When it comes to China’s ongoing military buildup, most attention is paid to the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) conventional forces, that is, fighter jets, submarines, armored vehicles, precision-guided munitions, and the like. The nuclear side of this buildup is almost totally ignored – and yet what is happening here is equally disturbing.

DF-26 missiles appear in the Sept 3 parade in Beijin
DF-26 missiles appear at a Beijing parade in this file photo

For China, “going nuclear” was major achievement. Beijing detonated its first atomic (fission-type) bomb in 1964, followed by the test of a thermonuclear (fusion-type) device three years later. Given the relatively backward state of China’s defense science and technology base, these feats, along with the launching of China’s first satellite in 1970, were a source of considerable national pride.

Despite the success of its “two bombs and one satellite,” Beijing faced the problem of what to do with its new-founded nuclear capability. It could not hope to match the nuclear forces of the United States or the USSR in terms of quantity or quality. Nevertheless, there had to be a strong strategic rationale for possessing – and possibly using – nuclear weapons.

Minimum deterrence

Out of this conundrum came the doctrine of “minimum deterrence.” According the minimum deterrence, China need only possess a nuclear force capable of surviving and retaliating to an enemy’s first strike, thereby making the cost of attacking too high in the first place. This meant a limited but durable second-strike nuclear force that would deter nuclear blackmail and also be compatible with the defensive-oriented doctrine of People’s War.

Consequently, for most of its existence, China’s nuclear force was small, typically on low alert, and dedicated to a no-first-use policy. Responsibility for China’s nuclear weapons was placed under the Second Artillery Corps, which also controlled all the country’s land-based ballistic missile systems, both nuclear and conventionally armed.

Starting in the early 1990s, under the leadership of Jiang Zemin, Beijing has further refined this policy, to one of “dynamic minimum deterrence,” with an additional stress on sufficiency and effectiveness. Nuclear forces were still limited in size, but increased emphasis was on the survivability and reliability of these forces. This was to ensure that China would still be able to inflict a damaging retaliatory second strike.

It also meant that China had the means to threaten the use of nuclear weapons in order to prevent regional conflicts from spiraling into something far bigger and far worse. This was in keeping with Beijing’s long-held aim of “winning without fighting.”

 Building the Triad…

China’s Second Artillery – its nuclear weapons, coupled with an assortment of surface-to-surface missile systems – was for a long time one of the few “pockets of excellence” in the Chinese military. Until recently, however, it was relatively small – no more than two dozen long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), based in silos.

Moreover, these ICBMs were liquid-propellant (taking several hours to fuel) and highly inaccurate (which was still sufficient for striking counter-value targets, such as cities).

These forces were complemented by a limited number of medium bombers (licensed-produced versions of the Soviet Tu-16, an aircraft dating back to the 1950s) and a single Xia-class nuclear submarine (SSBN) – a vessel so noisy and so unreliable as to never be fully operational.

At the most, China was believed to possess 250 nuclear weapons overall, making it one of the smallest nuclear powers in the world.

Like the country’s conventional forces, however, China’s nuclear arsenal has seen a dramatic expansion and modernization. Over the past 20 years or so, the land-based deterrent has grown to around 50 or 60 missiles, mostly road-mobile (and therefore more survivable) solid-fueled DF-31 and DF-41 ICBMs. Moreover, many of these missiles are deployed with multiple warheads (MIRVs), increasing their number of likely targets.

On top of this, China possesses at least 1500 intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles (such as the DF-21 and, eventually, the DF-26) and land-attack cruise missiles. Most of these missile systems are for conventional strike, but they could have strategic purposes. The DF-26, for example, with its 3000- to 5000-kilometer range, has been dubbed the “Guam killer,” due to its theoretical ability to hit this heavily militarized US-owned island.

China has also finally deployed a functional SSBN, the Jin-class Type-094. At least four of these boats have been launched, each armed with a dozen JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

Last but not least, the PLA recently announced that it was developing a new long-range strategic bomber. This aircraft would almost certainly be stealthy and nuclear-capable. China, therefore, is close to perfecting an air-sea-land nuclear triad, similar to the United States’ and Russia’s.

…But to what purpose?

“Technology push” has certainly prompted China to build better and more strategic weapons – that is, a broad range of delivery systems, cruise missiles, MIRVing of systems, etc. – resulting in a cache of 500 nuclear weapons (and growing). But having so many nuclear weapons starts to look like a first-strike capability, thereby undermining the whole idea of “minimum deterrence”? The question, therefore, is what does Beijing plan to do with this growing and increasingly sophisticated nuclear arsenal?

Compounding this concern are two other developments. First, China has recently reorganized its missile forces, replacing the Second Artillery Corps with a new “Strategic Rocket Forces.” Details are sketchy, but new SRF, which is under the direct command of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, may have unprecedented authority over all three legs of the emerging Chinese nuclear triad (land-based missiles, bombers, and SLBMs). This is a new, as yet untested wrinkle in China’s command and control over nuclear weapons.

Second, the technological advances in Chinese long-range conventional strike capabilities – including cruise missiles, precision-guided ballistic missiles, and perhaps even hypersonic weapons – raises the issue of whether China has even less need for nuclear weapons. Again, the lack of transparency surrounding China’s nuclear force raises more reservations about what Beijing actually wants to do with these weapons.

In and of themselves, Chinese nuclear forces are not necessarily worrisome, and no one is asking China to leave the “nuclear club.” But given the twin buildups in the country’s conventional and nuclear forces, coupled with a general atmosphere of policy opaqueness coming out of Beijing, it is permissible to be concerned about Chinese motives.

Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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