There is no question that China is modernizing its nuclear forces. The only question is: What does the Chinese program mean for U.S. interests and how should the United States respond?
Before looking at how the United States should react, it is critical to understand the motivations underlying China's modernization. Simply put, China is trying to ensure the credibility of its deterrent, since its existing weapons are both aging and vulnerable to attack.
Unlike the United States or the former Soviet Union, China has not built thousands of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles since it detonated its first weapon in 1964. A modest nuclear force has served Beijing's purpose of deterring an attack on the Chinese mainland, avoiding nuclear blackmail and raising the country's international status.
According to U.S. intelligence estimates, China currently has approximately 24 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of hitting the United States. These missiles are old and relatively unsophisticated. The warheads and the rockets reportedly are stored separately and the liquid-fueled rockets may take as long as three hours to fuel. Since the missiles cannot be fired quickly and are deployed at fixed locations, they are susceptible to destruction on the launchpad.
Given the small size and vulnerability of its arsenal, China's deterrent rests on "quantitative ambiguity" ? namely, a potential adversary does not know precisely how many missiles China has or where they are. China neither will confirm nor deny any outside estimates of the size of its strategic nuclear force, and the Chinese have dispersed and camouflaged silos and launch sites. China's deterrent remains stable as long as a possible attacker is uncertain that it could destroy all of China's missiles in one go.
This stability gradually has been eroding. Not only are China's ICBMs aging, but there have been huge advances in the technologies that might make a first strike on China more effective. These include satellite imaging, the global positioning system and precision-guided munitions. By building mobile, solid-fueled missiles such as the DF-31 and developing a new generation of submarine-based missiles, Beijing hopes to make its arsenal more survivable by addressing both its own perceived weaknesses and the new strengths in its potential adversaries. This qualitative modernization effort started in the 1980s.
As the United States considers its response to Chinese nuclear modernization, it also must recognize the fundamental imbalance in the military strength of the respective countries. The United States, even as it reduces its nuclear arsenal under the guidance of President George W. Bush to around 2,200 deployed warheads, still retains adequate power to ensure the complete destruction of Chinese society. One Trident submarine wields more destructive firepower than the entire Chinese arsenal. The critical concern for the Chinese is their second-strike capability, not their ability to launch a first strike.
Given that vulnerability and age are the factors driving Chinese nuclear modernization, what should the U.S. response be? Some in the U.S. government argue that a missile-defense system should be more tightly linked to China's nuclear capabilities. America currently is researching several technologies intended to destroy long-range (strategic) missiles before they reach the continental United States. Defending against missile attacks from rogue states such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea generally has been the publicly expressed justification for missile defenses. Adding China to that list would be a mistake. In fact, it likely will increase the pace and scope of the Chinese missile buildup, thus decreasing U.S. security over the long term.
Missile defense, in reality, would do little to eliminate the fact that China can deliver a retaliatory strike and considers this important to its defense. Beijing is likely to increase the number of missiles in an effort to overwhelm "thin" ballistic-missile defenses. The Chinese also are likely to develop countermeasures to defeat the system and might deploy multiple-warhead re-entry vehicles. So, ironically, in the long term, building a missile defense explicitly directed at the Chinese threat may leave the United States less secure. A Chinese arms buildup also could have a larger ripple effect, sparking an arms race that involves Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, as well as India and Pakistan.
Proponents of a missile shield argue that the defense of the United States cannot be held hostage to Chinese concerns. Besides, they argue, China already is modernizing its nuclear arsenal and will continue to do so no matter what the United States does. To some extent, they are right. Decisions about China's defense spending and military development originate in Beijing.
But this argument underplays how much Beijing is influenced by what goes on in Washington. There is a continuing debate within China about the extent to which resources should be diverted to an arms buildup. While qualitative changes clearly are under way, the degree to which China plans to increase the size of its arsenal probably still is under discussion. A missile-defense system likely would tilt the outcome to the hard-liners, increasing the scale and speed of the buildup. In the end, the United States could end up vulnerable to more Chinese missiles than ever before.
