China on Nuclear High Alert

Lewis Smart - Regular Columnist

Image: Dan/Flickr

Following the atomic explosion of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test there has been much fallout in the region in both political and military terms. On the 17th February 2016 the United States flew four F-22 Raptors out of Osan Air Base in South Korea as a demonstration of its commitment to defend its South Korean ally in the face of its northern neighbour’s continued intransigence. Whilst U.S. actions are hardly surprising given the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea, what these actions do portend in the larger realm of North-East Asian geopolitics is a much bigger disturbance in the region following the North Korean nuclear test.  The Korean peninsula has implications far bigger than just that of the fate of the two Korean countries, rather the conflict affects the politics and military stance of countries in the region and subsequently China’s own nuclear posture is one of these factors which is now under the spotlight.

Setting the Stage

The testing of a nuclear device by North Korea is quite rightly of serious concern to the South but it is the larger implications of what happens because of North Korea that matters for the region. In response to the continued intransigence of the North Korean regime the United States and South Korea are considering proposals for the placement of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense (BMD) battery in the country, ostensibly to protect South Korea from its northern neighbour’s development of nuclear capabilities. This BMD system is capable of destroying short, medium and intermediate range missiles and whilst BMD systems are never 100% accurate this system is one of the best the United States has developed to date.

With North Korea giving the United States the raison d’etre for this deployment it comes as no surprise that China has expressed its outrage at such a move. With this move however the United States has, along with other policies given the Chinese considerable pause for thought in how its own nuclear deterrent capability stands when BMD systems are being placed in its immediate neighbourhood.

China Considers a Change

Along with the deployment of Ballistic Missile Defence systems and their increasing sophistication there is also the worry on China’s side about the development of the United States’ Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) capability alongside its highly capable intelligence apparatus. All of these issues taken separately would cause China to be concerned but the combination of all three are causing the Chinese to worry that their fairly small nuclear arsenal and policy of No First Use (NFU) could enable the United States to successfully knock out most of their nuclear forces in a single counterforce strike. Even if a few weapons did manage to survive for a retaliatory attack these could subsequently be destroyed by antiballistic missile systems.

Indeed, such is the concern about the United States’ pursuit of nuclear superiority and invulnerability to other country’s deterrents that a change in Chinese nuclear posture is being floated around in military circles and academic conversations within the Chinese military establishment and academic institutions.

No First Use

“Unlike the United States and Russia, China currently keeps its nuclear weapons off alert, with nuclear warheads not mated to the delivery vehicles”(Kulacki:2016:01). This policy of No First Use has been China’s nuclear posture ever since it detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1964. China also has a fairly small number of nuclear warheads compared to the thousands stored by Russia and the United States. “The arsenal’s limited size and conservative posture are the consequence of a nuclear weapons policy established by Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and the first generation of Chinese Communist leaders” (Kulacki:2016:01). However this long held nuclear posture is now rumoured to be susceptible to change.

Indeed as Gregory Kuclacki states

‘According to newly translated Chinese sources, discussions of putting missiles on high alert appear to stem from increasing Chinese military concerns about retaining a credible nuclear retaliatory capability in the face of accurate U.S. weapons, the development of high-precision weapons and missile defences”. (Kulacki: 2016:01). 


Chinese Nuclear Development 

Whilst “China has a fairly modest strategic nuclear weapons arsenal and has historically sought to position itself to assure nuclear retaliation against an opponent” (Panda:2016) it has nevertheless been noted that China has been taking steps to update the capability of its nuclear forces.

Force enhancements in both quality and quantity are taking place although it is the former aspect which has the most emphasis. Recent tests of the Dong-Feng 41 (CSS-20) rail mobile, solid fuelled three stage Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and the recent announcement that its Dong-Feng 5B ICBM is being Mirved draw military observer’s attention to the building up of China’s nuclear capabilities.

The continued deployment of Type 094 Jin-Class SSBNs with their JL-2 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) which is the sea based version of the DF-31 gives China an increasingly survivable second strike capability.

What these developments indicate is that China is serious about modernizing its nuclear arsenal however this shouldn’t be indicative of the rise of a belligerent nuclear posture. Rather it should be put in relative context to other nuclear powers who at different times in the nuclear cycle have to modernise their nuclear forces which takes a couple of decades to fully implement.

Whilst China has been going about its modernization with seeming speed and urgency it must be remembered that Chinese nuclear forces are playing catch up in the nuclear sphere. Whilst its at sea deterrent has been modernized with the Jin-Class SSBN these submarines are still relatively noisy and potentially detectable compared to U.S. submarines like the Ohio Class SSBN or the stealthy Virginia class SSN.

A Future Arms Race

Putting China’s current nuclear arms development in context helps to alleviate Western fears about its intentions but it is current actions by top nuclear powers that can create worrying trends for the future. As noted above, thinkers in China are currently considering the option of putting Chinese nuclear forces on high alert. This seems to be due to the fact that ‘the nuclear weapons policies of the United States are the most prominent factor influencing Chinese thinking and decisions about its nuclear forces” (Kulacki:2016:01).

Whilst the United States and other nuclear powers have every right to update their capabilities it must be remembered that the success of deterrence works best with effective communication and signalling with the United States’ current posture communicating to the Chinese that their nuclear forces will be increasingly ineffective against the United States which will lessen the Chinese ability to prevent nuclear coercion in the diplomatic sphere.

This current trend is worrying. If China is seriously concerned and increasingly insecure about the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent in the doctrinal sphere (by changing from NFU to High Alert) and materially by upgrading its delivery systems we can expect an arms race to occur. Indeed Russia, China and the U.S. are already hard at work developing Hypersonic Glide Vehicles like the WU-14 (Chinese) and the Yu-71 (Russian) whilst the U.S. X-51 Waverider missile shows the current state of this technology.

This phase of new technology and a perceived imbalance between top nuclear powers has the markings of a nuclear arms race, maybe less overtly ideological than in the Cold War but nonetheless an arms race which will have important strategic and political effects in the region.

Concluding Thoughts

It could be argued that the United States is seeking nuclear superiority and subsequently other nuclear powers are increasingly insecure and looking to play catch up. Whilst the U.S. should take care of how it communicates it intentions in the nuclear sphere it is also up to the Chinese to reciprocate.

Put simply, the question of the placement of BMD systems in China’s neighbourhood would be much more problematic for the U.S. if there wasn’t a nuclear armed North Korea. The recent nuclear explosion by the North gives the U.S. the perfect reason to place the system in South Korea and subsequently push its BMD system closer to China.

To prevent a future arms race both countries must understand not only the need to understand each other’s position and to communicate effectively but to also act in solving the problems between them.


About Lewis Smart 7 Articles
Lewis is passionate about all things Asia-Pacific, in particular he has concentrated on China's military and economic modernization and completed his dissertation on Chinese civil-military relations. He is an avid reader of military strategy and the use of force in pursuance of political goals. He is looking to start a career in International Law but for the meantime works in the property sector. He worked on the 2015 general election campaign, speaks French, Italian and Mandarin to a reasonable level and has a healthy distrust of the media. You can follow Lewis on Twitter @SmartSmart63