An interesting article by Dr. Hui Zhang in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists points out that U.S. missile defense could lead to an unintended consequence—a decision by China to build more nuclear weapons.
China has a small arsenal, estimated at less than 300 nuclear warheads by Dr. Zhang and other accounts. More importantly, this has been the approximate number since the 1980’s, suggesting that China realized that the incredible destructive power of nuclear weapons makes having thousands of them redundant. According to Dr. Zhang:
The size of the Chinese arsenal is a direct reflection of what China’s leadership believes about that small deterrent’s survivability during a first-strike attack and about its ability to reach enemy targets thereafter. China is likely to keep only a small deterrent so long as it can do the job. Paradoxically, the current trend of US strategic efforts—particularly the deployment of missile defenses that could shoot down Chinese ballistic missiles—threatens to render the small Chinese arsenal ineffective, compelling China to build a larger nuclear force.
One of the strongest counterpoints to the argument that US missile defense plans will lead to a Chinese nuclear buildup is an issue the Center has noted before: the US has struggled to create a system that is effective enough for anyone to worry about. However, overestimation of an opponent’s capabilities and worst-case scenario planning is hardly unheard of.
A timeless criticism of missile defense is that a clear strategy to defeat it is to build more strategic offensive weapons or even decoys, which are easier and less costly to make than missiles that can intercept them and shoot them down. If China decides that U.S. missile defenses will undermine its nuclear deterrent and make it vulnerable to an attack in the future, it could very well decide that 300 nuclear weapons simply aren’t enough.
In further evidence that Dr. Zhang is on to something, on July 19 Major General Zhu Chenghu of China’s National Defense University stated that U.S. missile defense “undermines the strategic stability, such that China “will have to modernize its nuclear arsenal.”
To any policy-makers who are counting strikes against missile defense: please add the potential for a new arms race to questionable effectiveness, huge financial costs, and endangering security cooperation with Russia.