It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Will China’s New Missile Lead to Escalation or Stability?

Beijing’s FOBS delivery system could provoke an arms race—or a more stable deterrence relationship.

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.
Military vehicles carry China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles in a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Military vehicles carry China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles in a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! Happy Friday! Before we knock off for the week, we have a lot of news to cover. China is keeping everyone busy (and afraid) with its test of a new hypersonic missile. Should we start there?

Emma Ashford: I’d like to lodge a complaint. The news cycle for the last year has been all nukes and China, all the time. That puts me—the non-nuke person—at a real disadvantage in our debates. Could I get a handicap, as golfers do?

MK: LOL. Yes, I’d like to claim that I had the foresight years ago to choose to specialize in what I knew would become the most important issue of the 2020s, but I think I just got lucky.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! Happy Friday! Before we knock off for the week, we have a lot of news to cover. China is keeping everyone busy (and afraid) with its test of a new hypersonic missile. Should we start there?

Emma Ashford: I’d like to lodge a complaint. The news cycle for the last year has been all nukes and China, all the time. That puts me—the non-nuke person—at a real disadvantage in our debates. Could I get a handicap, as golfers do?

MK: LOL. Yes, I’d like to claim that I had the foresight years ago to choose to specialize in what I knew would become the most important issue of the 2020s, but I think I just got lucky.

EA: Well, at least I’m not those poor folks at the Pentagon rapidly trying to pivot from counterinsurgency in southwestern Iraq to great-power competition in the South China Sea.

MK: Anyway, Foreign Policy has had some great coverage of these issues—some of which I disagree with—so you can just channel Jeffrey Lewis on hypersonics, and we will be all set for a good debate.

EA: That’s a great place to start. The big news of the week, of course, was the bombshell news…

MK: No pun intended.

EA: Exactly. The Chinese have tested a new nuclear weapons delivery system, which has been variously described as a hypersonic glider and as a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS). The Chinese deny it, saying that the system was merely a space plane. But since the only difference between a space plane and a FOBS is whether it ends in a nuclear explosion or an astronaut press conference, that seems pretty suspect. What do you think the significance of this story is?

MK: Well, the Lewis take, and the conventional wisdom in the arms control community, is that poor China is worried that its nuclear deterrent is being threatened by U.S. missile defenses, so it is building this FOBS weapon (I am indifferent on what we call it, but FOBS is easier to write) to defeat U.S. defenses.

The problem with that argument is that the United States pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty 20 years ago, but Beijing is just testing this new system now. Why wait two decades if they were so concerned? Moreover, this test wasn’t in isolation. It is coming along with a massive Chinese nuclear buildup that includes other systems, such as siloed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), that don’t really make much sense if China is really worried about the survivability of its nuclear forces.

Finally, Lewis and others argue that China’s FOBS is designed to ensure that Beijing can defeat U.S. missile defenses and retaliate against the United States and that the FOBS doesn’t really change anything because China, in fact, already has the ability to launch a nuclear retaliatory strike against the United States. Both of those things cannot be true at the same time, unless we just assume that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is stupid and does not know what it is doing. And that’s not the case.

Other than that, I loved the piece!

If you’re China, with a far smaller number of nuclear weapons than the United States or even Russia, the notion of losing your secure second-strike capability is pretty problematic for mutual deterrence.

EA: Well, I think you could argue that the ABM Treaty withdrawal—which happened during the George W. Bush administration—was an important but not necessarily proximate factor here. Weapons systems take a long time to come online, and over that 20-year period, the United States has built up its missile defenses and begun to modernize its nuclear forces.

Now, the missile defense system in Alaska works so poorly that the Defense Department no longer tests it just to avoid embarrassing failures. But it’s still there, an indication that the United States is seeking to blunt an incoming nuclear strike. And considered in the context of the United States’ much larger nuclear forces and ongoing modernization, it raises the possibility that Washington might actually be able to preemptively knock out many Chinese nukes in a conflict, leaving only a few, which might be intercepted by missile defense. The FOBS delivery system resolves that problem by coming from a different direction and avoiding the Alaska-based defenses.

