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Urgent Changes Are Needed in China’s Nuclear Policies

Jul 03, 2023

China’s refusal to negotiate legally binding limits on its rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal jeopardizes global strategic arms control. As a result, the United States and its allies are already exercising strategic response options. Though non-legal agreements and norms of behavior might help prevent wars and escalation, curbing China’s nuclear weapons ambitions is the best way to avert a costly and risk-prone arms race. 

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is the latest institution highlighting China’s rapid buildup of nuclear capabilities. According to its annual SIPRI Yearbook, China’s stockpile of nuclear warheads grew from 350 to 410 between January 2022 and January 2023. The People’s Liberation Arsenal (PLA) now possesses roughly twice as many warheads as France, India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. According to SIPRI’s assessment, “China could potentially have at least as many intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) as either the USA or Russia by the turn of the decade.” The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that Beijing’s arsenal will grow to 1,500 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2035. 

For decades, foreign observers have concluded that Beijing purposefully maintained a modest nuclear force, consisting of only a couple hundred warheads sufficient to deter nuclear attacks on PRC territory. Now that China is rapidly exceeding this ceiling, one of the principal authors of the SIPRI report, Hans M. Kristensen, observed that “[i]t is increasingly difficult to square this trend with China’s declared aim of having only the minimum nuclear forces needed to maintain its national security.” 

Worse yet, while the PLA’s nuclear capabilities are rapidly improving in quantity and quality, Beijing has declined to join international treaties that would impose verifiable limits on its nuclear buildup. Additionally, Chinese leaders have resisted calls to make their nuclear capabilities and intentions more transparent. Barring a change in Beijing’s position, the prospects for future vertical nuclear arms control agreements involving Russia, China, and the United States look bleak, further degrading strategic stability and increasing the chances of future crises. 

Further, the PLA’s nuclear buildup, compounded by Russia’s war against Ukraine and North Korea’s unrelenting nuclear missile development program, could encourage additional countries to seek nuclear deterrents. These three developments have already challenged U.S. extended nuclear security guarantees in Asia and spurred Japanese and, especially, South Korean interest in acquiring national nuclear deterrents. 

Previous Japanese leaders considered acquiring nuclear weapons, but the combination of China’s nuclear restraint, U.S. defense guarantees against the Soviet Union, and the limited military threat from North Korea, meant that Tokyo could tolerate China’s modest arsenal. Now, with North Korea determined to acquire nuclear missiles and Russia’s increased belligerence, China’s nuclear buildup is accelerating Japan’s national security transformation—which includes obtaining novel conventional strike capabilities, substantially boosting defense spending, and demanding more concrete nuclear assurances from the United States. 

At the same time, China’s military buildup and assertive foreign policy are having an even greater impact on South Korea’s national security policies. Polls show that South Koreans now view China as a more serious long-term threat than North Korea, Japan, or any other foreign country. PRC pressure on the Republic of Korea (ROK) to weaken its security ties to the United States has backfired, undermining Seoul’s attempt to strike a balanced diplomatic stance between Beijing and Washington. This situation has contributed to the ROK’s recent decisions to reinforce security ties with Japan and demand stronger nuclear deterrence guarantees from the United States. 

Earlier this month, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told the Arms Control Association Annual Forum that the world now stood at an “inflection point in our nuclear stability and security.” In addition to challenges stemming from the nuclear policies of Russia, Iran, and North Korea, Sullivan warned about the disruptive effects of China’s modernization, which he termed “one of the largest peacetime nuclear build-ups in history.” He criticized Beijing’s refusal “to come to the table for substantive dialogue on arms control….share the size and scope of its nuclear forces, or to provide launch notifications.” 

Sullivan observed that “the type of limits [of strategic nuclear forces] the United States can agree to after the [New START] Treaty expires [in 2026] will of course be impacted by the size and scale of China’s nuclear buildup.” Meanwhile, the United States will modernize its strategic delivery vehicles, deploy better non-nuclear weapons, strengthen its military alliances in Europe and Asia, and develop novel instruments for waging war in outer space, the cyber environment, and other domains of conflict. 

Still, Sullivan reaffirmed that the Biden administration would engage in nuclear arms control discussions with Beijing “without preconditions.” In particular, the United States would consider non-treaty mechanisms to encourage responsible nuclear behavior and decrease risks through greater transparency and restraint. He further stated that the Biden administration would not try to match the combined nuclear weapons capabilities of China and Russia, claiming that the current administration is pursuing a “better approach—not a more approach” toward effective deterrence. 

Nevertheless, a future Congress or U.S. presidential administration may plausibly decide to enlarge the U.S. nuclear arsenal to match China’s buildup. When the Pentagon reported that the PLA’s ICBM launchers exceeded those of the United States earlier this year, some members of Congress demanded increases in U.S. nuclear capabilities. During the previous administration, Washington pressed Beijing and Moscow for formal nuclear arms talks—delaying a decision on New START’s extension to pressure other parties to accept the trilateral format. Though this stratagem failed, pressure to resist strategic arms control treaties that do not include Beijing will rise concomitantly with China’s nuclear buildup. 

During the forum, Sullivan justifiably lamented the Chinese government’s refusal “to compartmentalize strategic stability from broader issues.” Whatever grievances PRC leaders have against the United States and its allies, they must understand that, unless they curb the PLA’s nuclear buildup (perhaps as part of a global freeze on nuclear weapons totals), the world will face a dangerous three-way arms race that no one can win. 

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