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Does Beijing’s Belligerent Birthday Party Herald a New Arms Race?

The Chinese Communist Party’s anniversary celebration is taking place amid a nuclear buildup.

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Performers dressed as soldiers dance in front of a screen showing rockets being launched during a mass gala marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party on June 28 at the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, China.
Performers dressed as soldiers dance in front of a screen showing rockets being launched during a mass gala marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party on June 28 at the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, China. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! I hope you had a happy Fourth of July. And the United States wasn’t the only major power celebrating a birthday this week. It was also the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer celebrating with barbecue and fireworks than with threatening to have my enemies’ “heads bashed bloody.”

Emma Ashford: Yes, I do hope that metaphor sounds better in Chinese than it did in the English translation. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech on the 100th anniversary of the CCP was assertive and belligerent, promising to retaliate against countries that “bully” China. Not a new trend in Beijing, of course, but a clear choice for him to associate with a major historical celebration like the 100th anniversary.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! I hope you had a happy Fourth of July. And the United States wasn’t the only major power celebrating a birthday this week. It was also the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer celebrating with barbecue and fireworks than with threatening to have my enemies’ “heads bashed bloody.”

Emma Ashford: Yes, I do hope that metaphor sounds better in Chinese than it did in the English translation. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech on the 100th anniversary of the CCP was assertive and belligerent, promising to retaliate against countries that “bully” China. Not a new trend in Beijing, of course, but a clear choice for him to associate with a major historical celebration like the 100th anniversary.

I’ve always been rather fascinated by the ways in which politicians use (and mold) history to support their own aspirations, like Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s focus on building up the Great Patriotic War (the Russian name for World War II) to support his own regime. There was a good piece from Jade McGlynn recently here in Foreign Policy exploring the Russia angle, and this feels a little like the CCP trying to do something similar: remind China’s citizens of its troubled past and the indignities of Western predation, and tie the CCP’s successes in the 20th century to its aspirations for the 21st century.

MK: Indeed. There is a quasi-official CCP historical narrative: China was great for thousands of years. It was humiliated for a century by the West. Then, the CCP arrived and saved the day.

EA: Which is, of course, entirely different from the ongoing debate in the United States about whether one can question the perfection of the American project at its founding. It seems like the CCP and some Republicans have a lot in common! Snark aside though, whether or not it is working at home, this approach from Chinese leaders doesn’t seem to be working abroad. A new Pew Research Center survey released last week found that huge majorities in most advanced industrialized states hold negative views of China.

China’s aggressive diplomacy is alienating much of the rest of world, but Xi doesn’t seem to know or care.

MK: China’s aggressive diplomacy (including that gruesome speech) is alienating much of the rest of world, but Xi doesn’t seem to know or care. He appears to think China is strong enough that the opinions of others no longer really matter. He is mistaken about that, however, as his bellicose actions and rhetoric—not U.S. diplomacy—are the No. 1 factor contributing to the growing anti-China coalition globally.

And Beijing added more fuel to the fire last week with news of a massive nuclear buildup, a formal renewal of the Treaty of Friendship with Russia, and its continuing crackdown on tech companies.

EA: The missile story was by far the biggest of those developments. I wouldn’t entirely dismiss the other two, but the Russia-China partnership is mostly situational and transactional, while the tech company crackdown is less concerning for U.S. foreign policy than for dissidents inside China.

But the missile story was substantial. Open-source researchers using satellite imagery were able to identify that China is building over 100 new intercontinental ballistic missile silos out in the desert. But perhaps as our resident nuclear expert, you can explain it better than I can.

MK: The immediate reaction from some arms control experts was that this is no big deal. They said that this is Washington’s fault: China is building up its forces because it is worried about a U.S. nuclear first strike, and Washington should address the problem with arms control.

But, as I wrote in the Wall Street Journal, this doesn’t make sense. If China were worried about a U.S. first strike, it would put nuclear weapons on platforms that are hard for the Pentagon to target, like mobile missiles and submarines, not in fixed silos. I think this portends a dangerous shift in Chinese nuclear strategy to include the possibility of a first-strike or launch-on-warning posture against U.S. strategic forces and the U.S. homeland.

