Can U.S. President Joe Biden’s nuclear posture provide an opportunity to reshape U.S.-China strategic stability? This puzzle has been haunting numerous scholars and pundits. Now its once positive outlook — even likelihood — faces a downward slog. While China is not yet a military peer of the United States, the country’s modernization of its armed services has progressed sufficiently to resonate with the U.S. and its allies.
Discourse that prioritizes strategic competition with China prevails in Washington, accompanied by a fraught effort aimed at deterrence of the People’s Republic in the U.S. defense agenda. The military buildup, accordingly, has seen a steady expansion. In light of Biden’s stalwart advocacy of disarmament, this seemingly paradoxical departure leads to various interpretations: Is it a reaction to China’s increasing arsenal or merely hypocrisy?
As a traditional Democrat, Biden regards nuclear deterrence as sufficient to maintain U.S. national security. The idea in no small part derives from the ideal of nuclear disarmament and Biden’s long personal track record of working on nonproliferation issues, highlighted by the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program. Of several visions on arms control, none is more compelling than the idea that nuclear weapons can themselves play a role in stemming the proliferation of deadly weapons.
In 2017, Biden contended that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterrence and, secondarily, if necessary, retaliation against a nuclear attack. Donald Trump, having fanned the flames of an arms race, proposed to increase the budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration — the agency of the Energy Department that maintains the U.S. nuclear stockpile and develops new nuclear warheads.
Unlike his predecessor, Biden perceives that such a nuclear policy far exceeds the necessity of a credible nuclear deterrent and creates a significant financial burden. Indeed, over the months since taking office Biden has made clear progress toward fulfilling his commitment on arms control. Following a five-year extension of the New START Treaty, as expected, the administration then found a possible way back into the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The wind has blown in the other direction when it comes to China. The Pentagon has invested in a high state of military readiness and cutting-edge technologies. Notably, from the fiscal 2022 budget request, two objectives are enunciated: an increased investment in nuclear and missile defense budgets and a proposition delineating a so-called Pacific Deterrence Initiative. For starters, in response to China’s own growing missile and nuclear capabilities, the U.S. Defense Department has requested $715 billion from Congress — roughly $10-billion growth from 2021 — yet with drops of 2.4 percent and 4 percent for nuclear modernization and missile defense, respectively, from appropriations in 2020.
If the money is to be used to combat China, then why is some of it being reduced? Here is the tricky part. We should know that it is not the cost but, more important, the mix of weapons that is noteworthy. Modernizing nuclear arsenals — for example, through the acquisition of up-to-date systems — costs less than previous nuclear efforts, according to the head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. Yet the strategic list covers a wide range of advanced assets, from nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) systems to specific weapons, like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), the B-21 bomber, the Columbia-class submarine and Tomahawk cruise missiles. In fact, the spending pullback this year is in line with an adjustment in preparation for a long-term extraordinary cost of $634 billion over a decade, based on the latest assessment of the Congressional Budget Office.
In addition to the modernization of America’s nuclear triad, a $5.1 billion subset for projects related to the Pacific Deterrence Initiative is seen as another way to better deter China’s power projection. Of the initiative’s four sections, enhancing lethality is a top priority for the U.S. military across the region, with a budget item of $4.9 billion. This accounts for 96 percent of the total, in sharp contrast to a half-million dollars in funding for alliance-related distribution.
The ratio also implies a potential shift in America’s Asia policy away from the previous offshore balancing strategy, by empowering local allies to maintain and reinforcing its own presence in the region — that is, an aggregation of strong national power and a solid alliance system is now inclined to rely more on the former. It stands guard against any confrontational scenario despite being least desired. Within the Indo-Pacific region, for example, bodies of water are central to the regional theater of operations. Therefore, allocation of funds to boost U.S. naval power in the region has taken precedence over any other U.S. service, incorporating Tomahawk, SM-6 and hypersonic missiles, while advancing mobility.
An arms race?
The answer is clear now: U.S. arms-control policies are being divided and resources reallocated over fear of China’s growing military power and expanding influence. As such, they require more delicacy than ever. Otherwise the nuclear threat posed by the world’s greatest powers will reach a new and potentially catastrophic high.
Three points clarify the core motivations behind Biden’s moves:
First of all is his vision that “small is beautiful.” To be clear, Biden’s approach does not at all, and would never, countenance a massive reduction at the expense of defensive efficiency and national security. Instead of relying heavily on a huge strike capability, the adopted U.S. nuclear deterrence capability favored by Biden and his team emphasizes survivability, flexible response and focus on the effectiveness of nuclear retaliation. That is, the administration’s stress on a credible deterrent capability at lower cost echoes its recognition that nuclear weapons have a sole purpose. No wonder some Chinese optimists once depicted Biden’s policy as “exquisite” (jingqiao).
Second, Biden does not care to reverse his consistent posture in arms control, considering Beijing has been identified as the top “pacing challenge” for the U.S. For him, it is an all-around bigger thorn in America’s side. China’s military might has become a frame of reference for the U.S. by which to measure the pace of its own buildup.
Specifically, by the yardstick the U.S. can appreciate the distinctive advantages in the strategic military capabilities of the two sides. China is more muscular when it comes to land-based medium-range missiles but relatively weak on strategic nuclear weapons, and vice versa. By assessing China’s stockpile of fissile material, the U.S. Defense Department’s annual report for 2020 confirmed that it is theoretically enough for hundreds of warheads, so it has not resumed production for nuclear weaponization.
By comparison, the United States possesses a stockpile of about 3,800 warheads with a massive inventory of available fissile material. Still, the country seeks to maintain an all-around advantage over China by increasing its investment in both nuclear deterrence and missile-related infrastructure. Behind this posture is anxiety about China’s remarkable progress and its estimated doubling of its nuclear stockpile — not to mention the lead the People’s Liberation Army already has in short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
Through dominant superiority over China’s augmentation of its arsenal and combat power projection, the move serves two main purposes: supporting the U.S. commitment to defend regional allies and to minimize the uncertainties of military conflict. Otherwise, the relative decline of military capability, the foundation of U.S. primacy, may also largely constrain the administration to use other instruments in its power toolkit.
Third, domestic political pressure is a driving force in America’s military budgets. Critics of Biden’s arms-control policy might have said that the administration tied its own hands in competition, particularly under the urgent circumstance that China’s power is skyrocketing as a result of military-civil fusion efforts. Some politicians have denounced the defense budget — affected by climate change and the pandemic response — as neither sufficient nor focused on the perceived worsening threats from China.
Similarly, skeptical of the country’s existing effectiveness and the reliability of nuclear deterrence, hawks from both the Pentagon and Congress support expanding the role of nuclear weapons, as opposed to reducing strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles and moving toward a zero-yield nuclear-test-ban treaty worldwide. One example of this zealotry is when George W. Bush took the office, he abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and supported preemptive military action. In an effort not to go that far, the While House is now attempting to assuage apprehension of China, as well as concerns about the vast cost of renovating the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Given all of the above, rather than a substantial turnaround from the priorities of his predecessor, which many had assumed he would make, Biden’s approach is more likely to be an evolutionary, full-spectrum endeavor that goes way beyond the military realm in response to complex U.S.-China dynamics. It’s a precarious posture, however, a subtle balance that is difficult to maintain. It could even create chaos in a vicious cycle of security dilemmas.