The United States Must Avoid a Nuclear Arms Race with China

In his lead essay, Eric Gomez cites profound technological changes as the main reason why the United States should rethink its nuclear policy. However, there is one drastic change he does not adequately take into account: the rise of China. This response essay, therefore, focuses on the China factor in U.S. nuclear policy.

Chinese Nuclear Modernization

Since the turn of the century, China has been modernizing its nuclear forces in earnest. Currently, Beijing’s nuclear arsenal is estimated to number in the 200s. From 2017 to 2018, warheads increased by ten, and the Pentagon anticipates that the stockpile will double over the next ten years. These modernization efforts, such as moving from silo-based liquid-fueled ICBMs to mobile solid-fueled delivery vehicles, have focused mainly on improving force survivability. China also added a sea leg to its nuclear deterrent in 2016 with the introduction of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (JL-2) on its Jin-class ballistic missile submarine.

Additionally, China is producing ballistic missile systems with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) and maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) technologies that enhance missiles’ effectiveness. To this end, China has launched more ballistic missiles for testing and training in 2019 than the rest of the world combined. Meanwhile, the PLA’s new hypersonic cruise missiles supposedly are capable of piercing existing missile defense systems. Furthermore, structural reforms in China’s military reveal the critical role nuclear weapons play in Chinese strategy. In 2016, the branch in charge of China’s nuclear deterrent, the Second Artillery, was upgraded to a service, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. Its commander was added to China’s highest military body, the Central Military Commission.

China’s drive to modernize, diversify, and expand its nuclear forces may cause some to argue with Gomez’s essential premise that new thinking is needed. This week, U.S. Strategic Commander Adm. Charles Richard remarked that China’s nuclear weapons buildup is “inconsistent” with their long-held no-first-use policy, emphasizing the need for the United States to pursue nuclear modernization. Indeed, there has been a resurgence in Cold War thinking about nuclear deterrence. For example, Former Senator Jon Kyl and Michael Morell argued for more low-yield nuclear warheads as part of an “escalate to deescalate” strategy. Similarly, Bret Stephens raised concerns that the U.S. arsenal is insufficient to prevent Chinese aggression.

However, I agree with Gomez that we need to rethink U.S. nuclear policy to ensure it can better meet contemporary challenges. Specifically, I argue that to best suit U.S. foreign policy interests, U.S. nuclear policy needs to minimize the role of nuclear weapons in U.S.-China great power competition and pave the way for arms control.

The Danger of Emphasizing Nuclear Competition within the Great Power Competition Framework

Since China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, it has adopted a relatively moderate and restrained nuclear policy, even as the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a nuclear arms race. China’s policy is one of assured retaliation with a no-first-use pledge designed to deter nuclear attack and coercion. China has not pursued “the kind of assured destruction capability that characterized U.S. and Soviet approaches.”

The United States should design its nuclear policy with the aim of increasing China’s confidence in its second-strike capabilities, so Beijing need not change its posture in ways that are destabilizing. Unfortunately, given concerns about great power competition with the United States and its force’s survivability, China may be rethinking its nuclear policy in ways detrimental to the United States. Recent developments in 2019 indicate China intends to increase its peacetime readiness nuclear posture from launch-on-attack to launch-on-warning. This suggests a move away from its no-first-use pledge. Such a move is also detrimental for crisis stability as it reduces how long decisionmakers have to assess the situation before they decide whether to respond with nuclear weapons. Additionally, given the vulnerability of China’s small force to a first strike, scholars worry that China may use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack on its nuclear deterrent.

There is another trend in Chinese nuclear thinking that U.S. policy must be careful not to dislodge as it reconsiders its nuclear policy: despite its nuclear and conventional military inferiority, China has not tried to compensate with a more offensive declaratory strategy or operational doctrine. Other states, such as Pakistan, explicitly use their nuclear arsenals to hedge against the prospect of losing a conventional war. If the direction of great power competition compelled China to make such a change—to use nuclear weapons to deter any U.S. involvement at all—this would force the United States to rethink its alliance commitments and role in the region.

Many nuclear experts worry that growing U.S. capabilities and Washington’s drive for strategic nuclear primacy may convince China to abandon such restraint. China has not done so to date, but revitalized U.S. efforts at nuclear competition could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. During the Cold War, the United States spent an average of $35 billion a year building and maintaining over 70,000 nuclear weapons. Gomez seems to agree that U.S. nuclear policy’s central goal needs to be to avoid going down the same road in this era of great power competition. While still rare, there are voices in China calling for a nuclear arms race. Any renewed nuclear policy must not undercut those Chinese strategists that believe the moderate minimal approach can still serve Chinese interests in the era of great power competition.