EA: Well, there’s the theory that these are mostly decoy silos, right? Make it impossible for the United States to tell which ones actually contain nukes, and use them to soak up incoming missiles while putting your actual focus on more survivable platforms? Washington did that during the Cold War.

MK: There is that theory, but I am skeptical. The U.S. Department of Defense has said that China plans to double, if not triple or quadruple, its arsenal in the coming decade; it needs to put those warheads somewhere. It looks like it is putting them on land-based, intercontinental-range, multiple warhead missiles in fixed silos. These weapons are better for prompt and accurate first strikes (or the threat to do so) than for retaliation.

For decades, China has had a minimal deterrent and a “no first use” policy, but U.S. defense strategists have long feared that as China became a geopolitical superpower, it would also want to build a superpower nuclear arsenal. I think that is what we are now seeing.

EA: What’s the difference between building a “superpower nuclear arsenal” and an attempt to increase the survivability of one’s nuclear deterrent? It seems like hair-splitting to me.

MK: Nuclear superpowers, the United States and Russia, also maintain significant counterforce capabilities—the ability to use their nuclear weapons first to destroy the nuclear weapons of their adversaries. A buildup in these types of forces shows that China may be moving in this direction.

EA: OK, so it’s less a question of numbers than one of posture and utilization. As a relative layperson when it comes to matters of nuclear Armageddon, it sounds to me that you’re saying that China is shifting from a purely defensive nuclear approach to one with more offensive potential?

If so, I just don’t see it. China is clearly engaging in nuclear modernization, but so are the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom; it seems like these Chinese steps are no more than we might expect in the current situation. It’s not clear to me that this development—the discovery of new missile silos—suggests any major change in posture, or on China’s no-first-use policy.

Expected or not, it is concerning for the countries at which those missiles will be aimed, including the United States and its allies.

MK: Expected or not, it is concerning for the countries at which those missiles will be aimed, including the United States and its allies. Ultimately, I think Beijing’s goal is not to fight a nuclear war but to produce more of a mutual stalemate at the nuclear level to give China a freer hand to engage in conventional aggression against U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific—such as Taiwan.

EA: That sounds pretty plausible. I guess the Chinese government is aiming for a return of the stability-instability paradox, where nuclear parity actually creates more potential for conflict at the conventional level. So it isn’t good for the United States. But there aren’t many good responses. New nuclear technologies have a tendency to result in more instability at the nuclear level—clearly not a win!—and I doubt there is any likelihood President Joe Biden can dissuade China via sanctions or other tools of economic statecraft.

Like most of these recent developments, this suggests to me that Americans have to get serious about arms control again, with a particular focus on thinking about new, multilateral approaches. After all, conventional arms control, which focuses on numerical caps, is useless with China’s smaller arsenal. So diplomats need to be thinking creatively about arms control focused on specific capabilities, scenarios, or asymmetric deals (i.e., U.S. missile defense concessions for Chinese nuclear restrictions). There is some great work out there on this topic.

MK: Washington and its allies should try arms control with China (as I too have recommended), but negotiations are unlikely to lead to breakthroughs anytime soon. In the meantime, therefore, the United States needs to strengthen its nuclear deterrent and should strive to maintain its quantitative and qualitative advantages over China at the strategic level.

EA: But that is how you end up with spiraling arms buildups. Washington can already wipe out every Chinese nuclear facility, military base, and major city many times over. Adding new nuclear capabilities will destabilize, not stabilize, the situation.

MK: False! That is how you end up with deterrence. It is only the “spiral model” if China is acting out of insecurity. But it is acting out of a desire to engage in armed aggression. Washington needs to convince Beijing that it will fail in its bid to achieve a usable military advantage over the United States and its allies. That is how to prevent an arms race and maintain peace.

I’m sure we could continue this debate forever, but I did want to return to the other China-related items. I think they are significant.

EA: Well, perhaps we shouldn’t relitigate every Cold War arms control debate today. I’ll just add a quote from Robert Jervis, one of the greats of international relations theory, who responded to the argument you make here by pointing out that “Policies that flow from deterrence theory … are just those that, according to the spiral model, are most apt to heighten tensions.” Deterrence is great, but the unintended consequences of such buildups can be disastrous in practice.

