China's Great Nuclear Wall

Essay: Beijing's opaque approach to arms control obscures the growing threat of its nuclear arsenal

Visitors walk past China's second nuclear missile on display as they visit the Military Museum in Beijing / Getty
May 12, 2019

When it comes to nuclear arms control, China is great at playing hard to get. Beijing is the elusive beauty, a difficult but attractive target for those who seek nuclear disarmament. Powerful yet mysterious, shrouding its nuclear program in a haze of opacity, the Chinese government never actually gives its pursuers what they want. And China knows that only makes them more interested. Indeed, Beijing leads on its suitors with seductive promises of reducing its arsenal of nuclear weapons, only to demand more in return from other states before taking any steps. And then the cycle begins anew, with no fewer nuclear weapons in China.

To illustrate the point, go back to June 1982, when the United Nations General Assembly held a second special session on disarmament. At the gathering, the late Huang Hua, then China's foreign minister, presented a concrete proposal: if the United States and the Soviet Union halted the testing, improving, or manufacturing of nuclear weapons and reduced their arsenals by 50 percent, the Chinese government would be ready "to join all other nuclear states in undertaking to stop the development and production of nuclear weapons, and to further reduce and ultimately destroy them altogether." Just six years later, however, as the United States and the Soviet Union were drafting the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I, which significantly reduced each country's nuclear arsenal, China changed its standard for joining arms-control talks. The 50-percent threshold was just a start; Moscow and Washington also had to make further "drastic reductions" in their arsenals. Then, in 1995, after Moscow and Washington signed START I and START II, Beijing changed its standard yet again. China would not, according to nuclear expert Brad Roberts, consider disarmament until the Americans and Russians "reduced their arsenals far beyond START II numbers, abandoned tactical nuclear weapons, abandoned ballistic missile defense, and agreed to joint no-first-use pledge," under which they would vow never to be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. No matter the circumstance, China was simply not interested in nuclear arms control.

This trend continued throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, with the United States continuously trying—and failing—to foster dialogue with China over nuclear weapons. China has also refused to be transparent about its nuclear capabilities, seeing opacity as key to Chinese deterrence. If the United States is unsure of what China can and cannot do, China's thinking goes, then Washington will be much more wary of taking aggressive actions against Beijing. Here the Obama and Trump administrations have at least one thing in common: recognizing China's lack of transparency in the nuclear realm as problematic. The Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, states that "the lack of transparency surrounding [Chinese] nuclear programs—their pace and scope, as well as the strategy and doctrine that guides them—raises questions about China's future strategic intentions." The Trump administration's NPR echoes the same point, arguing that, "while China's declaratory policy and doctrine have not changed, its lack of transparency regarding the scope and scale of its nuclear modernization program raises questions regarding its future intent." China has, in effect, built a different kind of great wall around its nuclear arsenal, preventing others from even discussing what is behind it.

So it should not be surprising that, this week, China quickly dismissed a suggestion that it would talk with the United States and Russia about a new deal limiting nuclear arms. "China opposes any country talking out of turn about China on the issue of arms control, and will not take part in any trilateral negotiations on a nuclear disarmament agreement," Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said Monday. "[China's] nuclear force is always kept at the minimum level required by national security, with an order-of-magnitude difference from that of the United States and Russia, which puts things in a completely different light." The spokesman added—and this may sound familiar—that "the pressing task at present" is for the United States and Russia, which have the world's two largest nuclear arsenals, "to adhere to the consensus reached by the international community to earnestly fulfill their special and primary responsibilities in nuclear disarmament." Only then, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, will other countries be able to participate in nuclear disarmament. China's response came days after news reports said that President Trump ordered his administration to prepare to push new arms-control agreements with both China and Russia.

In the United States, when pundits and politicians discuss nuclear weapons, they tend to focus exclusively on Russia. Watch a congressional hearing on nuclear policy and see what percentage of the questions is about Russia, and what percentage is about China. In some ways, it makes sense why the difference is so large: China has about 280 nuclear warheads, while Russia has, under the New START Treaty, 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads (in addition to thousands more stored and retired). Moreover, China advertises its nuclear strategy as one of "minimal deterrence," while Russian President Vladimir Putin regularly touts his country's nuclear strength with belligerent statements.

Another reason why observers too often ignore China is because of the legacy of the Cold War, which for so many Americans puts Russia at the forefront of any discussion concerning nuclear weapons. Yet America's extensive history with Russia's arsenal is precisely why Washington should be so concerned about China. At least the United States has a well-established line of communication with Russia regarding nuclear weapons going back decades. And they negotiated an arms-control agreement as recently as 2010. Each side understands the other pretty well, and if there ever is a nuclear crisis between the two countries, there is a wealth of experience that leaders can use to help navigate through the situation. When it comes to China, however, there is no such experience, nor any line of communication. In a Sino-American nuclear crisis, no one would have a "number to call" the other side. China's unwillingness to engage on this issue in any meaningful way makes the prospect of reaching a resolution that much more of an unknown. The United States has no idea how China would react. At least it has some idea of how to deal with Russia.

Realistically, the prospects of the United States, or any country, making progress with China on arms control are remote—although such efforts are still worthwhile. Still, the United States should be very concerned about the Chinese arsenal. China may have fewer nuclear weapons and a seemingly less aggressive nuclear strategy, but that shows, perhaps counter intuitively, why China is a more dangerous adversary than Russia. China is smarter and more patient, looking to the long term. Beijing sees Chinese power on the rise and American power on the decline. There is no need to sound belligerent and risk conflict like the Russians. China can build up its economic and military might without provoking so much international condemnation. And then one day, when no one is ready, it may decide the time is right to seize Taiwan.

Over the long term, China sees itself supplanting the United States as the dominant power in East Asia and, eventually, in the world. Russia, meanwhile, is a fundamentally weak country with lots of nuclear weapons. Putin is certainly dangerous, but he lashes out in part because of that weakness—his country is on the path toward economic irrelevance, along with a demographic nightmare. In other words, China is the more mature adversary, the quiet yet observant mastermind plotting its grand scheme rather than the loud, obnoxious goon drunkenly challenging everyone to a fight.

The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once outlined the following strategy for China: "Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities; bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; never claim leadership." Today, many observers argue that Chinese President Xi Jinping has gone away from that model, and that is true to some extent. But China is still patiently biding its time, working to supplant the United States with a sophisticated strategy that involves all aspects of state power, from development to military modernization. That strategy includes maintaining a potent nuclear arsenal, which China hopes to use to get others to disarm, without having to do so itself.