China’s Nuclear Forces Swell: A Tri-Polar World?


China’s Nuclear Forces Swell: A Tri-Polar World?

Aug 4th, 2021 5 min read
Dean Cheng

Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center

Dean brings knowledge of China's military and space capabilities as a research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs.
Members of the Chinese Armed Forces stand at attention on Friday, October 18, 2019, in Qinzhou, Guangxi Region, China. Artur Widak / NurPhoto / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The array of both nuclear and conventional missiles in the Chinese inventory has steadily expanded.

The scale of China’s nuclear expansion, however, calls into question whether Beijing is interested in fielding a limited deterrent.

A tri-polar nuclear balance is a very different proposition from a bipolar one, especially where two of the players are relatively closely aligned against the third.

For the last three decades, the Chinese military has been undertaking a systematic modernization of the People’s Liberation Army. While the conventional force modernizations have garnered most of the attention, recent revelations of a major Chinese missile silo construction effort in the west indicate that the nuclear component of the PLA has been modernizing as well.

The array of both nuclear and conventional missiles in the Chinese inventory has steadily expanded. In addition to two dozen or so DF-31 ICBMs, the Chinese have been adding the DF-41, a mobile system that is expected to field China’s first MIRVs (multiple independent reentry vehicles). This will substantially increase the number of warheads Beijing has aimed at American targets, while also making it harder for the U.S. to target them.

Add to this the recent discovery of around 100 silos in China’s Gansu province, and another hundred silos in Xinjiang. China’s construction of some 250 missile silos would be consistent with the overall expansion of the PLARF, which includes increasing the number of MRBMs, IRBMs, and ICBMs. At the same time, it would mark at least an order of magnitude expansion of China’s intercontinental warheads, from perhaps two dozen to more than 250 (which would not include the mobile DF-41s). Should China decide to place MIRVs atop these various new missiles, the Chinese could begin to approach Russian and American warhead numbers (each is allowed to deploy 1,500 warheads).

Shifting Chinese Nuclear Doctrine?

This enormous expansion of the Chinese ICBM force, coupled with the construction of additional ballistic missile submarines and reports of a new Chinese intercontinental bomber, suggests that China is shifting from its presumed minimal nuclear deterrent posture. That is, China’s nuclear forces are presumed to be primarily aimed at adversary population centers, as the primary means of deterring aggression—the definition of “minimal deterrent.”

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This posture is presumed, in part because Beijing has chosen not to build a larger nuclear force since it exploded its first fission and fusion devices in the 1960s. Like France and the UK, China has fielded only sufficient numbers of nuclear weapons to grievously damage an attacker (sufficient to “tear an arm off the bear” is how some have described the French nuclear deterrent) by attacking their cities, but not to engage in nuclear warfighting, including the conduct of counterforce strikes.

With the development of the DF-41 and a more capable seaborne deterrent, some theorized that Beijing might be shifting from a minimal deterrent to a “limited deterrent.” A limited deterrent force would provide sufficient forces to potentially engage in some counterforce strikes, or some limited, small-scale attacks in the face of conventional attacks (much as NATO planning included nuclear response options to a Soviet attack on West Germany). It would entail some increase in China’s nuclear forces, but would leave Beijing substantially behind the U.S. and Russia.

The scale of China’s nuclear expansion, however, calls into question whether Beijing is interested in fielding a limited deterrent. The combination of a modern long-range bomber (the H-20), and an expanded seaborne ballistic missile force, as well as this massive inflation of the land-based ICBM component, makes China’s nuclear forces look far more like their “hegemonic” counterparts in Russia and the United States than the minimal or limited deterrent presented by French or British nuclear forces.

Indeed, it is notable that Beijing is placing so many of its new nuclear eggs in the land-based ICBM basket. Given the ongoing construction of the 094 Jin-class ballistic missile submarine and the apparent success of the JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile, China already fields a secure second-strike force through a seaborne deterrent. Moreover, the DF-41 (and the DF-31A variant) is itself mobile, and therefore able to deploy from garrison across a continent-sized country with valleys, gorges, forested areas, and other places of concealment.

The pattern of silo construction raises further questions about Chinese strategic thinking. The missile silos bear some resemblance to the “dense pack” deployment advocated by some for the U.S. MX missile in the 1980s. As Soviet ICBM accuracy increased, the potential vulnerability of American silos became a growing concern. By building multiple silos in close proximity to each other, it was calculated that any incoming Soviet strike was likely to suffer from “fratricide,” as the first exploding warhead would create a massive cloud of supercharged particles, dust, and debris which would then destroy any closely following additional warheads.

If the Chinese are placing ICBMs in these silos, they may be hoping to discourage any prospect of a successful disarming strike aimed at them due to the fratricidal effects of nearby detonations. But this, in turn, suggests that PLA planners are less confident of the ability of mobile ICBMs to survive. Are there fundamental shortcomings in Chinese defenses and deception techniques that they are concerned about?

Prospects for the Future

China’s nuclear expansion should make clear that its previous limited numbers were not the result of some physical constraint (e.g., insufficient fissile material), but instead was a policy choice. Given Xi Jinping’s broader rejection of Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “hide one’s abilities, bide one’s time,” it may well be that this growth is part of Xi’s “China dream” of a stronger Chinese military, one able to operate openly on the world stage.

If this is the case, it is important to recognize that the PRC’s view of nuclear crisis stability is not the same as that of the United States or Russia. During the Cold War, it became something of a shibboleth that nuclear-armed states do not fight each other directly. The potential for escalation in the event of such a confrontation was considered too high, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis. This “lesson,” however, ignored the Sino-Soviet border clashes of 1969, battles precipitated by deliberate Chinese provocations. Both sides had nuclear weapons.

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More worrying are the recent Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control on the Sino-Indian border. Chinese military units have crossed into Indian controlled areas repeatedly since 2013; in some cases, they have stayed for several days and even been resupplied. In 2020 confrontations, several Indian and Chinese soldiers died when the two sides confronted each other in the Galway valley. Unlike their American and Russian counterparts, Chinese military and political leaders appear far less concerned about the potential for inadvertent escalation, at least with their Indian counterparts.

This raises questions about how the Chinese leadership would act, if they had a substantially more robust and diverse nuclear force at their disposal. Recent speeches by Xi Jinping, the rise of “wolf warrior” diplomats, and behavior by PLA forces in the South and East China Seas, all indicate a declining tolerance for outside “pressure,” and a growing willingness to push back in defense of Chinese “core interests,” including territorial sovereignty. Would a larger nuclear capability further embolden Chinese leaders?

At the same time, Beijing evinces little interest in participating in nuclear arms control efforts. This was very reasonable when China’s nuclear forces were substantially smaller than American and Russian forces; it is much less clear that it is in either Washington or Moscow’s interests to not include Beijing in future negotiations, given China’s growing nuclear numbers.

It may well be time to reconsider the broader landscape of nuclear deterrence, as Washington, Beijing, and Moscow all become roughly comparable. A tri-polar nuclear balance is a very different proposition from a bipolar one, especially where two of the players are relatively closely aligned against the third. The discovery of the silo fields in western China indicates that it is well past time to start reexamining the foundations of American nuclear deterrence thinking.

This piece originally appeared in Breaking Defense