China Keeps Rattling its Nuclear Saber. How Long Until it is Unleashed?

June 4, 2021 Topic: China Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaNuclear DeterrenceRussiaMilitaryJoe Biden

China Keeps Rattling its Nuclear Saber. How Long Until it is Unleashed?

China and Russia’s growing belligerence in such an unstable strategic environment are therefore incredibly and unprecedentedly irresponsible. Is Joe Biden doing enough to counter them?


Some China experts consider the Global Times to be a toothless tiger. Others see it as a loose cannon. On June 1, its editor called for more Chinese nuclear missiles and warheads. Global Times is state-run media, and the country is already in the midst of doubling the number of its nuclear warheads. And, widely-quoted estimates of Chinese nuclear weapons in the low hundreds are an underestimate, if hints from my sources are any indication. 

President Joe Biden’s new defense budget reflects these concerning facts as America continues President Trump’s shift from hardware meant for international policing missions, for example in Iraq and Afghanistan, to defense and deterrence of near-peer adversaries like China and Russia.


The proposed 2022 U.S. defense budget seeks to counter Beijing in not only conventional military force, where China will increasingly have an advantage due to its larger population and economy (by purchasing power parity), but in the nuclear arena, where the United States can more easily maintain its own.

However, the development of next-generation weapons by both powers, including hypersonic missile technology, may cause hair-trigger alerts and time frames in the minutes rather than hours, for presidential decision-making in a nuclear crisis. This makes the nuclear balance increasingly unstable, due to the advantage given by hypersonic missile technology to the side that strikes first, with only minutes for the other side to respond, if unprepared and without survivable assets like stealthy submarines. The alternative is to lose one’s weapons systems to the enemy’s first strike. China and Russia’s growing belligerence in such an unstable strategic environment are therefore incredibly and unprecedentedly irresponsible.

The proposed U.S. defense budget of $715 billion shifts billions to the nuclear arsenal, hypersonic missile research, radars, satellites, and stealth technology. The proposed 2022 budget, which will be negotiated with Congress, would increase the number of stealth F-35 fighter jets to eighty-five from this year’s request of seventy-nine. The Space Force budget would increase to $17.4 billion from this year’s $15.4 billion. 

The U.S. nuclear triad, including land-launched missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and nuclear bombs and missiles launched from aircraft, would be modernized in 2022 with $27.7 billion in expenditures. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that modernizing the nuclear triad, including command and control, and delivery of Columbia-class submarines and nuclear bomb certification of the F-35, will cost on average more than $60 billion annually over ten years, plus additional expenditures to bring the total to more than $1 trillion.

China is building naval ships faster than the United States. But the new budget includes funding for the Standard Missile 6 (SM-6) and the Tomahawk. According to Richard Fisher, Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, “it is very important that the U.S. purchase a very large number of the SM-6 and modify them for ASBM [anti-ship ballistic missile] missions.” 

An additional $38 billion for defense-related programs at the Department of Energy, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other agencies brings the total budget to $753 billion, an increase of 1.7% over 2021’s budget.

These increased defense expenditures for nuclear and other programs will in part be paid by gradually retiring or slowing the production of relatively obsolete surface systems such as tanks, Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), and ground-support tactical aircraft.

Forty-two A-10 aircraft, 18 KC-135, and 14 KC-10 mid-air refuelers, and four Littoral Combat Ships, will be retired. The A-10 aircraft provides close support to ground troops. The number of M1 Abrams tanks purchased will drop from 102 in 2020 to just 70 in 2021, and the number of new surface combatant ships will decrease to eight from this year’s 12.

The budget is a proposal and will be the starting point for White House negotiations with Congress, which has budget authority per the Constitution. But the President’s recommendations carry weight. 

And their focus is on countering China with nuclear weapons. China should take note, and work harder to deescalate and resolve its many territorial disputes. But the totalitarian country, and its ally Russia, are instead ramping up their war production. Both Republicans and Democrats are unprepared. 

“In the [Biden] Administration's political realm it is an act of bravery to sustain a Trump era level of defense spending, but in the real world it is simply not sufficient,” wrote Fisher in an email. “Trump pushed hard to reorient the Department of Defense from ‘policing’ campaigns to getting ready to face China and Russia.” 

Fisher said that it’s “bad enough that Russia is building for war against the U.S. and NATO, but China is just getting started in building its force for global hegemony. The Biden defense budget is simply not sufficient to win the arms race with China and Russia so it condemns multiple generations of America's youth to a series of wars, some we will win, others we will lose.”

America, therefore, needs its friends. Our allies in Asia should take note, and obtain their own independent nuclear deterrent systems. Given China’s nuclear modernization, massive industrial base, growing conventional military production, and ubiquitous territorial disputes, China can only be reliably deterred if the U.S. and allies such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia, have robust, independent, and redundant conventional and nuclear deterrent systems. 

Otherwise, China could try to pick off America’s allies one-by-one using its conventional military with a nuclear backstop, and leaving the United States with the impossible choice of risking nuclear war or abandoning an ally. The recent experiences of the Philippines and Ukraine, both of which lost territory to superpowers without significant U.S. troop deployments in reaction, and Taiwan, whose defense is not guaranteed by the U.S., are not encouraging. Apparently, democracies are not standing together in each others’ defense.

The dominant form of defense technology long ago became nuclear. Without such systems, our allies risk their own sovereignty, which is an existential threat for them and puts the world’s democratic superpowers, including the European Union and the United States, in jeopardy.

Anders Corr has a bachelor's/master's in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. He authored “The Concentration of Power: Institutionalization, Hierarchy, and Hegemony” (forthcoming in 2021) and “No Trespassing,” and edited “Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea.”

Image: Reuters