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China's New Nuclear Doctrine

Author: Robert A. Manning, Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council
June 25, 1999
Wall Street Journal

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The recently declassified report of the congressional select committee chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox chronicled China's efforts, licit and illicit, to acquire American nuclear, missile and other technology. Yet for all the furor it unleashed, one of its most obvious — and menacing — ramifications appears so far largely overlooked. Of course, tighter export controls, better counter-intelligence and improved security at national labs are necessary. But it is China's enhanced nuclear weapons capabilities that illuminate one of the grand strategic failures of the Clinton administration's national security policy in general and of its China policy in particular.

Even discounting what appear to be the Cox report's worst-case extrapolations of what new military capabilities Beijing may have acquired, China's nuclear and missile modernization program appears to have benefited from witting or unwitting American assistance. The extent of the damage may not be known for a decade or more. But it appears that, in part as a result of information obtained from the U.S., China may be in the process of leapfrogging from 1960-vintage nuclear warheads to contemporary miniaturized designs that will allow them to build multiple independent re-entry vehicles on more accurate, longer-range ballistic missiles. This is in the form of the DF-31, now close to deployment, and the DF-41 (both solid-fuel missiles), which can carry MIRVed warheads and are expected to be deployed by 2010.

Until now China has barely gotten a mention in discussions about the future of nuclear weapons. After all, in terms of deliverable strategic warheads, Beijing is outnumbered by roughly 6,000 to 20. Yet although China's total arsenal of some 400 warheads may be dwarfed by those of the U.S. and Russia, China is the only declared nuclear power to be expanding its arsenal. Indeed, China's modernization may become a determining factor shaping the second half of the first nuclear century.

If Russia ratifies the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and Washington and Moscow move forward with Start III, the U.S. and Russia could reduce their arsenals to roughly 2,000 apiece (from a Cold War high of 30,000). With or without arms accords, Moscow may be forced by dire economic necessity to shrink its arsenal unilaterally to fewer than 1,000 warheads over the next decade or sooner. Washington could well respond by cutting its own arsenal.

With U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons dwindling, China's modernization becomes a pressing issue. Notwithstanding hollow proclamations of "strategic partnership," U.S.-China "dialogues" have barely scratched the surface on nuclear issues, which should be Priority No. 1.

Why has Washington given the issue short shrift? Because an administration that believes geopolitics if not the nation-state itself is "old think" has no idea what nuclear goal it seeks. To reach a judgment as to how many nuclear weapons the U.S. ultimately needs first requires an answer to the question of what role nuclear weapons play in U.S. post-Cold War defense policy.

The Clinton administration has never really answered that key question. Its most creative strategic thinker, Defense Secretary Les Aspin, died before his 1993 Nuclear Posture Review was complete. That exercise was ultimately dominated by bureaucratic inertia, concluding that, lo and behold, the U.S. needed 3,500 strategic warheads — precisely the number that implementing Start II would produce. Yet in 1995 Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed to consider further reductions to about 2,000 in Start III negotiations. The manifest arbitrariness of these numbers underscores the absence of any serious strategic vision -- and the possibility of defining a marginal role for nuclear weapons in a minimal deterrence posture.

In a world where the U.S. has overwhelming dominance in conventional military power and in precision-guided munitions, a world where accurate missile defenses may soon become possible and there are no unambiguous global adversaries amongst the major powers, there may be a realist case for deeper cuts if they would, in turn, yield proportionate Russian and Chinese restraint.

From the U.S. perspective, fewer Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons would alleviate nuclear risk and accentuate U.S. conventional superiority, particularly the accuracy of precision-guided munitions. If, as many predict, Russia is forced to make unilateral cuts, that is all the more reason to lock China into a ceiling on its nuclear modernization with bold initiatives.

In the end, U.S. interests demand that there be some correlation between the floor of the U.S. reductions and the eventual ceiling of Chinese nuclear modernization. Reaching some understanding about nuclear weapons (including missile defenses that would affect Beijing's nuclear deterrent) should be a pillar of the 21st-century Sino-American relationship.

The U.S. has yet to test China's nuclear intentions. Beijing has had a minimum deterrence posture and a no-first-use policy. There is fervent debate in China on nuclear doctrine, and hints that some favor a "limited deterrence" posture that might contemplate the use of tactical nuclear weapons. But over the past 15 years, Beijing's positions on arms control have been all over the map. In the mid-1980s, China said that until the two superpowers cut their arsenals in half, there was nothing to talk about. Then, as the U.S. and Russia moved toward nearly 85% nuclear cuts, Beijing said once they get down to China's level, perhaps talks might make sense. In recent discussions in Beijing, senior Chinese officials told me they are prepared to begin U.N. Security Council talks on complete nuclear disarmament now, but only on the basis of zero nukes.

Beijing knows this is a nonstarter, however popular it may be with the nonaligned crowd. The one thread linking the various Chinese positions on arms control over the years is that all have the virtue of allowing Beijing to avoid becoming entangled in arrangements constraining its nuclear behavior. China's nuclear calculus has become more complicated of late with the emergence of India as a nuclear-weapons state and with U.S. moves toward national missile defense. Yet it is an open question how China would respond if faced with a serious offer of U.S. and Russian build-downs. If China prefers open-ended nuclear modernization, then there is no need for the U.S. to further reduce its nuclear stockpiles.

Recent events — NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, the revitalized U.S.-Japan alliance and most dramatically the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade — have sparked a major strategic policy review in Beijing. The U.S. has an opportunity to influence its outcome by launching not another vacuous "dialogue," but serious prenegotiations on the future of nuclear weapons. This is best done bilaterally at first, but ultimately among the permanent five in the U.N. Security Council.

Unfortunately, the Clinton administration is hardly prepared for what should be a top priority. Instead it ducked the issue, contenting itself with the political gimmickry of an agreement on "detargeting" missiles (retargeting takes only a few minutes) at the 1997 summit, so Mr. Clinton could give sanctimonious speeches about how no nuclear weapons are aimed at American children. The consequences of such strategic vapidity may be measured in missed opportunities and new nuclear dangers.

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