By John Erath
Earlier this year, for the first time since the Cold War, it was announced that the total number of nuclear weapons in the world rose in 2022. Largely, the reason for the increase was China’s rapid construction of additional weapons. Although the United States and Russia are undergoing modernizations of their nuclear forces, their overall numbers of the world’s most destructive weapons remain relatively constant. While it is true that China’s numbers are still far behind those of the two larger nuclear powers, the change factor is China. It is China’s buildup that is provoking instability among nuclear powers, leading to warnings that the United States, at least, may have to revisit the scope and structure of its nuclear forces and subsequent fears of a new nuclear arms race.
The lack of transparency about China’s nuclear buildup adds to the problem. Historically, China maintained a “minimal” deterrent, but its doctrine has clearly changed over the last decade with President Xi Jinping calling for a “world class” military by 2035, including nuclear forces. China has been modernizing its armed forces for a long time, but the past few years have seen unprecedented growth in its nuclear dimension.
It may be comfortable to explain China’s nuclear expansion as merely a reaction to U.S. (and Russian) nuclear modernization, but this is too facile. These programs have been underway for years and do not involve increases in the size of U.S. or Russian strategic arsenals. They do not alter China’s ability to deter. Similarly, the minimal capabilities of U.S. missile defenses do not and will not undermine China’s deterrent.
It is clear that the Chinese leadership has decided for its own reasons to acquire more nuclear weapons. This is the concern. We do not know these reasons and have little to no indication of where the buildup will end. China experts offer differing views but generally agree that the situation calls for engaging China in an arms control dialogue as soon as possible. How to begin such a dialogue has created a dilemma.
To date, China has showed exactly zero interest in any such process, and with good reason. When the issue of the buildup is raised, experts are quick to point out the United States has many more such weapons than China, a point that China reinforces in its own propaganda. This has the advantage of being completely factual, but has allowed China to deflect discussion away from the potential instability resulting from a rapid increase in nuclear numbers. There is no incentive for China to engage in any transparency or arms control dialogue while it can avoid scrutiny this way.
Assessing China’s buildup numerically, whether out of alarm or complacency, reinforces the false conception that deterrence is mathematical. Despite terabytes of analysis of scenarios for nuclear war, which target sets to hold at risk, and counterforce calculations, the fact remains that any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic and unacceptable. Per the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, “defense and deterrence” is the only rationale for maintaining nuclear weapons. Activating more nuclear weapons or building new ones would not further deter China. Of course, this also applies to the Chinese side; more Chinese weapons will not increase Chinese deterrence of the United States or Russia.
The reasons China is building weapons are rooted in Chinese insecurity about its global status and internal perceptions that China somehow needs more such weapons to be considered at least equal in status to other great powers. Similarly, suggestions that the United States will at some point need to increase its own nuclear stockpile derive not from deterrence requirements but from insecurity that the global security situation is getting worse, and, given the widespread perception that nuclear weapons helped keep America safe during the Cold War, the perception of need for a bigger arsenal could arise again.
This changing perception, exacerbated by China’s unconstrained buildup, presents a danger to all parties. A nuclear arms race, even the current situation in which only China is racing, increases the danger that nuclear weapons might be used and imposes unnecessary costs on participants. On October 12, the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States published its report warning that China’s increases called for increased attention to U.S. strategic forces, including consideration of increases. Although the report was met with immediate criticism for its alarmist findings, it represents an approximation of where a critical mass in the policy community is leading, that the Chinese buildup is making America less secure, and something eventually will need to be done. There is, of course, no consensus as to what that “something” may be, with suggestions ranging from uploading more warheads to ICBMs, to deploying more non-strategic nuclear weapons in the Pacific, to asking China again nicely to stop its buildup.
The point is that none of these are likely to help in the short term. An arms race would be in no one’s interest and would cost billions to the American (and Chinese) taxpayers. Deploying additional weapons would do little to change deterrence realities while creating excuses for reciprocal actions. On the other hand, denying that there is a problem, or attempting to rationalize China’s actions as driven by Washington policies, would do nothing to assure voters that the situation is not deteriorating.
In considering the China dilemma, Beijing may have recently given a glimpse of a way ahead. On October 30, a Chinese government spokesman stated that in the runup to a Biden-Xi meeting on the margins of this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, the two governments would hold consultations on arms control and non-proliferation, a hopeful signal. The timing, perhaps, is not coincidental. The Chinese will have read the Commission’s recent report and understood that there is an emerging consensus that Washington may feel compelled to strengthen its nuclear forces. Faced with a choice between dialogue and arms racing, Beijing is opening the door a crack on the arms control side.
There is no U.S. national interest in embarking on an arms race with China. However, increasing public concern in the United States about China’s nuclear expansion should build awareness in Beijing that this is becoming a likely consequence of such a policy. This could give Chinese leaders pause in continuing to refuse any engagement in the arms control arena.
A continued Chinese refusal to engage should not necessarily be taken as locking in the new arms race; it will be important to keep diplomatic channels open. It is, however, important for China to acknowledge the longer-term implications of its course. If China clearly recognizes it may be forced with a choice between military competition and strategic stability, now may be the best chance for reversing the unnecessary and unwelcome trend of growing nuclear forces and instead put the world on a track of dialogue and risk reduction.