Observations of an Expat: China Goes Big Bang

China is building underground silos capable of housing nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. In doing so, they are potentially quadrupling their nuclear arsenal overnight; abandoning an established strategic policy of minimum deterrence and threatening to start a domino-like arms race.

The Chinese have had nuclear weapons since 1964. Exactly how many warheads they have is a state secret, but analysts estimate that the number has been stuck at 250 for a number of years. They wanted just enough to deter an attack but not enough to seriously threaten and thus invite a first strike attack from either the US or Russia. The medium-sized arsenal also fitted in with Beijing’s self-image of a regional rather than global player and, the money could be better spent on climbing out of the economic doldrums.

But times change.

China is now a global power. It has the second largest economy in the world and a blue water navy to protect its growing Belt/Road trade links. 120 nations now name China as their major trading partner. China is a super power and demands to be treated as such. A well-stocked nuclear arsenal is the essential super power accessory.

There are other reasons for China wanting to go Big Bang. One is American success in constructing an effective anti-ballistic missile shield. The 1972 ABM Treaty was the foundation stone on which subsequent Cold War strategic arms talks were based. It enshrined the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) by limiting the Soviet and American missile defences so that either side could retaliate.

The ABM Treaty was scrapped in 2002 by the second Bush Administration and since then the US has spent billions building a first-class missile defence system. It is now so good that there is virtually no chance that 250 Chinese warheads—delivered mainly by land-based missiles and long-range bombers—would have a snowball’s chance in a nuclear Hell of breaking through to their targets. A thousand-plus would, however, be a serious threat.

The growing Chinese threat prompted both the Trump and Biden Administrations to press the Chinese to join them and Russia in the current round of Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (New START). Absolutely not, has been the response from Beijing. This is possibly because they don’t want to come to the negotiating table as junior partners. If they are going to negotiate, they need for it be from a position of strength, which means they have to first build up their nuclear stockpile.

But apart from that, trilateral nuclear talks make no sense to Beijing. The current strategic arms treaties are based on a Euro-centric Cold War construct with a strategic American nuclear umbrella protecting Western Europe with support from a minimal British and French deterrent and a Soviet/Russian force aimed at Europe and its protector across the Atlantic.

China does not fit into that equation. It is an Asian, not European country.  It wants to use its nuclear arsenal primarily to increase its political position in Asia. Its main opponent is the US but from the opposite direction. And then there is Russia. At the moment, it has good relations with Moscow, but history indicates that could quickly change.

There is also the problem of India. The world’s largest democracy and China are vying for position of top Asian dog, and the two countries regularly clash along the disputed Sino-Indian border. India—with 160 nuclear weapons– developed its arsenal to deter Pakistan, which in turn has acquired/built 180 nuclear weapons to counter the Indian threat. Delhi is believed to have plans to increase its stockpile for protection against the Chinese. If this proves to be the case, then Pakistan will want more mushroom cloud creators.  This then increases the pressure on Iran and Israel. The Israelis (75 to 400 warheads, exact number a closely-guarded secret) have long regarded the Pakistani weapons as being as much an “Islamic bomb” as Pakistan’s deterrent against India. An increase in either the Israeli or Pakistan stockpile weakens Iran’s claim to be a Middle East power and strengthens their desire for a nuclear capability, which is a serious cause for concern.

Then there is Russia. It is an Asian as well as European country. To date its nuclear strategy has been focused largely on Europe and its American protector. If Asian countries significantly increase their nuclear capability, then Russia will want to match them. An increase in Russia’s arsenal will inevitably put pressure on Britain, France and the US…

The Chinese have hinted (and it is no more than a hint at this stage) that the solution could be a series of bilateral talks between the Washington and Beijing, Moscow and Beijing, Moscow and Washington and possibly Delhi and Beijing. That, of course, could be even more confusing than the previous sentence is to read. But the diplomats have to start somewhere soon to deal with the emerging new Chinese-driven nuclear order.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” is published on 15 October.

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5 Comments

  • This article by Tom Arms should concentrate a few minds when it comes to the destabilization of our world, he paints a very worrying scenario in the battle for nuclear supremacy.

  • This article reports on China’s progress in Space https://thediplomat.com/2021/06/chinas-steady-space-progress-takes-another-leap/. With respect to Military implications the article writes:
    “As per China’s 2019 White Paper on Defense, “outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition…outer space security provides strategic assurance for national and social development.” The Tianhe core module and the Wentian space lab have robotic arms that can extend up to 10 meters and grab 20 tons of space objects. China, similar to its explanation for the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite fitted with a robotic arm, indicated that the robotic arms on its space station are for debris removal. The strategic concern is that robotic arms can be activated to grab an adversary satellite and destroy it during conflict. President Xi Jinping has called upon the PLA Strategic Support Force to develop new doctrines, concepts and build upon Space Domain Awareness (SDA) highlighting the significance of space for the future Chinese battlefield.”

  • Thank God for Trident.

  • The fact is that we have had our nuclear strategy heads stuck in the sand for the past 30 years. Too many of our political leaders foolishly thought that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that we could de-prioritise arms reduction talks. The threat of nuclear Armageddon had receded. Unfortunately that was not– and never will be– the case. The atomic genii is well and truly out of the bottle and constant vigilance, negotiation and discussion is required to keep it under control.

  • John Shoesmith 2nd Aug '21 - 9:29am

    Since 2018 our imports from China have increased by 66%. That extra trade will strengthen the Chinese economy and industrial base. Our trade with the EU has fallen.

    By switching trade from our European neighbours towards China our government is helping to strengthen the Chinese economy and their technical and military capabilities.

    https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/may/25/uk-trade-with-eu-falls-by-23-in-first-quarter-as-brexit-and-covid-hit

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