I thought the Russia-China announcement was not particularly significant. It represents a continuation of ongoing cooperation and a signal that the strategic alignment between the two will continue. But all of that was expected, though perhaps a blow to those in Washington who thought that the United States could pull a “reverse Kissinger” and simply peel Russia away from China, just as Richard Nixon’s secretary of state managed to drive a wedge between the Soviets and the Chinese during the Cold War.

MK: I mostly agree (after all, I’ve made the case against the reverse Kissinger in Foreign Policy) but I thought it was notable that the original 20-year agreement was extended for only an additional five years. Is the shorter time frame because they might want to downgrade or upgrade the relationship in the near future?

EA: It probably had as much to do with the fact that they don’t actually have much to agree on! Statements in the agreement focusing on things like building connections between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union were very general because the two countries have differing interests. The same goes for the climate question and various other areas. This remains at best a strategic alignment or partnership. It’s nothing like an alliance, and I think the prospects for an upgrade are slim.

MK: I thought the crackdown on the initial public offering for the Chinese ride-hailing company Didi on the New York Stock Exchange was more significant. Chinese companies are going to think twice about listing on an American exchange after Didi was labeled a “traitor” and “a walking dog of the United States” by some Chinese internet users. And American investors are going to think twice about investing in Chinese tech companies after losing big on this IPO due to arbitrary CCP rulings.

This is more evidence of the continuing decoupling of these two leading economies, especially in technology, removing one of the most important sources of stability in the relationship.

EA: Yes, that is worrying. While there are some legitimate concerns about supply chains—mostly in the defense and high-tech space—research suggests that trade, or at least expectations of future trade, can act as a stabilizing factor in great power politics. I am extremely perturbed about the notion of a rising China that is uncoupled from U.S. markets.

Before we wrap up, however, I wanted to flag a new crisis much closer to home. On Wednesday morning, the president of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated by armed gunmen in his residence. We don’t know much yet, but it’s hardly an everyday occurrence, and it doesn’t bode well for a country that has already been the setting for so much violence and suffering.

MK: Yes. Shocking news. There were many people who wanted Moïse dead due to his attempts to remain in office beyond his legal term and the endemic corruption and violence in the country. It reminds me of Machiavelli’s dictum in the Discourses on Livy that wise princes should establish a republic if they wish to live securely in their lifetimes and enjoy glory in their deaths. But too many politicians in unconsolidated democracies try to cling to power with tragic results for themselves and their countries.

The big question in my mind is: What should Washington do next?

The people of Haiti might prefer that Washington do nothing, given the U.S. track record.

EA: Power corrupts, and Haiti has never been short of dictators who seek power. Of course, Haiti has also never been short of U.S. interference, and I think everyone really needs to bear the history in mind as we think about this incident. The United States first invaded Haiti over 100 ago, with Woodrow Wilson’s administration opting to steal the national bank’s reserves and place a U.S.-friendly dictator in change.

But even more recent U.S. and international interventions in Haiti have been fraught with problems. The 1994 military intervention successfully restored democracy, but it collapsed again shortly afterward. International intervention after the devastating 2010 earthquake hurt the Haitian economy and ended up killing some 10,000 people after United Nations peacekeepers carried cholera to the country. A U.S. Agency for International Development project to build a port in the north of the island has failed utterly. In short, whatever the fallout from the incident, I am skeptical that the United States should be involved in any capacity.

MK: “Do nothing” doesn’t strike me as an attractive option for a potentially failing state in America’s backyard. There are many options other than military intervention, including diplomacy, economic aid, etc., even if those tools have not worked terribly well in the past.

EA: The people of Haiti might prefer that Washington do nothing, given the U.S. track record. Besides, aren’t you busy planning a nuclear war… I mean, a “great-power competition”?

MK: Actually, I just landed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I am going to go for a hike in the mountains and take in all the natural beauty, wide-open spaces, and freedom that U.S. nuclear weapons help to defend.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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