While Russia stocks up on nuclear weapons, China stays put — the United States could exploit the difference.
By Richard Weitz
Russia and China have surprisingly diverged in their reactions to the US nuclear weapons modernization program. After having sustained its legacy Cold War–era nuclear delivery vehicles for several decades, the United States has begun acquiring its next-generation of strategic submarines, bombers, and ballistic and cruise missiles. The Nuclear Posture Review released in February 2018 also announced the development of new US limited nuclear employment options as well as reinvestment in the nuclear weapons production and sustainment architecture and the supporting strategic command-and-control architecture.
Moscow’s leaders meanwhile have responded to this revival of US nuclear power by highlighting their own strategic buildup as well as pressing for renewed Russian-US nuclear arms control, expanded to include other countries, to maintain bilateral parity and prevent international instability. Whereas Moscow seeks to shock Washington into making arms-control concessions, Beijing seemingly takes President Donald Trump’s nuclear rhetoric and policies in stride, focusing instead on building conventional forces while waging its global influence campaign. China has a weaker nuclear force than either country. Its leaders have generally downplayed their nuclear weapons and reiterated longstanding but predictably ineffective calls for multilateral nuclear disarmament.
The United States could exploit this Sino-Russian divergence by calling for multilateral nuclear arms-control talks.
Russia has a larger nuclear arsenal than China, yet a lower nuclear use threshold. Almost all of Russia’s nuclear forces are being upgraded. Earlier his year, President Vladimir Putin himself showcased revolutionary strategic delivery systems including a massive intercontinental ballistic missile, the Poseidon nuclear-armed torpedo, a nuclear-powered cruise missile of unlimited flight, and several hypersonic delivery systems whose non-ballistic paths should make it easier to circumvent existing missile defenses. Although some of the newly announced Russian weapons will take years to develop, the Pentagon has likely known about others for years – what was unexpected was that Putin exposed these covert programs in public.
Besides building new nuclear capabilities, the Russian government relishes brandishing its existing ones. For the past decade, Russian political and military leaders have threatened to make nuclear targets of any country hosting US missile defense systems, contesting Moscow’s control of Crimea, or taking other actions displeasing to Moscow such as membership enlargement of NATO. Although Russia’s military doctrine affirms that Moscow would consider using nuclear weapons only if the state’s existence was threatened, the casual rhetoric of nuclear threats imply that Russian leaders could use them for more general deterrence and warfighting.
Experts have anticipated that the US nuclear modernization program would induce Beijing to “rethink its relatively small nuclear arsenal and defensive-oriented nuclear doctrine,” including by making its absolute “no first use” declaratory policy more ambiguous, expanding the number and types of strategic delivery systems, and becoming more assertive in its military policies. In this scenario, China would follow Russia’s path away from nuclear restraint. To avoid this, arms-control advocates have urged the United States to pursue multilateral and bilateral nuclear reduction negotiations with Beijing as well as unilateral US restraint.
None of these ominous predictions have yet come to past. In its August 28 news conference, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reaffirmed that “China remains committed to this pledge” of not first using nuclear weapons and to follow a &ldquostrategy that is defensive in nature and always keep our nuclear strength at the lowest level required by maintenance of national security.” In a position paper released at the same time, the ministry also declared its goal “to reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons, [and to oppose]… research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons and other negative measures that may lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.”
These remarks should not be dismissed as pure rhetoric. In the latest version of its China Military Power report released in August, the Pentagon confirmed that, despite Beijing’s comprehensive conventional buildup, its nuclear modernization remains constrained, with China’s “prioritize[ing] the maintenance of a nuclear force able to survive a first strike and to respond with sufficient strength to inflict unacceptable damage on an enemy.” For example, the People’s Liberation Army has not increased its number of ICBM launchers since 2011. Its qualitative gains have focused on making its retaliatory force more mobile, difficult to detect, and responsive for quick counterattack.
Toward this end, the report concludes, China has been building deeply buried tunnels, providing for rapid dispersibility, enhancing early warning to include space-based as well as ground-based radar, placing more than one warhead on each missile, deploying missile defense penetration aides, advancing command and control of nuclear and supporting capabilities through a new Strategic Support Force and other initiatives, and developing hypersonic delivery vehicles as well as better strategic bombers and submarines to achieve, “for the first time [a] ‘triad’ of delivery systems dispersed across land, sea, and air.”
Several possible reasons explain these contrasting responses. First, Russian leaders are preoccupied with nuclear capabilities because Moscow relies on them to maintain great power status. Without nuclear weapons, Russians rightly fear their country would become a regional power of limited international influence – the dread of Russian strategists.
In contrast, Chinese officials renounce superpower aspirations and deny that their country is, or wants to become, a peer rival of the United States. Beijing wields a considerably more robust power portfolio, including military but especially economic and increasingly formidable soft power. Not only does Beijing have more tools of influence than Moscow, but Chinese leaders are more adept at employing them. For example, Beijing has proved remarkably successful at expanding its regional influence and won over, or bought out, many of the countries, including Russia, that according to geopolitical logic should resist China’s rise.
Another factor likely restraining China’s nuclear rhetoric and buildup is that Beijing’s leaders worry more than their Russian counterparts about further nuclear weapons proliferation on their periphery. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has reinforced interest in Japan and other Asian countries about developing their own strategic deterrents. Whatever other problems it would bring, Tokyo’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would present a tremendous barrier to Beijing’s aspirations for regional hegemony.
Russian leaders are naturally concerned over China’s rise, even if they don’t dare acknowledge such anxieties in public. President Xi Jinping traveled to Vladivostok for the fourth Eastern Economic Forum, September 11 and 12, at Putin’s invitation, to inject new impetus into the bilateral ties. As with Beijing’s other potential adversaries, the conventional military balance between Russia and China is shifting in Beijing’s favor. In determining the size of their nuclear arsenal, Russian policymakers employ an expansive force-sizing principle – they presume that their nuclear forces must match all the other nuclear weapons states combined. Russian leaders do not publicize that this calculus includes China.
Skillful US diplomacy can exploit these differences. Moscow’s interest in maintaining nuclear parity with Washington has made it more eager than China to engage in strategic arms-control talks with the United States. This stance builds on the decades-long history of such negotiations, which have always been on a bilateral basis. Yet, Moscow insists that future strategic arms-control treaties encompass additional countries besides Russia and the United States, including China. Beijing has ignored Moscow’s demands, as well as other calls for legally binding nuclear constraints, comfortably insisting that Russia and the United States disarm first.
The Trump administration should consider following Moscow and call on Beijing to join future rounds of nuclear arms-control talks to make these Sino-Russian differences more salient. Although accepting the Russian argument that China needs to be included in future nuclear arms-control talks would decrease the prospects of a near-term agreement on strategic arms reductions, perhaps the trade-off would be worthwhile if it leads to greater Russian pressure on China not to expand its offensive nuclear weapons capabilities and other Sino-Russian frictions.
*Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia and East Asia as well as US foreign, defense and homeland-security policies. He would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting his research and writing on nuclear non-proliferation issues.