In short, if you’re China, with a far smaller number of nuclear weapons than the United States or even Russia, the notion of losing your secure second-strike capability is pretty problematic for mutual deterrence. No?

MK: I have a simpler explanation that doesn’t require getting into the arcane theology of the nuclear weapons priesthood. In fact, it is only two words: Xi Jinping. China had a stable and successful approach to foreign and domestic policy for decades that was mostly put in place by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, but since 2014 or so, Xi has thrown all that out the window. He is backtracking on the liberalizing reforms promised by the CCP. He is reneging on the “one country, two systems” pledge to Hong Kong. He has eliminated the term limits and collective rule that defined CCP leadership since Mao Zedong. He has thrown away the “hide and bide” approach to foreign policy and launched China on a much more assertive path.

And I believe he is doing the same thing in nuclear weapons policy. Since Mao and Deng, China has had a pretty stable nuclear strategy and posture. China wanted a “lean and effective” nuclear arsenal that could ensure retaliation but nothing more. That is not good enough for the new dictator. He wants China to be a superpower and a “first-tier military.” You cannot be a first-tier military with only a second-tier strategic force. So, he is building up his strategic forces across the board, quadrupling the size of the arsenal and building new siloed ICBMs, new mobile ICBMs, new nuclear bombers, new nuclear-armed submarines, new missile defenses, and new hypersonic missiles.

By looking at this one technology test in isolation, analysts miss the bigger picture. But using a wider lens reveals what is really going on.

EA: I’m not going to disagree that Xi is a pretty sinister person. All the things you point out about Chinese domestic politics during his tenure are true. But Washington successfully maintained a nuclear deterrent relationship with Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Mao, so I’m not convinced personality or domestic politics is the problem here.

You’re right to consider the big picture. China has been upgrading, increasing, and modernizing its nuclear forces. So has Russia: The Russians are developing new, exotic types of nuclear weapons, too. But that’s why you’re wrong more broadly. These developments aren’t happening in isolation; the bigger picture also has to include the changes in U.S. posture and capabilities over the last few decades.

In recent years, the United States has—as you pointed out—withdrawn from the ABM Treaty and developed ballistic missile defenses. It has withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and begun to develop short-range and tactical nuclear weapons. And U.S. officials have been engaged in a policy debate about the extent and purpose of the United States’ ongoing nuclear modernization.

There are plenty of good reasons why these steps would be worrying to China or Russia. Perhaps they’re not the only reason, but it’s far too simplistic to argue that either country is developing new nuclear technologies simply because they want it.

MK: I disagree with most of that.

EA: I figured you would. Let me ask a question: Whether you’re right or I’m right, it seems as if the most effective response would still be to open up some dialogue on arms control with China, to find a way to constrain and limit these developments. No?

Arms control would be great in theory; that is why Barack Obama and Donald Trump tried it and Joe Biden will certainly try it, too. The problem is that Russia and China aren’t interested.

MK: Arms control would be great in theory; that is why Barack Obama and Donald Trump tried it and Joe Biden will certainly try it, too. The problem is that Russia and China aren’t interested. China refused to even attend arms control talks with Obama and Trump. So, Biden should keep trying, but it is unlikely to work.

EA: I’m not sure I agree that telling the Chinese they have to get on board with New START now—the way the Trump administration did—is offering to talk about arms control! But go on.

MK: So what does the United States do instead? (And this is where I agree with you.) The U.S. government should ensure a stable deterrence relationship, just as it did with the Soviet Union. But, as during the Cold War, it will require the maintenance of a strong strategic force. The United States needs to modernize its strategic nuclear forces; build nonstrategic weapons to negate Russian and Chinese nuclear advantages in Europe and Asia, respectively; and build a limited regional and homeland missile defense system, including continuing research into hypersonic missile defenses.

That approach has the twin benefits of strengthening deterrence and giving the United States something to trade away in future arms control talks. Right now, it is trying to trade something for nothing.

EA: That’s a recipe for an arms race. A very expensive, very dangerous arms race. The United States has been lucky: It has been in a position of near nuclear primacy for a couple of decades. Other countries are finally catching up and trying to adapt to it. I know you’re a proponent of continued nuclear primacy, but I am more of the opinion that the United States needs to accept it may be returning to a more equitable state of affairs, one in which mutual deterrence is maintained, at the cost of the United States no longer being so far ahead of the pack.

