06/01/2020 No. 156
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Stopping a Nuclear Arms Race between America and China (I)
By Hugh White
Posted October 1, 2007

'On your marks...'


Australia's interests in a peaceful and stable Asia-Pacific region are threatened by the risk of intensifying strategic nuclear competition between the US and China.  This may seem a little surprising in the post-Cold War world.  We have perhaps allowed ourselves to assume a little too easily that nuclear weapons ceased to matter much in relations between major powers after the Cold War was over.  We have worried much more about the risk that they will be acquired by new players - rogue states or terrorists - who might not respond to the incentives and threats that shaped nuclear strategy between major powers during the Cold War. 


But strategic competition between major powers did not disappear with the end of the Cold War, and neither did their nuclear weapons.  Despite post-Cold War cuts, many of the nuclear forces held by the old nuclear weapons states still lie in their silos and bunkers.  It was always likely that these nuclear capabilities would find their way back onto centre-stage in major-power relations at some time - though most likely in ways rather different from the old US-Soviet nuclear standoff.  That was shaped specifically by the circumstances of those two actors and of the times, so there is no reason to expect that to be re-run.


Between the US and Russia the danger of a resurgence in nuclear tension has been limited by the eclipse of strategic competition between them, and the reassurance that each side retains nuclear forces more than sufficient to deter any possible nuclear move by the other.  In essence the Cold War deterrent balance between the US and Russia has outlived the strategic competition that created it, and still provides a strong measure of assurance that neither of the two old adversaries will upset the nuclear status quo between them.  It would be foolish to assume that this equilibrium can be preserved indefinitely, as recent exchanges over missile defense forces in Eastern Europe remind us, but for the time being it looks secure.


Between the US and China, however, a different dynamic is developing.  China has had nuclear weapons since 1964, but its nuclear forces have always been relatively small and primitive, compared with those of the other established nuclear powers.  That has been in part because China has lacked the money and technology to do more, but also because China's strategic nuclear objectives have remained modest even as its financial and technical capacities have grown.  Beijing has never aspired to strategic nuclear parity with Moscow or Washington, let alone superiority.  It has aimed only to maintain a 'minimum deterrent' - the capacity to respond to any nuclear attack by inflicting relatively small but still unacceptable levels of damage on a nuclear adversary, sufficient to deter resort to nuclear weapons by a superior nuclear power. [1] China has believed that notwithstanding the small number of ICBMs in its arsenal and their relatively high level of vulnerability to US strikes, America could not be confident that it would destroy all of China's long-range missiles in a first strike.  The risk that China would retain the capacity to mount a successful nuclear attack on even one or two major US cities would, they believe, deter any US nuclear strike.  Some in the US strategic community have doubted the robustness of China's deterrent, but in general America has accepted that, in the absence of serious strategic tensions between them since the early 1970s, an asymmetric but stable deterrent balance has been maintained. 


But now China is growing, and its growth - economic, technological, military and political - poses a strategic challenge to US leadership in Asia.  For both sides, the future of their strategic nuclear relationship is shaped by the strategic competition that is emerging between them.  Both sides have an overriding incentive to prevent that competitive element growing to dominate the relationship, as they both benefit enormously from an economic relationship which is central to prosperity on each side of the Pacific.  However it is clear that economic interdependence can coexist with a strategic and political competition, and there remains a risk that, if the relationship is mismanaged, competition could become predominant.


For America, that risk depends primarily on the choices that China makes about its strategic future. [2] American policy hedges against the possibility that China will try to compete with America for strategic influence in Asia by preparing to confront and contain China militarily if necessary to sustain US primacy.  China, of course, recognizes this: it hedges against the emergence of an adversarial relationship by preparing ways to limit US military options against China.  Neither side wants to make the other a strategic competitor, let alone a military adversary, but both think it prudent to take precautions in case the other pushes the relationship towards hostility. 


This is the background against which Washington and Beijing each view the development of one another's strategic nuclear forces.  The bigger developments are happening in America's arsenals. 

American force developments


Two key developments are now underway in America's strategic nuclear posture.  One is the development of missile defense capabilities, including a national missile defense system designed to destroy ballistic missiles launched against the US homeland.  The other is the evolution of America's own missile forces.  