Paving the Way for Arms Control

The other priority of U.S. nuclear policy must be to facilitate arms control with China—this has become even more urgent as emerging technology “give states non-nuclear tools to disrupt their adversary’s nuclear forces.”

If China agreed to participate in such arrangements, this would be incredibly beneficial for the United States. First, China maintains opacity on its nuclear arsenal to ensure its survivability and provide a strategic nuclear deterrent to nuclear countries, including the United States, Russia, and India. An arms control agreement that included greater transparency into Chinese nuclear modernization would be beneficial and stabilizing.

Second, if China were a part of an arms control regime, the United States would have a better chance of persuading China to engage in better crisis stability practices. One concerning aspect to be discussed is that China comingles its nuclear and conventional command and control systems, meaning China might perceive an attack on conventional C4ISR as a nuclear threat.

The problem is that Chinese strategists insist that the United States and Russia must first commit to significant reductions in their arsenals before asking China to do the same. This position seems reasonable, as Russia and the United States have roughly 25 times more nuclear weapons than China. Thus, Moscow and Washington should work hard to revitalize their arms reduction efforts to pave the way for Beijing’s inclusion in follow on iterations.

Many in Washington may be skeptical that such efforts would bear fruit, and for good reason. Russia has expressed little interest in engaging in arms control in good faith. Nevertheless, it is worth another try, perhaps with a different approach. This is one of the few security issues for which China and the United States have the same position: both want Russia to cut its nuclear arsenal. And while U.S.-Russian relations are on the perpetual decline, Beijing and Moscow are more and more aligned. These developments present an opportunity for Washington to work with Beijing to get Moscow back on board. It is hard to say whether China would agree in the end to arms control agreements if the United States and Russia adopt more moderate nuclear postures. But it is worth engaging with Beijing to clarify what changes in U.S. nuclear policy would guarantee a willingness to be more transparent and restrained in its ongoing nuclear modernization efforts.

Concluding Thoughts

Gomez concludes his essay by asking how U.S. nuclear policy helps it accomplish its broader foreign policy goals. A return to building up the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal will do little to support the United States in its great power competition with China. Relatively weaker U.S. resolve makes nuclear use in contingencies incredible; China’s assured retaliation and non–first use doctrine relegate nuclear weapons to a secondary position in Chinese war planning to date—a policy the United States should not disrupt. In other words, both sides primarily consider the conventional balance of power when making security decisions. This conventional focus means that U.S. nuclear supremacy is doing much less for U.S. foreign policy in its competition with China than one may expect. The United States should, therefore, consider significantly reducing its arsenal (assuming it can convince Russia to do the same) to facilitate arms control agreements with China that will increase crisis stability and peace in the region. A smart U.S. nuclear policy can ensure a strong, credible U.S. nuclear deterrent while simultaneously encouraging China to maintain its current nuclear doctrine, thus avoiding an unnecessary and potentially destabilizing arms race.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Eric Gomez argues that U.S. nuclear strategy is due for a reconsideration. As the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons undergoes modernization—a process that will take more than a decade—the time is right for rethinking what we should be doing with them. Gomez argues against relying too heavily on nuclear deterrence, which increases the risk that nuclear weapons will be used and makes them more attractive to countries that lack them.

Response Essays

  • Oriana Skylar Mastro argues that the United States government must achieve two significant goals in its nuclear weapons policy: First, it must prevent strategic competition with China from devolving into a nuclear arms race; and second, it must pave the way for nuclear arms control, ideally in conjunction with a reluctant Russia.

  • Beatrice Fihn calls attention to another aspect of current nuclear weapons policy debate—the growing movement to prohibit nuclear weapons entirely. Some 45 countries have ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, just five short of the number required for ratification, and those party to the treaty will exert increasing pressure on the rest of the world to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely.

  • Michael Kofman argues for the continuing importance of Russia to U.S. nuclear strategy. Rather than a return to the Cold War, or a buy-all-you-can spending spree, Kofman argues for paying close attention to Russia’s own strategic planning, which requires much more attention than Russia’s headline-grabbing new weapons systems.