If the People’s Liberation Army can make Washington more cautious by increasing the vulnerability of the U.S. homeland to Chinese nuclear attack, then Beijing has a freer hand to invade its neighbors, such as Taiwan.

MK: The arms race scare arguments drive me crazy. They often present a false dilemma between an arms race and world peace. The real choice is to allow revisionist autocracies to build weapons that will threaten the United States, its allies and partners, and the rules-based system—or build the forces needed to deter Russian and Chinese aggression.

On nuclear primacy, my academic research has argued that the nuclear balance of power matters even when both countries have secure second-strike capabilities. China is once again proving my case. It already has a secure second-strike capability, as Lewis points out. So, then, why is it building these new weapons? In part, it’s about status. But it is also because Beijing wants to be able to nuke the United States a lot, not just a little. If the People’s Liberation Army can make Washington more cautious by increasing the vulnerability of the U.S. homeland to Chinese nuclear attack, then Beijing has a freer hand to invade its neighbors, such as Taiwan, without fear of U.S. intervention.

Speaking of an attack on Taiwan, there seems to be a growing narrative that we are entering a decade of peak danger with China. What is your take on these arguments?

EA: Ah, the old problem of extended deterrence. I guess we’ve shifted from the question, during the Cold War, of whether we’d exchange Chicago for Berlin to the question of whether we’d exchange Los Angeles for Taipei. In either case, it’s problematic because U.S. leaders obviously and rightly care more about U.S. cities.

On the broader question, though, I read with interest Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins’s new article here in Foreign Policy, in which they argue that China is entering a key decade before it hits a likely period of demographic and financial decline. He thinks that China is more likely to take dangerous steps, such as attempting reunification with Taiwan, during that decade.

I think they’re probably right that the next decade is likely to be one of the most dangerous in terms of U.S.-China dynamics. But I also think they underestimate the risks of the potential U.S. overreaction to China’s rise. If the United States, for example, leads China to believe that it is a question of “now or never” on Taiwan, then we’re more likely to see conflict.

MK: I mostly agree with the diagnosis, too. After all, I have been arguing for a couple of years that China’s model is bound to run out of steam but that the CCP is still dangerous even if it can never overtake the United States.

We, of course, disagree on the prescription. I think it is U.S. and allied weakness that would invite Chinese aggression, so they should make it clear to Beijing that they have the will and capability to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

EA: Yeah, if readers missed it, they can check out our last debate on the topic of Taiwan here.

MK: It is for this reason that I was pleased to see news reports that NATO will make China more of a focus. Our colleagues at the Scowcroft Center published a report advocating such an approach this year. But I suspect you see it differently?

EA: The case against NATO taking a more active role against China is just common sense. Look at Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s remarks! He said China is an increasing threat to NATO members in Europe “in the Arctic … in cyberspace … in critical infrastructure in our countries.” If those are the best examples he can come up with, then it’s not particularly persuasive. None of those is particularly pressing, at least compared with other key security threats that European nations face. Stoltenberg also highlighted China’s long-range nuclear weapons, which are hardly a new threat!

The case against NATO taking a more active role against China is just common sense.

I understand that NATO is trying to show its relevance when it comes to China; the United States has been trying to get European states to take China seriously for a while. But NATO is just not the right tool here. It would be far better if the U.S. government could get countries such as Germany to talk about China-related trade and infrastructure issues while the European members of NATO take on more responsibility for more localized issues, such as Russia.

MK: China is now a global problem, and Europe needs to be part of the solution. You are right that the European Union should play the lead role on trade and technology, but NATO is a security alliance, and a major war between the United States and China would not be good for Europe’s security or economic well-being. So, I think NATO should pay attention to China, but its primary purpose should still be Russia. As Washington focuses more on Beijing, it will need European allies to take on more responsibility for the security of Europe.

Speaking of responsibilities, I think I am late for a meeting across town, and I don’t yet have a hypersonic glide vehicle to get me there. Until next time?

EA: Looking forward to it. Would it be too much to hope for a news cycle dominated by something other than China?

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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