on display as they visit the Military Museum in Beijing, 23 July 2007. The US military 22 July said its troops had found Chinese-made missiles which they believe were smuggled into Iraq by groups in Iran in order to arm groups fighting US-led forces.   AFP PHOTO/TEH ENG KOON (Photo credit should read TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images)
Beijing, CHINA: Visitors walk past China's second nuclear missile on display as they visit the Military Museum in Beijing, 23 July 2007. The US military 22 July said its troops had found Chinese-made missiles which they believe were smuggled into Iraq by groups in Iran in order to arm groups fighting US-led forces. AFP PHOTO/TEH ENG KOON (Photo credit should read TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images)

While U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin preen and compare the size of their nuclear arsenals, China has been quite modest on the subject. This macho dance doesn’t interest Beijing. Why? Isn’t bigger always better? For decades, when it comes to nuclear weapons, the answer from China has been a resounding no. The rest of the world would do well to consider their reasons why.

In his last defense speech of 2016, Putin argued that his country needed to “enhance the combat capability of strategic nuclear forces, primarily by strengthening missile complexes that will be guaranteed to penetrate existing and future missile defense systems.” It wasn’t clear from the speech whether Putin seeks to improve nuclear warhead delivery systems in order to confuse American missile defense, or whether he will seek to increase the number of weapons deployed to overwhelm them, or even deploy cyber-capabilities to weaken the ability to respond. Perhaps it’s a strategy, perhaps it’s just rhetoric. U.S. ballistic missile defense efforts — particularly in Europe and Asia — have been a sore spot for both Russia and China.

Not to be out done, within hours Trump tweeted: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Like Putin, his intentions were not clear, and much debated. But like Putin, when questioned, he tends to double down. Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC asked him to clarify his tweet, and he told her: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass, and outlast them all.”

So why hasn’t Chinese leader Xi Jinping stripped off his shirt and flexed his strategic forces? Why not take to Twitter — or Weibo, at least — to brag about how long he can last in an arms race? Well, he doesn’t need to and he knows it. Decades of Chinese leaders have known it. The Chinese think about nuclear weapons in a fundamentally different way than their Western counterparts — one that could give China an edge in the contest to become the defining power of the 21st century.

As Jeffrey Lewis noted in his book Paper Tigers, China has always maintained a small nuclear force. From their first announcement of a successful nuclear test on Oct. 19, 1964, China officially advocated the complete prohibition and disarmament of nuclear weapons, and even went so far as to declare that Beijing would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, no matter the circumstances — a policy maintained to this day. Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong thought of nuclear weapons as appearing powerful, but nothing to be afraid of in reality — the eponymous paper tigers of Lewis’s title.

While the number of nuclear weapons in the United States and the Soviet Union swelled to over 50,000 in the mid-1980s, and they produced warheads and delivery devices far deadlier than those used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, China was content to stick with dozens, not thousands, of warheads. Even today, the United States and Russia believe nuclear deterrence requires thousands of warheads each, and at least three ways to deliver them. But the truth of the matter is that you can annihilate your adversary (or the planet) only so many times. In fact, some in the U.S. Air Force have argued that 311 warheads would provide nine-and-a-half times the destructive power needed to incapacitate the Soviet Union by former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s count.

For China, it’s not the size of the arsenal that counts, it’s how you use it. About 200 nuclear warheads are “enough.” China’s primary goal has always been to prevent the use of nuclear weapons against them. Beijing figured out that you don’t need 30,000 nuclear warheads to achieve that end — you only need enough that the risk of losing a major city in retaliation holds your opponents back. They have enough for escalation control, they have enough for deterrence, and they only need to mate their warheads to delivery vehicles to signal.

So they keep their strategic forces small and agile. With about 200 weapons, you already have increased the cost of nuclear war enough that nobody wants to start one with you. You don’t even have to spend a fortune to keep those weapons ready to go at a moment’s notice, as Russia and the United States do with their arsenals. Instead, China can invest in its conventional and not-so- conventional weapons, including a growing naval force, hyper-glide vehicles,and systems for both cyberspace and outerspace. . Last, China is happy to sit back and wait until escalation is called for, so it keeps its warheads separated from the missiles it predominantly relies on as delivery systems.

Does this make them weak? No. In fact, while Trump is threatening to shower his enemies with a stream of destruction, China has already realized the limitations of nuclear weapons. First, they are not very useful. It’s not just the moral, economic, and environmental reasons that prevent states from using nuclear weapons — they are bad on the battlefield. Real military leaders don’t want more nukes. They want shiny new conventional weapons they can actually use.  Officers’ careers stall when they are assigned to staffing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear weapons are also expensive. Militaries can’t afford the next-generation conventional technology they want while footing the bill for nuclear weapons. It will cost the United States an estimated $1 trillion over the next 30 years to maintain the existing nuclear arsenal. Why is it so expensive? These weapons are special, and they come with special risks. You have to keep them safe and secure in addition to operational. These weapons are also old. Parts of these systems will simply age-out unless they are replaced. You need a very skilled workforce to keep them going, and there is a huge age gap as millennials are drawn to the snack bars and salaries of Silicon Valley instead of the dusty corridors of the nuclear arsenal. Other costs haven’t even been calculated yet. What is the cost of accidental use? We’ve had several close calls in the few decades that we’ve had these complex weapons. How much longer will we stay lucky? By keeping their numbers small, China reduces maintenance costs and the odds of an accident.

Finally, nuclear weapons, once the definitive weapon, are now out of date. Advances in remote sensing, unmanned vehicles, and cyber-capabilities hold nuclear weapons at risk. What use is the weapon if everyone knows where it is and can even disrupt its readiness? Biological weapons are becoming cheaper, and they are more feasible members of the weapons of mass destruction family for states and nonstate actors to obtain. New technology like artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons, and hypersonic boost-glide vehicles are making conventional weapons more attractive to militaries. Nuclear weapons are not going to disappear yet, but their role in strategic stability is declining.

China is thinking smart, not big. Though they are not impressed by the bravado of a large nuclear arsenal, Chinese scholars do call for equally modern nuclear weapons and delivery systems so as not to lose their ability to retaliate in the face of U.S. conventional weapons and ballistic missile defenses. In 2015, the United States assessed that China may have already added multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles to its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

With its smaller, more cost-effective arsenal, China has had the time and money to project greater sea power than ever before. Proudly launching its own aircraft carrier and multiple nuclear submarines, it is not above showing off. Beijing is also developing cutting-edge conventional technologies, such as anti-ballistic missile defenses, quantum satellites, drones, hyper-glide vehicles, and cyberweapons. After all, there is more than one way to make a conquest — which China may pull off while Trump and Putin are distracted by the size of each other’s nuclear arsenals.

Photo credit: TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images

Melissa Hanham is a Senior Research Associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the META Lab at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.