What about the most contentious issue in U.S.-Sino relations ? the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan? During a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, missile-defense advocates argue, Beijing could, directly or indirectly, threaten to use nuclear weapons. Defenseless against a missile attack, the argument continues, the United States would be forced between choosing nuclear war with China or sitting by helplessly as Taiwan's democracy is destroyed.
Yet, even a missile defense that worked would do little to eliminate the risk of such nuclear blackmail. On the U.S. side, if policymakers were unwilling to risk conflict with China without a missile defense, they would require an extremely high level of confidence in a deployed missile-defense system actually to be insensitive to the threat of nuclear blackmail. Even 95 percent confidence ? probably an unobtainable level given the uncertainty inherent in a real attack ? still would mean a one-in-20 chance that a Chinese missile would evade the defenses.
In Beijing, if China's leaders care enough about Taiwan to threaten the use of nuclear weapons despite the superiority of U.S. nuclear and conventional forces, then they will dedicate the resources necessary to maintaining a credible deterrent. As China's former ambassador to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, Sha Zukang, stated, "China has not and will not participate in an arms race with anybody. But neither will we sit on our hands and allow our legitimate security interests to be compromised by anyone."
The important point is that missile defense speaks to the larger context of U.S.-China relations. For the Chinese, the debates that surround missile defense are a symbol of the state of relations between the two countries. Given the vast superiority of the U.S. arsenal, missile defense stokes Beijing's fears that the United States intends to use nuclear weapons to blackmail China. To address these concerns, the two countries need to enter into a broad strategic dialogue that will have to include more than the reassurance offered by Secretary of State Colin Powell that missile defense is not a "threat against their strategic deterrent."
Bush has set the right tone for these talks. Soon after announcing his decision to withdraw the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, he called Chinese President Jiang Zemin and offered to hold "high-level strategic talks." This offer needs to be followed up with a dialogue that includes specific discussions about the architecture of the proposed missile-defense system.
In return, the United States should demand increased transparency on the Chinese side. The United States frequently has called for more openness from the Chinese about how many weapons they have. The Chinese traditionally have refused, arguing that, as the weaker side, they must defend the ambiguity of their deterrent. For these talks to succeed, China must be more transparent while still not revealing the exact number of missiles it possesses. China would not need to confirm or deny a final count. Instead Beijing would state that it currently has "not more than X," with X being some number larger than its actual arsenal. This would set a ceiling on the Chinese arsenal and provide a starting point for discussions of what China expects from its modernization program.
Later China could say that it plans to build up to "no more than Y" by a certain date. This sort of generic baseline would be useful to compare the type of buildup that could be expected under various conditions ? with and without missile-defense deployment, for example. The Chinese eventually would announce an end point of their current buildup keyed to whatever missile-defense system ultimately was deployed.
In return, the United States would have to demonstrate technological limits to missile defense so that it clearly would be directed at rogue states such as North Korea and Iran and not China's small deterrent arsenal. For example, the United States could concentrate on developing surface-based intercept technologies that destroy missiles in boost phase when they are taking off. Given the geography of China, U.S. interceptors still could cover North Korea, but Chinese missiles would be out of the range.
Any discussion of the Chinese nuclear-modernization program must recognize its ultimate goal ? to improve Beijing's confidence in the credibility of its deterrent. Both the United States and China need to realize that the nuclear relationship is a two-way street. To lessen U.S. concerns about its intentions, Beijing must be more transparent about the purpose and scope of its modernization plans. In turn, the United States must be more aware that decisions made in Washington play a role in determining the end point of China's modernization program.
Dr. Adam Segal is the Olin Fellow, Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. An expert on security and technology issues, he is the author of the forthcoming book, Digital Dragon: High-Technology enterprises in China (Cornell University Press).