Among Western analysts who watch China's military and strategic development, a debate has been raging for some time over the gap between China's actual military capability and its ambitious strategic concepts.
There is no doubt that China's military capabilities are both growing and improving across the board. This is natural considering China's exponential economic growth – rarely does a country grow economically yet cap its military expenditure.
China's most recent military budget appears to indicate that its military spending is tagged to its slowing GDP growth, allaying some alarm. Yet this growth is still the largest in the region by far. And after years of investment, China's military capability, both in technology and now slowly in its ability to project force throughout the Asia-Pacific, has begun to catch up to its concept of 'integrated strategic deterrence.' That is the argument of a recent report from RAND authored by Michael S Chase and Arthur Chan.
China's conception of 'integrated strategic deterrence' is similar to some strategic thinking in the U.S. which says that, militarily, deterrence encompasses not just nuclear weapons but a range of capabilities which include "conventional, space and cyber forces." But as the authors argue, China's conception of integrated strategic deterrence goes further, encompassing other instruments of national power such as "diplomatic, economic and scientific and technological strength" as part of the country's ability to deter.
What might this mean in practice?
One of the arguments put forward by the authors is that a more capable Chinese military may give Beijing more options to conduct peacetime deterrence:
"Chinese military publications are replete with references to how China can conduct deterrence operations under general peacetime conditions, such as by displaying its strength in these areas with military parades and exercises, and through other channels, such as official and unofficial media reports, commercial satellite imagery, and via the Internet."
These sorts of peacetime operations have certainly been evident in the South China Sea.
The more interesting comments come when the authors turn to nuclear deterrence:
"...as China continues to develop capabilities to support its integrated strategic deterrence concepts, new options associated with the improved capabilities could lead to modification of existing policies and strategic concepts, such as China’s nuclear no-first-use policy and its approach to strategic deterrence operations and nuclear counterattack campaigns. Additionally, China’s further development of its integrated strategic deterrence concepts and capabilities will have implications for strategic stability and escalation management."
In this passage, the authors have lent their voices to a growing number of analysts who argue that, as China's nuclear posture modernizes, so might the way it looks at nuclear deterrence. Will new nuclear capabilities drive Beijing to reconsider the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy? Will a perception that the U.S. is gaining credible ballistic-missile defense capability and the ability to conduct a first strike on China's nuclear arsenal (using non-nuclear weapons) also influence this thinking?
The chorus of voices arguing that Chinese nuclear doctrine is evolving in this direction seems to be growing. Some argue that this evolution has led Beijing to switch to a 'launch-on warning posture'. Others say China's modernizing missile force will give Beijing "better options for how it might seek to use these (nuclear) weapons not only, as in the past, as a desperate last resort." Fiona Cunningham and M Taylor Fravel recently argued that there China may be facing so much pressure from the U.S. strategic posture that it could adopt a "limited (nuclear) warfighting strategy envisaging attacks on an adversary's nuclear arsenal or conventional forces."
There is no doubt that China's nuclear forces are modernizing, particularly on the strategic level. Over the last several years, we have seen the testing of a new rail-mobile ICBM, the deployment of multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles on some of its silo-based ICBMs, a new medium-range ballistic missile that is nuclear-capable, and the first ever deterrence patrols of a Chinese SSBN. In terms of sub-strategic capability, it is accurate to say that China has the ability to fight a 'theatre-based' nuclear conflict if it chose to do so (with its nuclear-capable medium-range ballistic missiles and reported nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile).
But two important caveats. First, there has yet to be an official doctrinal shift, other than the possible raising of the importance of nuclear deterrence through the reorganization of the Second Artillery into the what is now called the Strategic Rocket Forces. And second, while China is capable of building tactical nuclear warheads, there is little evidence Beijing has invested in credible numbers of them.
Overall, I am unsure of the direction of China's nuclear posture (other than clearly seeking a more assured second-strike capability) and am a little skeptical of calls that Beijing is headed towards a limited nuclear war-fighting (and winning) footing. In terms of doctrine, they have a long way to go. But things are changing when it comes to Beijing's nuclear posture, and perhaps more quickly than in the past.