The long-awaited and much-delayed 2021 China military power report, released by the US Department of Defense earlier this month, makes for interesting reading. The report is full of important analyses of myriad developments in the People’s Liberation Army that could occupy several months’ worth of ‘China military watch’. This article considers the significance of PLA nuclear advancements.
The starting point must be the report’s observation that China is clearly undertaking a rapid breakout from its minimum deterrence posture and is moving from a total stockpile of 272 deliverable nuclear warheads as of 2020 to 700 deliverable warheads by 2027 and at least 1,000 by 2030.
This is occurring simultaneously with the construction of large numbers of new missile silos in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, noted in August’s ‘China military watch’, and coincides with two tests of a potential intercontinental hypersonic glide vehicle employing a fractional orbital bombardment system–type trajectory over the South Pole to circumvent US missile defences. The report also notes a requirement for new lower yield nuclear weapons that could imply an operational-level or tactical-level nuclear warfighting capability.
The rapid modernisation of Chinese nuclear forces suggests a move towards a launch-on-warning posture. Russia has been assisting China in developing new early warning systems that would enable Beijing to retaliate much faster against any incoming attack.
The sea-based leg of China’s emerging nuclear triad is also progressing. The 2021 report confirms that the PLA Navy’s six Type 094 Jin-class nuclear submarines (SSBNs) are fully operational, each one carrying 12 JL-2 missiles, and notes that the JL-3 to be carried on the Type 096 Tang-class SSBNs will allow the entire continental US to be covered from bastions in the Bohai and South China Seas.
The air leg is also moving forward quickly. PLA Air Force H-6N bombers are now operational and able to carry long-range air-launched ballistic missiles that can be nuclear armed. The H-20 bomber is still in development, as is a regional strike bomber.
These developments are significant when set against the context of a growing risk of military conflict over Taiwan this decade. The pace of China’s expansion of its nuclear forces, and a clear move away from a minimum-deterrence posture, would act to expand Beijing’s choices on how it might annex Taiwan absent a move by Taipei towards a negotiated unification under the 1992 Consensus.
As Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists recently tweeted, ‘A mainstream hypothesis about China’s nuclear build-up appears to be forming, one that US intel has been entertaining for some time: to provide cover for conventional scenarios. Basically, we can attack Taiwan and there’s nothing you can do about it unless you go all the way.’ This view is supported by nuclear security professor Vipin Narang, who tweeted, ‘China estimates that the risk of a conventional war with the US is higher now than ever, and it needs to stalemate the US at the nuclear level—escape nuclear coercion—in order to open space for more aggressive conventional options’. He says that ‘the take home risk with all these developments isn’t the risk of nuclear war with China—though that obviously goes up—but the risk of a really nasty conventional war where China unloads its massive arsenal of conventional missiles in theater [without] fear of US nuclear escalation’.
If China is planning to attack Taiwan this decade, rapidly boosting its nuclear forces would deny the US any option for threatening escalation in the face of a Chinese conventional attack and make it harder for the US to deter China from using force. Beijing may recognise that in spite of its rhetoric about peaceful unification, Taiwan is slipping from its grasp, and that force could become the only option for Xi Jinping if he wishes to achieve his ‘China dream’. Growing domestic economic pressures also shorten the fuse for Xi to risk war to take Taiwan.
Certainly, the expansion documented in the report is unlikely to see China achieve parity with the US, which currently has 3,800 nuclear warheads—most of which are on largely invulnerable ballistic missile submarines. China can’t carry out a bolt-from-the-blue disarming nuclear first strike, even with its projected larger arsenal. But that’s not the objective. Beijing’s goals are to make the US much more wary of either conventional or limited nuclear attacks against the Chinese mainland in a Taiwan crisis and to free up options for China to use force more decisively below the nuclear threshold.
Expanding its nuclear arsenal also allows China to project conventional force elsewhere with less risk of a counter-response—for example, in a crisis with India over disputed territory—and increases Beijing’s coercive potential against countries such as Japan, the ASEAN states and Australia.
The expansion of its land-based intercontinental ballistic missile force, along with growth of its sea- and air-based nuclear legs, means that China’s warhead-production facilities will need to expand, particularly as it begins to invest in multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles and deploys hypersonic glide vehicles such as the DF-17, which is now operational and could be nuclear armed. China is also working on a new missile, the DF-27, that will have a range of between 5,000 and 8,000 kilometres, which could bring Hawaii in range.
China’s expanding nuclear arsenal and the growing concern that Beijing is moving towards a launch-on-warning posture, together with the potential for a sub-strategic and tactical capacity, are raising questions about whether it is also shifting from its traditional ‘no first use’ posture. The report notes that China’s no-first-use policy is declaratory and suggests that ‘there is some ambiguity about conditions where [it] would no longer apply’. It states, ‘The PRC’s lack of transparency regarding the scope and scale of its nuclear modernization program … raises questions regarding its future intent as it fields larger, more capable nuclear forces.’
These developments matter in terms of timing, not just in relation to an anticipated crisis over Taiwan, but also because the Biden administration is considering the possibility of adopting a no-first-use or ‘sole purpose’ declaration as part of its 2022 nuclear posture review. The administration should consider the implications of doing so for allies concerned about US leadership and for deterrence more broadly. China is moving to rapidly break out of its traditional minimum deterrence posture and could be planning to use its nuclear forces as a shield behind which it would feel free to employ conventional forces in a future crisis.