China’s Nuclear Arms Are a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery
Beijing's plans to build new missiles, expand anti-satellite capabilities and increase nuclear material production far above civilian needs have the world guessing.
Two weeks ago, U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to a proposal that China join the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council at a summit to initiate a new round of arms control talks. The goal, according to administration officials, is a three-way agreement among China, Russia, and the United States to limit nuclear weapons. As National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien explained in early February, “It shouldn’t just be the U.S. and Russia. We think that China is going to need to become involved in any serious arms control negotiation.”
China, whose nuclear warheads number only in the low hundreds, may not seem a natural fit for negotiations with the United States (6,185 total warheads, of which 1,750 are deployed) and Russia (6,490 total, 1,600 deployed). Indeed, China has previously rejected participating in a trilateral nuclear arms deal on the grounds that its forces are too small. But Beijing’s ambitious plans for new enrichment and recycling capacities capable of producing material for nuclear weapons would make it possible for China to achieve parity with the United States and Russia. Moreover, given the current and perhaps enduring Sino-Russian strategic alignment, the United States can no longer assume that a military conflict with China will not also involve Russia; while adding Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons numbers may not be appropriate, neither is considering them completely in isolation.
Before pulling Beijing into any arms control talks, however, U.S. officials need to understand what China is up to. In particular, they need to crack three strategic mysteries surrounding Beijing’s most threatening capabilities: its unclear doctrine for using nuclear weapons, its rising capacity to make nuclear explosives, and its development of anti-satellite operations.
The first mystery is how China might use its nuclear weapons. Beijing has long maintained it would never launch its nuclear weapons first, that it would only fire them after having been attacked, and, even then, weeks might pass before China would respond. As China’s 2019 defense white paper put it, “China is always committed to a nuclear policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally.” Chinese leaders also insist they can deter the United States so long as they have the ability to strike back at a limited number of targets, most likely American cities.
This policy of assured—and relatively limited—retaliation is what Chinese leaders have officially espoused. There is only one problem: China is currently building up its nuclear forces well beyond what’s needed merely to target a handful of American cities. The question is why.
China will soon have deployed a nuclear triad of strategic land, sea, and air-launched nuclear systems akin to America’s. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency projects China’s nuclear warhead stockpile may double by 2030. The People’s Liberation Army is fielding a large variety of modern, nuclear-capable missiles, of various ranges, some fitted with penetration aids and multiple independently targetable warheads. It is investing in a new, silo-based intercontinental ballistic missile—typically considered a first-strike weapon. These missiles may be fitted with hypersonic glide vehicles, which travel at high speeds on irregular trajectories, making them difficult for missile defenses to intercept.
Taken together, these and other capabilities point to a China that is potentially preparing for far more extensive retaliation, nuclear first strikes, counterforce targeting, and/or nuclear warfighting. Is that China’s intent, or does Beijing believe it needs all of these new capabilities merely to maintain deterrence through assured retaliation? Beijing has yet to offer a clear answer.
The second mystery surrounds China’s plans to significantly expand its facilities to enrich uranium and recycle plutonium. While this capacity is nominally intended to meet the needs of civilian reactors, China plans to produce far more fuel than it could consume domestically or export to its known customers abroad. Building up such nuclear fuel production capacity, however, is all too useful for making nuclear bombs.
If China were to build all of the enrichment capacity it plans, it could produce enough highly enriched uranium to make an additional 1,500 warheads each year—enabling Beijing to reach parity with the United States in five to 10 years if it chose to do so—even after supplying all of China’s civilian power reactors and meeting demand for exports. China is also operating a reprocessing plant and building another one capable of separating enough plutonium from spent reactor fuel to make an additional 500 nuclear warheads a year. On top of that, China plans to buy another plant from France that would allow it to produce enough plutonium for a further 1,600 nuclear warheads per year. None of this makes economic sense—it would be far cheaper for China to use uranium to fuel its power reactors. Why, then, is it launching such a massive reprocessing effort?
It is unclear. Beijing has not signaled any intent to grow its warhead stockpile so precipitously. The accepted wisdom is that China is not interested in racing to achieve nuclear parity with Russia or the United States but desires to maintain the option to do so. This would go some way toward making sense of Chinese plans. But again, Beijing has not yet explained itself.
The third and final mystery are China’s anti-satellite efforts. Like its other official pronouncements, China’s repeated avowals to keep space peaceful sound reassuring. Its actions in space, however, are anything but. According to the U.S. Defense Department, China is developing space-based early warning reconnaissance capabilities that would enable a shift to a launch-on-warning nuclear posture—which involves heightened readiness, improved surveillance, and streamlined decision-making to enable a rapid response in case of attack. The heightened potential for false alarms that comes with such a posture is hardly conducive to strategic stability. Meanwhile, China’s anti-satellite capabilities—its ground-based lasers, anti-satellite missiles, and robot satellite killer operations—raise fears that China might, in the event of a crisis, blind or destroy America’s own key military satellites.
In other words, instead of the official doctrine of embracing space as a global commons to which all have free access, China may well join Russia in contesting the domain and accelerating the arms race in space. Why? The operational logic for China doing so is clear: Effective Chinese anti-satellite weapons will make it harder for U.S. forces to maintain intelligence operations and battlefield communications in case of a conflict in the Pacific. Unfortunately, China’s investment in anti-satellite capabilities also heightens U.S. and allied fears of a Chinese first strike (nuclear or conventional). Here, too, it would be useful to understand China’s thinking.
When bilateral talks have happened in the past, they have too often focused on nuclear terrorism, the security of nuclear materials, and questions of declaratory policy. For years, Chinese officials have refused to engage in meaningful dialogue that could give clarity on the issues described above. But dialogue is what is necessary if both countries are to gain a better understanding of the strategic capabilities in which the other is investing and why.
Toward this end, the Trump administration should make pursuit of a new strategic capabilities dialogue a key goal for 2020. Certainly, Beijing has concerns about the United States coming to its own conclusions about these mysteries—for Washington, any responsible assessment will require at least some consideration of a worst-case scenario. China has an opportunity to shape those assessments. Continuing to eschew that opportunity is unlikely to be in China’s interest. Convincing Beijing of that is the task at hand.
Michael Mazza is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, and a non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.