U.S.-China Distrust Fuels Nuclear Fears

In The Atlantic, Rachel Oswald details the distrust and miscommunication hampering dialogue between the U.S. and China on nuclear issues:

In more than 10 years of bilateral talks on their respective nuclear-weapons programs, the United States and China are frequently “like chickens talking with ducks,” according to Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program. Neither side really believes or comprehends what the other is saying, he said.

“It’s like an old couple stuck in a bad relationship that neither one really wants to leave,” Kulacki said. “They both know what the problem is and they just don’t have the energy to argue about it anymore.”

Kulacki contends the crux of the problem lies with Washington’s insistence that Beijing be more transparent about the size and capabilities of its nuclear arsenal.

China counters it is already more transparent than the United States about its deterrent posture as it has a declared absolute no-first-use policy while Washington has only pledged not to conduct nuclear strikes on states without atomic arsenals of their own that are also in good standing with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

After a Wall Street Journal article last week speculated that China has misrepresented the size of its nuclear force via an “Underground Great Wall” of tunnels, James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment highlighted flaws in the Journal’s assumptions and sought to dispel misconceptions about China’s intentions:

The article focuses on the vast network of underground tunnels, the “Underground Great Wall,” that China has built to protect its nuclear forces. “For decades,” writes Bret Stephens in that knowing tone adopted by the Journal’s finest, “nuclear experts have understood that the key to ‘winning’ a nuclear exchange is to have an effective second-strike capability, which in turn requires both a sizable and survivable force.” Wrong. A survivable second-strike capability is the key to not losing a nuclear exchange. It ensures that an adversary cannot disarm you and then use nuclear threats to bend you to his will. Even if China had 3,000 warheads all mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles—which it doesn’t—it could still not disarm the United States. Apart from the inability of inaccurate Chinese missile to destroy hardened American silos, the four or more U.S. submarines (each of which is armed with about 100 warheads) that are at sea at any given time ensure the invulnerability of the U.S. deterrent.  

By contrast, China does have reasonable grounds to fear that the United States is seeking a war-winning nuclear capability. The United States deploys something just shy of 2,000 strategic warheads with more in reserve. Its delivery systems are exquisitely accurate. It is developing conventional weapons designed to hunt down mobile missiles. And, on top of that, Washington has consistently refused requests from Beijing to explicitly state that the United States is not seeking the ability to eliminate China’s nuclear forces.  

Whether China’s fears are justified or not is irrelevant (although, for the record, I think they are exaggerated). The point here is that they are understandable, especially from a military planning perspective, and most likely genuine. In fact, the crowning irony is that those who argue that the United States should pursue a war-winning capability against China (some of whom regularly opine in the Journal) generally show the least recognition that this would concern China and prompt to it to take countermeasures.

Even as questions abound over the current state of China’s nuclear arsenal, a Guardian piece over the weekend cites expectations of large spending across the spectrum of Nuclear powers to upgrade and modernize their capabilities over the next decade.

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