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China's Nuclear Arms Are a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery

While our attention on China today is focused on the short-term challenge of tracking the Coronavirus, there is a long-term quandary that also deserves attention. It's China's military strategic intentions. Just what are they? 

China experts have tracked Beijing's nuclear doctrine statements, their nuclear and long-range missile programs, and their space access and anti-satellite efforts. Some imterpret these developments as being malign; others chatacterize them as being defensive.

Which view is more correct? We don't know. As Michael Mazza of the American Enterprise Institute and Henry Sokolski argue in the attached Foreign Policy piece, "China's Nuclear Arms Are a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery," we need to find out. In specific, Washington should engage Beijing in new strategic capabilities dialogue (not unlike the sort the United States currently conducts with Russia). For reasons we spell out in the piece, this should come before any negotiations on specific arms limits either with China or with China and any other nation. 

Mar 13, 2020
AUTHOR: Michael Mazza & Henry Sokolski

China’s Nuclear Arms Are a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery

By Michael Mazza and Henry Sokolski


Two weeks ago, U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to a
proposal that China join the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council at a summit to initiate a new round of arms control talks. The goal, according to administration officials, is a three-way agreement among China, Russia, and the United States to limit nuclear weapons. As National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien explained in early February, “It shouldn’t just be the U.S. and Russia. We think that China is going to need to become involved in any serious arms control negotiation.”


China, whose nuclear warheads number only in the low hundreds, may not seem a natural fit for negotiations with the United States (6,185 total
warheads, of which 1,750 are deployed) and Russia (6,490 total, 1,600 deployed). Indeed, China has previously rejected participating in a trilateral nuclear arms deal on the grounds that its forces are too small. But Beijing’s ambitious plans for new enrichment and recycling capacities capable of producing material for nuclear weapons would make it possible for China to achieve parity with the United States and Russia. Moreover, given the current and perhaps enduring Sino-Russian strategic alignment, the United States can no longer assume that a military conflict with China will not also involve Russia; while adding Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons numbers may not be appropriate, neither is considering them completely in isolation.

Before pulling Beijing into any arms control talks, however, U.S. officials need to understand what China is up to. In particular, they need to crack three strategic mysteries surrounding Beijing’s most threatening capabilities: its unclear doctrine for using nuclear weapons, its rising capacity to make nuclear explosives, and its development of anti-satellite operations.

The first mystery is how China might use its nuclear weapons. Beijing has long maintained it would never launch its nuclear weapons first, that it would only fire them after having been attacked, and, even then, weeks might pass before China would respond. As China’s 2019 defense white paper put it, “China is always committed to a nuclear policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally.” Chinese leaders also insist they can deter the United States so long as they have the ability to strike back at a limited number of targets, most likely American cities.

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