On the Brink of a U.S.-China Nuclear Arms Race

Washington and Beijing are divided over ballistic missile defenses and hypersonic weapons.

North Korea’s recent nuclear test has brought prominence to China-U.S. nuclear relations, which seem to have taken a downturn, with damaging effects to strategic stability. Despite a decade of candidly exchanging views through Track II dialogues, both countries have failed to convince each other that their respective ballistic missile defense (BMD) and hypersonic weapons programs are not threatening. As a result, both keep investing in expensive and technically questionable strategic systems, each threatening to pull the other into a spiraling qualitative arms race.

American officials’ numerous assurances notwithstanding, China remains suspicious of the U.S. BMD program. As much as the U.S. has named the DPRK (and previously, Iran) as the main targets of its limited BMD capabilities, China insists that ballistic missile defenses decrease the security of its own nuclear arsenal. Specifically, Chinese experts are concerned about their country being subject to American coercion, mainly due to Washington’s nuclear superiority, which married to BMD and hypersonic weapons—Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS)—puts China’s retaliatory capability at stake. Wu Chunsi, director of the Institute of International Strategic Studies at SIIS, argues that missile defense makes China’s No-First-Use doctrine increasingly difficult to maintain because it gives the United States a double advantage in both offensive first-strike capability and credible defensive capability. The main concern is that hypersonic weapons could facilitate a preemptive strike against the Chinese arsenal, which, after an attack, would be seriously weakened and less capable of successfully penetrating U.S. BMD systems.

The Chinese concerns, however, overestimate American BMD and CPGS capabilities, while underestimating the power of the Chinese deterrent, recently reinforced by its undersea component. The main objective behind Chinese undersea deterrence was to achieve greater quietness for submarines and more assured penetrability for SSBN-launched missiles. With an undersea deterrent and an enhanced—and more survivable—land-based nuclear arsenal, China should feel more secure about its retaliatory strike. In other words, the strategic stability between the two countries appears to be stronger, not weaker. In this context, BMD systems should not influence strategic balancing between the United States and China, since they do not provide a significant strategic advantage to either Beijing or Washington.

In fact, American BMD against North Korea’s small arsenal is necessary to increase the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea, but it is not capable of preempting the Chinese arsenal. One reason is that the effectiveness of BMD systems is debatable even for the advanced U.S. interceptors, whose extensive testing has not provided conclusive about how they would operate in real conflict environments. Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College has characterized BMDs as expensive and incomplete in their coverage. American BMD systems can only intercept a small number of nuclear warheads (the ratio is five interceptors for one warhead), while both the United States and China possess large strategic and conventional missile arsenals, which can be used interchangeably in a conflict scenario to penetrate missile defenses. The Chinese Second Artillery Force’s modernization has rendered it a massive source of firepower that American BMD systems could never hope to counter. Adding decoys and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) missiles, it becomes obvious that on a cost-exchange ratio, BMD forces are not only ineffective, but also a much more expensive—not to mention technically unreliable—option than land-based ballistic missiles, whose technology is extensively tested, reliable and relatively cheap. That said, building and deploying a large number of interceptors is not only strategically suboptimal, but also financially challenging, given both countries’ budgetary constraints.

But the development of threat perception is not always clear-cut, and perceptions often lead to real policy outcomes. While American BMD systems and the prospect of South Korea deploying missile interceptors on its soil have dominated discussions of U.S.-China strategic relations, less attention has been given to China’s missile defense capabilities. In fact, China conducted its latest ground-based, mid-course intercept test in July 2014, following two similar tests in January 2013 and January 2010. Due to China’s opacity on such issues, there is much speculation surrounding its intentions regarding missile defense development and deployment, while the true sophistication of Chinese missile defense technology remains unclear. Nevertheless, there are strong indications that Chinese efforts to develop such systems are not only here to stay, but are built to counter U.S. programs rather than other regional countries’ BMD efforts, such as India, as some pundits advocate.

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