What had been an internal debate in the Bush administration about the strategic nuclear relationship between the United States and China went public last week, when troubling statements attributed to “senior administration officials” suggested that they were not opposed to China’s increasing its nuclear stockpile. Then came White House backpedaling. At the heart of these mixed signals is the question of how the United States should counter China’s small nuclear force, in the context of China’s abilities to develop new weapons and its opposition to missile defense.
As the Bush administration prepares for a more serious strategic dialogue with China, this process must be informed by certain uncomfortable truths.
First, for the past 20 years or more China has had the ability to incinerate at least a handful of American cities. Unpleasant, but true. Its nuclear force, however, has remained comparatively small since its inception. In its early years, China couldn’t detect incoming missiles, had only a fledgling nuclear command and control system, and had very slow preparation and launch times for its missiles, making it highly vulnerable to a first strike by either the Soviet Union or the United States.
China now has about 20 long-range nuclear missiles with sufficient range to reach the continental United States, and while it apparently has the ability to place multiple warheads on its missiles, it has so far chosen not to do so. The Chinese continue to rely on a “minimal deterrent” and the barest of abilities to retaliate with nuclear force should they come under nuclear attack. So while China has basic deterrent capability against the United States, that capability is fragile compared with the nuclear forces of the United States and Russia.
Second, while we may not like Chinese missiles pointing at our cities, the current nuclear balance between the United States and China is nevertheless strategically stable. Neither side would dare initiate a nuclear attack against the other for fear of the damage the other would inflict in response. The overwhelming nuclear superiority of the United States—a single American nuclear-armed submarine carries more warheads than the entire inventory of Chinese warheads capable of reaching the United States—means that even if China were to triple its current number of nuclear missiles, the strategic balance would not be fundamentally altered.
Third, like it or not, we should expect China’s ongoing nuclear weapons modernization to continue. China’s second-generation nuclear force, to be deployed over the next 10 to 15 years, will be far more mobile, accurate and reliable than its current force. Yet this force will almost certainly remain small in comparison to the American nuclear arsenal, even if the Bush administration unilaterally reduces United States nuclear forces.
But numbers of missiles alone don’t fully determine the nuclear threat. There are plenty of steps China could take that would be very damaging to American interests. It could decide to accelerate its modernization program, in response to the Bush administration’s missile defense plans, by adding several hundred nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at the United States, developing and deploying sophisticated decoys to foil missile defenses or mounting multiple warheads on its missiles. An aggressive modernization effort would spread alarm among China’s neighbors, spurring a nuclear build-up in South Asia. China might also move to export antimissile defense technology to North Korea, Iran, Iraq or Pakistan.
It is clearly in the interests of both nations that China maintain the smallest effective nuclear deterrent possible. But that means the United States must give China incentive to show restraint. The administration is more likely to get what it wants from Beijing—minimal nuclear buildup, no resumption of nuclear testing and tacit acceptance of missile defense—if it begins a frank and realistic dialogue that takes the realities of China’s capabilities and interests into account.
Mao Zedong did not see the value of reform and opening up. The China part of Nixon’s 1967 Foreign Affairs article suggested an implicit bargain that provided the conceptual basis for China’s new direction after 1978. That bargain was if China focused on domestic development and didn’t threaten the security of its neighbours, the United States would help.
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.