Over the last couple of months, analysts have spotted a couple of hundred missile silos under construction in China's remote areas. Is it an indication of a shift in Chinese nuclear policy?
While Washington and Moscow carried out their Cold War arms race over the decades, Beijing stood on the sidelines for decades and basically said, “Naw. I’m good.”
But after reports of hundreds of ICBM silos being constructed in deserts across China, nuclear weapons experts are debating if Chinese leadership is rethinking their posture on nuclear weapons and how Washington should respond. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies first reported in June that satellite images captured more than 100 silo sites under development in a desert near the northwestern city of Yumen, and the Federation of American Scientists discovered another 100-plus silos under construction soon after.
No one knows why China is building these silos because Beijing has not commented on the discovery—they rarely discuss military issues publicly anyway. The first time Beijing discussed their nuclear weapons policy was in 2006 in a white paper titled, “China’s National Defence in 2006.” China observers who spoke with Outrider have cautioned against overreacting. These experts point out that the U.S. really has no options but to wait and see what the true meaning behind that build-up really is.
“Biden needs to talk to the Chinese and he needs to do it quietly,” Gregory Kulacki, China Project Manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Outrider. “Not through the newspapers, not by posturing and not by making it an international issue. He needs to tell them privately and quietly, ‘We've noticed you're doing this. So what does this mean? Why are you doing it?’ ”
One theory behind the build-up is that China wants a nuclear weapons arsenal that matches its status as a geopolitical world power. Another is that they are becoming worried about America’s missile defense capabilities and want to counter it with more ICBMs. Then there is the thinking that because China has so few ICBMs, they fear they are vulnerable to attack. So China is expanding their number of silos so that they can spread their missiles across the silo range, forcing an adversary to guess where they are located; experts Outrider has interviewed theorize the Chinese have no intention of filling every silo under construction.
Experts claim China has fewer than 300 operational warheads, a figure that is consistent with its stated policy that a lean arsenal is more than effective for deterrence. But, few experts who follow China’s nuclear weapons program think they will stop building silos.
“I think Chinese leaders are determined to substantially enhance China's nuclear capabilities because they have this threat perception on the geopolitical level,” Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program, said. And if that is driving China's nuclear build-up, then there is very little hope that the U.S. could make China stop or freeze its nuclear mobilization. If the build-up is driven by other reasons, such as American missile defense, then there may be room for negotiation. But I think the geopolitical concern may be a much more important driver today.”
Matt Korda, who found the second batch of silos with his colleague at FAS, believes the clearest path to reining in China's arsenal is through arms control. But Korda admits that's a nearly impossible task because China has said for many years that they're not going in that direction because their arsenal remains so much smaller than that of the United States and Russia. It would be up to Washington and Moscow to drop closer to their level before engaging in an arms control dialogue, Korda said. Even China admitted as much last summer when Fu Cong, head of the arms control department of the Chinese foreign ministry, said that they’d immediately join an arms treaty with the U.S. if Washington was willing to scale down their nukes.
Another reason why China has not really been interested in arms control is because they know the issues that they care most about are not on the negotiating table.
“They are particularly concerned about the destabilizing nature of U.S. missile defenses,” Korda said. “Russia is concerned about that as well. When the Bush administration pulled out of the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2001, China and Russia openly said that this is a highly de-stabilizing move. That being said, if the United States isn't willing to put something on the table, and I personally believe that that something should be some kind of limit on U.S. missile defenses, I don't really see how China will be willing to come to the table.”
Either way, the thinking is that the U.S. and Russia would have to give up something and it would have to be substantial. The White House could reconsider missile defense because, as Michael Krepon wrote earlier this year, the U.S. has yet to field any viable defenses against ballistic missile attacks—which was the point of pulling out of the ABM Treaty. If anything, China and Russia’s development of maneuverable glide vehicles prove the opposite. Though there is no appetite in Moscow or D.C. to cut down their current stockpiles—in fact, both countries plan ridiculously expensive modernization programs—the White House may need to reconsider if they truly want to show the Chinese they are serious negotiators on non-proliferation. Such concessions would benefit everyone involved if policymakers exercised enough bravery and determination to consider the possibility.
One thing all of the experts Outrider spoke to agreed upon is that China believes U.S. policy, be it economic or diplomatic, has been very hostile. Former President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy has been viewed as having a damaging impact on the U.S.-Beijing relationship and it was only made worse with Donald Trump’s trade wars.
“There's a lot of different hypotheses that have been floating around in newspaper articles and reports,” Kulacki said. “But until we have a chance to actually speak with the Chinese about these missile silos, we really won't have reliable information on why they've decided to do this.”
The best move right now is not to overreact. Any perceived hostile actions will likely make Beijing’s discomfort with its geopolitical positioning worse than it already is. Then there is that possibility of scaling down the U.S. nuclear arsenal to pull China into an arms treaty, which may be the best, albeit painful, compromise for everyone involved.