Bringing China into the fold on arms control and strategic stability issues

A nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic missile submarine of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is seen during a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Picture taken April 12, 2018. To match Special Report CHINA-ARMY/NUCLEAR      REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. - RC18C69C4570

What is China’s future role in arms control and strategic stability? In April, for instance, the Trump administration announced it would try to include China in a future arms control and strategic stability framework. There’s been considerable debate lately about the advisability and implications of such a move.

As I argued in a recent speech at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs’ Helsinki Summer Session, including China in a future framework is the right objective, but the plan to get there appears lacking. In the speech, I discussed: 1) China’s nuclear policy, programs, and doctrine; 2) its development of asymmetric military capabilities, specifically its medium- and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missile force, anti-satellite capabilities, and offensive cyber weapons; 3) my own assessment of the Trump administration’s proposal; and 4) some pragmatic recommendations on how the U.S. might achieve this goal over the long term.

Chinese nuclear policy and programs

China’s nuclear forces represent a fundamentally different challenge to the United States than those of Russia. Since achieving nuclear weapons capability in 1964, China has maintained a “no first use” (NFU) policy, which means China will not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances. As the U.S. Department Defense notes in a recent report, though, “ambiguity remains over the conditions under which China’s NFU policy would no longer apply.” Though China has been actively modernizing its strategic nuclear forces over a decade, there is no evidence to suggest that it seeks to move beyond a “minimum deterrent” force or pursue strategic nuclear parity with the United States.

Indeed, overall the Chinese nuclear modernization program is focused on ensuring that China’s nuclear forces become more survivable, ultimately by making them less vulnerable to a first strike. China is adding more survivable road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to its arsenal. It is also continuing to improve the sea-based leg of its deterrent. Upon completion, the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile will provide China its first long-range, sea-based nuclear capability. China has also tested a hypersonic glide vehicle and expressed its intention to develop a next generation nuclear-capable bomber.

Like Russia, China is especially concerned about the development of U.S. missile defenses and the potential impact of those systems on its strategic nuclear deterrent. U.S. deployment of missile defenses is most likely the key driver behind China’s decision to deploy multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) on some of its ICBMs. According to a 2017 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute: “China has prioritized the deployment of MIRVs in order to improve its warhead penetration capabilities in response to advances in U.S. and, to a lesser extent, Indian missile defenses.”

However, some experts question this. For example, in a May 2019 speech, Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Robert Ashley claimed: “Over the next decade, China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal in China’s history.” Though China certainly has the capability and resources to significantly expand its nuclear forces if it desired, its decision on whether or not to significantly expand the size of its nuclear arsenal will depend on the strategic circumstances, especially its perceived ability to maintain a secure and survivable second-strike capability. In particular, China will be closely watching the evolution of U.S. strategic missile defenses when making decisions about the size and composition of its nuclear arsenal.

Chinese asymmetric capabilities

While it is imperative that the United States continue to deter China’s nuclear forces, the primary U.S. military objective with regard to China should be countering its efforts to gain conventional superiority in the Western Pacific. China is attempting to tilt the balance of power there in its favor through a major conventional force build-up and development of “asymmetric capabilities” — namely medium- and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-satellite weapons, and offensive cyber capabilities.

Until early August, the United States was constrained under the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (or INF) Treaty from deploying ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with a range between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers. China was under no such constraints. Over the last decade, China has launched a massive expansion of its medium- and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missile capabilities. These missile capabilities are central to China’s defense strategy to hold at risk U.S. and allied bases and aircraft carriers in the Asia-Pacific region, with the objective of complicating America’s ability to project military power in the region.

China also understands that space-based assets are key to the U.S. ability to project power globally. For example, satellites enable the U.S. military to detect and target adversaries, as well as provide command and control of its own forces. Denying the U.S. and its allies access to space-derived data would provide China significant military advantage. As a recent Defense Intelligence Agency report on the emerging threat to space security notes, over the past decade, China had devoted significant resources to the development of anti-satellite systems, including jammers, kinetic kill systems, lasers, and on-orbit systems. As then-Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified in January: “We assess that China and Russia are training and equipping their military space forces and fielding new anti-satellite weapons to hold U.S. and allied space services at risk.”

Furthermore, China is also actively developing a robust offensive cyber-attack capability designed to attack U.S. and allied critical infrastructure. As Coats also noted: “China presents a persistent cyber espionage threat and a growing threat to our military and critical infrastructure systems.” When examining China’s evolving strategic capabilities, I, too, previously testified that “strategic stability in the emerging security environment no longer follows the two-state (e.g., United States and the Soviet Union), one-weapon (e.g., nuclear weapons) of the Cold War.” Today’s security environment includes new actors like China and emerging technologies like anti-satellite and cyber weapons.

Trilateral arms control?

Given China’s continuing development of strategic capabilities, especially anti-satellite and offensive cyber capabilities, the Trump administration’s recent proposal to include China in a future arms control and strategic stability framework is strategically sound. Indeed, it’s neither politically nor strategically viable to have America’s most significant long-term competitor — China — outside of a future framework. For example, even if the U.S. had been successful in bringing Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty, China would have still been totally free to develop and deploy thousands of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles unconstrained.

Even if the U.S. had been successful in bringing Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty, China would have still been totally free to develop and deploy thousands of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles unconstrained.

Chinese officials have made it abundantly clear that China is not going to join New START, another U.S-Russia agreement. And given the vast asymmetries between the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals on the one hand, and the Chinese nuclear arsenal on the other, it’s not practical to include China in New START. However, we need to begin laying the groundwork to bring China into a future regime over the longer term, especially regarding emerging technologies. Even so, there doesn’t appear to have been much — if any prior preparation by the Trump administration to lay the groundwork to engage China on its proposal. Realistically, nothing happens quickly with the Chinese in this area. It requires constant attention and sustained engagement that takes time. To date, it doesn’t appear that the Trump administration has invested the necessary time and attention to advance bilateral engagement with China on strategic stability issues.

Deterrence and dialogue

Engaging China on arms control and strategic stability issues will require a mix of deterrence and dialogue. On the deterrence front, the United States must move forward with the modernization of its strategic nuclear forces and their supporting infrastructure, especially the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, the B-21 strategic bomber, the Long-Range Stand-Off nuclear cruise missile, and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM.

Second, the United States and its allies must enhance the resiliency of their outer space, cyber, and other critical infrastructure. Third, the United States must improve its conventional-strike capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region by developing and deploying additional air- and sea-launched strike systems. While there is a military case for deploying ground-launched cruise missile capabilities in the region as some experts have argued, it is difficult to see any U.S. ally accepting the basing of such capabilities on their territories. Fourth, the United States must enhance the cohesion of its alliances. In this increasingly competitive security environment, U.S. alliances are one of its key asymmetric advantages, and something that China doesn’t have.

That said, the United States also must be open to dialogue with China and find a way to bring it into a future arms control and strategic stability framework. Below are a few practical ideas for engaging China. For example, the United States could:

  • convene bilateral strategic stability talks with China;
  • develop a bilateral pre-launch missile notification regime;
  • invite China to observe a New START inspection;
  • establish a link between the U.S. Nuclear Risk Reduction Center and a similar Chinese entity;
  • negotiate bilateral space norms for outer space, an area where the Obama administration made some progress with China; and
  • hold trilateral strategic stability talks with Russia and China, or broader talks with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

While not all of these proposals may be achievable, they demonstrate some of the practical steps that can be taken to lay to ground work for eventually bringing China into a future arms control and strategic stability framework.