September 20, 2010 | Commentary on Arms Control Treaties, Arms Control and Nonproliferation

New START Treaty's China Challenge

Discussion of the US-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- a k a New START -- has so far pretty much skipped one very important consideration: China.

In the run-up to last week's committee vote to send the treaty to the floor for ratification this fall, senators quite rightly debated whether New START overly restrains US missile-defense options, has weak verification procedures, cuts too many US missiles or warheads (relative to Russian reductions) or might affect nuclear North Korea and near-nuclear Iran.

But lawmakers haven't yet fully faced the problem that, as we build down our strategic nuclear forces (by some 20 percent under New START) in the White House's hopes that others will disarm, China is involved in a strategic buildup.

So, before there's any final vote on an arms-control pact that would endure for the next 10 years, it'd be wise to give some thought to Beijing's burgeoning bevy of bombs.

While the exact shape of China's grand ambitions may not be clear, there's little question they exist. Few would dispute that Beijing wouldn't mind taking the head seat at the table of global powers, now occupied by Washington.

As such, China has been growing all aspects of its national power: political, economic and military. Nor is the last limited to a break-neck conventional buildup; its strategic forces are booming, too.

China long relied on a small, land-based nuclear force of ICBMs in fixed silos and on a limited number of road-mobile missiles, providing for a "sufficient and effective" deterrence in Beijing's eyes.

But the force has started getting bigger, better and badder. For instance, while the US strategic arsenal desperately needs updating, Chinese nuclear forces are being modernized across the board.

And China's warhead numbers are up, by some estimates even doubling in recent years. The Pentagon says Beijing may now be able to put multiple nukes on a single, newly developed, road-mobile missile.

Indeed, if any country can undertake a so-called "rush to [nuclear] parity" with the United States and Russia, it's China, especially considering its aspirations, wealth and willingness to lavish largesse on its armed forces.

Basically, Beijing could become a nuclear peer competitor of Washington and Moscow in the not too distant future, in light of the expected arms cuts under New START.

It doesn't end there.

China's 2nd Artillery (nuclear forces) is reportedly building 3,000-plus miles of tunnels in central China, known as "the Underground Great Wall" -- likely providing Beijing with an enhanced, land-based, second-strike capability. Naturally, China's ICBMs are thought to be targeted at us.

But Beijing is also diversifying its nuclear capabilities by broadening its force structure into the traditional triad -- missiles based not just on land but also on bombers and subs.

China's new class of strategic submarine may already carry its first sea-based ICBMs. And Beijing's building another "boomer" sub class, too, significantly raising its nuclear-strike mobility and survivability -- while lowering detectability.

It's also adding advanced strategic bombers to the mix. Analysts believe China is developing long-range cruise missiles for these aircraft, which may have both conventional and nuclear warheads.

Making matters more complex is China's highly secretive, indeed opaque, stance on its nuclear forces. The People's Liberation Army (the collective name for China's military) has a penchant for strategic denial and deception -- and an unwillingness to talk about the issue officially.

That's a real challenge to our intelligence and policy community, leaving lots of unanswered questions about China's strategic doctrine, capabilities and intent as Beijing bolsters its armed forces -- while avoiding arms-control agreements.

As such, in considering New START, senators need to take time not only to consider the other salient questions about the deal -- but also to figure China into their deliberations on a new strategic treaty with Russia.

Heritage Foundation senior fellow Peter Brookes is a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The New York Post