Politico reported US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is “under pressure” to “raise administration concerns” about the size of China’s nuclear arsenal when he travels to Beijing in early February.
Constructive conversations on nuclear weapons policy are urgently needed. Both governments are upgrading their nuclear capabilities. Chinese military planners worry about US preparations to use nuclear weapons first to forestall defeat in a conventional war, as well as US efforts to undermine China’s ability to retaliate. US military planners are concerned about the construction of new Chinese missile silos, which will significantly increase the probability and magnitude of Chinese nuclear retaliation if the United States uses nuclear weapons first.
The nuclear aspect of what some US observers describe as a new Cold War with China is different than the US nuclear contest with the Soviet Union. It’s not about numbers. Chinese leaders don’t express interest in numerical parity. President Biden’s remarks on China’s nuclear weapons policy suggest he thinks they do. That’s unfortunate. If a desired outcome of Blinken’s visit is to start a dialogue on nuclear weapons, he will need to focus less on the numbers and more on why Chinese leaders built the silos.
What Chinese leaders want – what they have wanted since they decided to develop nuclear weapons in 1955 – is to be able to use conventional military force without undue concern the United States will use nuclear weapons to stop them. Being able to credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons to prevent or defeat Chinese conventional military initiatives has been a cornerstone of US defense policy in East Asia since the Korean War.
Chinese efforts to negate US first use threats are an important part of Chinese nuclear strategy. Chinese leaders believe if they can convince US decision-makers they will retaliate, then they can safely ignore US threats to use nuclear weapons first.
Chinese military planners have always been concerned their comparatively small nuclear force could tempt US decision makers to try to wipe it out at the beginning of a war. Continued US investment in ballistic missile defense creates additional doubt about US respect for China’s ability to retaliate.
The bulk of China’s current nuclear force consists of missiles launched from trucks. Recent technological advances increase the possibility the United States could destroy or disable those missiles with conventional munitions. Switching to silos makes that far less likely.
Current US projections of a large increase in the size of China’s nuclear force assume the new silos are an addition, not a replacement. They also assume everyone of those silos will contain a new missile and every one of those missiles will carry multiple warheads. But China does not need that many warheads to achieve its strategic objective. Even if the silos sit empty, US military planners must assume they’re not, and US decision-makers must assume China can retaliate if the United States uses nuclear weapons first.
If Secretary Blinken’s only objective is to talk about numbers, his Chinese interlocutor can tell China’s leaders their decision to build the silos was a strategic success. It is hard to see how that makes the United States or its Asian allies safer.
It would be wiser if Blinken said the United States no longer needs to threaten to use nuclear weapons first to keep the peace. Instead of handing Chinese leaders a strategic victory, he would convey a surprising US confidence in its conventional forces. That’s more likely to restrain Chinese leaders than what they continue to see as empty US threats to start a nuclear war; threats revolutionary leader Mao Zedong famously described as a “paper tiger.”
As paradoxical as it may seem to a US strategic culture obsessed with size, forgoing the option to use nuclear weapons first may be the best way to get Chinese leaders to respect the ability of the United States to defend its allies, and to begin a constructive conversation about nuclear weapons.