America's plans for its nuclear forces were set out in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).  With so much attention focused on the War on Terror, the NPR and its implications for US strategy have not received much attention.  But it constitutes a fairly significant re-orientation of US nuclear forces with important implications for US objectives and approaches in a nuclear confrontation with China. [3] Perhaps the most important measure proposed in the NPR is the development of new capabilities to destroy other countries' nuclear forces.  While US ICBM and SLBM numbers have been cut significantly, America today still plans to field 450 ICBMs and 14 Trident ballistic-missile submarines in 2012.  Newer Peacemaker missiles are being withdrawn, but older Minuteman III missiles are being upgraded, and the highly accurate re-entry vehicles from the Peacemaker missiles are being transferred to the Minuteman IIIs, in order to increase their accuracy to levels which make them highly effective against hard targets like missile silos.  The D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles are also being upgraded to improve their accuracy.  Steps are also being taken to improve the warheads' capacity to destroy hardened and deeply-buried targets. [4] Finally the US is enhancing its capacity to attack nuclear forces with conventional weapons, raising the possibility of a non-nuclear 'first strike' against China's nuclear forces. Together these measures mean that 'the American force may become quantitatively smaller in the years ahead, but qualitative improvements will further transform this force into a robust and highly lethal 'silo-busting' arsenal'. [5]


The other major development in US nuclear posture is the development and deployment of national missile defenses.  Despite the immense technical problems, the US drive for a national missile defense is not something that potential US nuclear adversaries can ignore. The system now being installed in Alaska and California aims at a modest capability, but the project has open-ended objectives.  The Bush Administration no longer publishes its longer-range ambitions for national missile defenses, but the Clinton Administration published plans for later phases involving the deployment of several hundred ground-based interceptors, designed to counter attacks of up to 50 warheads with advanced decoys and other defensive countermeasures. [6] It seems unlikely that the Bush Administration's objectives are more modest.  Although the US has argued that the purpose of its NMD program is to defend against very small missile stacks by rogue states like North Korea, there is a clear possibility that the US would, if the technology works, build missile defenses that could protect against larger forces like China's. [7]  


Together, more accurate offensive forces and more capable defenses would make a powerful combination which may present the US with some very attractive strategic options.  The most obvious and immediate objective - spelled out in the NPR and elsewhere - is to destroy the forces of and defend against missile attacks from rogue states like North Korea and Iran.  But the capabilities being developed offer something more than that.   Recent academic commentary in the US and UK has suggested that the undeclared aim of current American policy is to achieve 'nuclear primacy' against established nuclear powers. [8] This means the ability to threaten and even use nuclear weapons without fear of retaliation, not just against Iran, Pakistan or North Korea or other future new nuclear states, but against the established nuclear powers, especially China and Russia. Plentiful highly accurate missiles with silo-busting warheads would allow the US to destroy large numbers of an adversary's missiles in a disarming first strike.  Substantial missile defenses would then have a high probability of shooting down whatever missiles the adversary had left to fire in a retaliatory strike.


Of course the strategic significance of this kind of capability is not that the US would actually plan to conduct such an operation.  It is rather that the knowledge that it could do so would provide a great source of pressure on an adversary.  The credibility of a US nuclear threat against China would increase because China's ability to retaliate against the US homeland would be that much less certain.  That would make nuclear weapons again a source of immense political influence.  Choosing to establish this kind of posture would mark a further stage in the underlying debate that persisted throughout the Cold War between those who believed that nuclear weapons could only be used to deter their use by others - the idea underpinning MAD - and those who believed that they could be used (or their use threatened) to achieve more diverse political and strategic aims. [9]  In retrospect it can seem that MAD was quickly accepted as the inevitable solution to the problems of nuclear strategy during the Cold War, but in reality US policymakers always wrestled with alternative nuclear strategies that would make nuclear weapons more useful.  Most often, during the Cold War as today, this involved considering the development of more numerous and more accurate missile warheads, building missile defenses, or both. [10] 


Is this in fact what the Bush Administration is aiming at?  A number of US scholars have reached the conclusion that the US is aiming for nuclear primacy, even against Russia. [11]  Bush Administration officials have argued against this view, [12] and some scholars are skeptical. Nuclear primacy against Russia does appear a daunting task. Russian strategic forces have declined sharply since the Soviet collapse, but Russia still has a lot of missiles and warheads.  Nuclear primacy against China, however, may seem a credible medium-term goal for America.  With upgraded offensive forces better able to attack hardened and deeply buried targets, America has a greater capacity to destroy most of China's now small and relatively vulnerable ICBMs in a first strike.  Meanwhile its national missile defense system, if it works, would offer the potential to defeat surviving Chinese missiles or warheads before they could find targets in the US.  Of course many are skeptical that America's national missiles defense system can be made to work, and there are no guarantees.  But that is not much comfort to Beijing; they cannot be sure that NMD will not work.  Press reporting of the classified NPR suggests that China (unlike Russia) was explicitly identified in the NPR as a potential future nuclear adversary.  And it seems probable that US NMD will, if it works, be expanded to protect American cities from a depleted Chinese retaliatory strike. 


Nuclear policy does not seem to get much high-level attention in Washington these days, and it may be the US is moving towards an attempt to gain nuclear primacy with China without senior leaders ever having taken a clear decision to do so, and without fully weighing the costs, risks and consequences of attempting to upset the deterrent balance that has been established and maintained between the US and China over the past few decades.  It would place America in the position of upsetting the nuclear status quo, but it would be consistent with a policy of maintaining American power in Asia, and with the broader thrust of US strategic policy under the Bush Administration, which has emphasized a long-term aim to consolidate and if possible increase the US lead in all forms of military power.  If China does become a strategic adversary of the US over coming decades, a policy of nuclear primacy would seem like a good investment.  But that depends on whether the US can in fact achieve nuclear primacy over China, and whether it can do so without itself provoking precisely the kind of downturn in US-China relations which would make it necessary.  And that depends on what China does in response.



* Lowy Institute for International Policy is an independent international policy think tank based in Sydney, Australia. The views expressed in this paper are entirely the author's own and not those of the Lowy Institute for International Policy. 




1 For a concise account of the evolution of China's nuclear strategic posture, see Evan S. Medeiros, Evolving nuclear doctrine, in Bolt and Willner (eds.), China's nuclear future. Lynne Rienner, Boulder CO, 2005 pp 39-78.


2 For an Australian view of the future of US-China relations, see Hugh White, In support of accommodation: an Australian view of U.S. policy toward China, in Jonathan D. Pollack (ed.), Asia eyes America:  regional perspectives on U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy in the 21st century. Naval War College Press, Newport RI, 2007 pp 151-165 (Forthcoming).

3 For a good overview of current developments in US nuclear posture, see David S. McDonough, Nuclear superiority: the 'new triad' and the evolution of nuclear strategy. Adelphi Paper 383.  IISS, London, 2006.


4 McDonough, Nuclear superiority pp 44-50.


5 McDonough, Nuclear superiority p 45.


6 Dean A. Wilkening, Ballistic-missile defence and strategic stability. Adelphi Paper 334. IISS, London, 2000 pp 29ff. See also http://www.globalsecurity.org/space/systems/nmd.htm


7 McDonough, Nuclear superiority pp 50-56; Lindsay and O'Hanlon, Missile defense after the ABM treaty, Washington Quarterly 25 3 Summer 2002 pp 163-176.


8 McDonough, Nuclear superiority; Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, The rise of US nuclear primacy. Foreign Affairs March/April 2006 pp 42-54; Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, The end of MAD? The nuclear dimension of US primacy. International Security 30 4 (Spring 2006) pp 7-44.  See also Keir A. Leiber and Daryl G. Press, Superiority complex: why America's growing nuclear supremacy may make war with China more likely. The Atlantic Monthly July/August 2007.  


9 See for example John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War. Penguin Books, London, 2005 pp 77-82.


10 This pattern is elegantly and concisely explored in Lawrence Freedman, The first two generations of nuclear strategists, in Peter Paret (ed.), Makers of modern strategy: from Machiavelli to the nuclear age. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1986 pp 735-778.


11 McDonough, Nuclear superiority; Lieber and Press, The rise of US nuclear primacy. 


12 Peter Flory, Keith Payne, Pavel Podvig, Alexei Arbartov, Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, Nuclear exchange. Foreign Affairs 85 5 Sep/Oct 2006 pp 149-157.

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Hugh White is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. He is a regular columnist for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.
From 2001 to 2004 Professor White was the first Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). Before that he had served as an intelligence analyst with the Office of National Assessments, as a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, as a senior adviser on the staffs of Defense Minister Kim Beazley and Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and as a senior official in the Department of Defense, where from 1995 to 2000 he was Deputy Secretary for Strategy and Intelligence.
His key recent publications include: "Beyond the Defense of Australia: Finding a New Balance in Australia's Defense Policy," Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, 2006; and "The Limits to Optimism: Australia and the Rise of China," Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 59, No 4, December 2005, p. 469-480.
His contact information: Email: hwhite@lowyinstitute.org, Tel: +61 2 6125 1562
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