Author :
Gregory Kulacki
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Some Things You Need to Know About that New York Times Article on Chinese Nuclear “Ambition”


 The Equation Read More 

US policymakers wonder why China is enlarging its nuclear arsenal. How they answer that question will influence US government decisions about the future size and readiness of US nuclear forces. There’s little doubt China is constructing hundreds of new missile silos. Satellite images provide compelling evidence we can evaluate objectively. Why they are constructing them is more difficult to know. 

US observers look for answers in Chinese publications that mention nuclear weapons and related terminology. But parsing language is less objective than looking at pictures. Analysts must consider the author’s qualifications, the intended audience and the context in which language about nuclear weapons-related terminology is communicated. It is difficult to present these essential details in a press report. Unfortunately, the press can influence how decisions about US nuclear weapons policy are made, and more detailed analyses can be overlooked.

The New York Times recently published an article suggesting there could be a “major shift in China’s nuclear power and doctrine.” It said Chinese military strategists “are looking to nuclear weapons as not only a defensive shield, but as a potential sword — to intimidate and subjugate adversaries.” These two statements are almost certain to alarm US decisionmakers. The article notes the statements are based on an examination of “dozens of People’s Liberation Army reports and studies.” We took a detailed look at the Chinese sources identified in the article and found little evidence suggesting a major shift in Chinese nuclear doctrine or that Chinese strategists intend to use nuclear weapons to subjugate adversaries. 

The article cites a study published last year in the US academic journal International Security that contains references to multiple Chinese language sources, including articles written by individuals associated with the Chinese military. Unlike the New York Times, the authors of that academic study, experienced analysts of Chinese nuclear weapons policy, concluded:

“Despite growing speculation among outside observers that China is moving toward a strategy that includes escalation management or even limited nuclear first use, we find little evidence to suggest that China is abandoning its current strategy of assured retaliation.” 

It’s not a term Chinese decisionmakers use, but a term created by US analysts. It refers to a strategy of creating and maintaining a nuclear force for the sole purpose of retaliating in the event of a nuclear attack. China’s pledge to never use nuclear weapons first, under any circumstances, is consistent with an assured retaliation strategy. 

Determining how large and diverse a nuclear force needs to be to execute that strategy is difficult. It depends on an assessment of both the capabilities and the intentions of nuclear-armed adversaries who might attack first. If decisionmakers believe an adversary can significantly degrade or destroy their ability to retaliate at the beginning of a war, they may feel a need to increase the size of their nuclear force. If they worry enemy defenses can stop nuclear warheads launched in retaliation from reaching their targets, they may decide to develop new delivery systems that can evade defenses. The urgency to take these steps depends on what they think about the likelihood of war and their adversary’s willingness to use nuclear weapons first. 

Chinese leaders began constructing their nuclear arsenal 60 years ago. The size of China’s stockpile of nuclear warheads steadily increased to the 500 it is estimated to have today (the United States has 5,2441). The quality of Chinese delivery vehicles continued to improve along with China’s economic resources and technological skills.  

Chinese assessments of the possibility of a major war decreased dramatically after the normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States in 1979 and remained low as the two countries developed robust and interdependent economic relations. But as economic friction and military tension rose during the Obama administration, and then exploded under President Trump, Chinese perceptions of the risk of war increased. As they did, Chinese leaders started paying greater attention to the size, composition and readiness of their nuclear forces. 

US intelligence reports say China will triple the size of its comparatively small nuclear force over the next decade. China is also testing and deploying new delivery systems that are more difficult to intercept. The article in the New York Times, citing the Chinese sources mentioned in the study in International Security, suggests these improvements to China’s nuclear force could indicate a major change in Chinese nuclear strategy and the intentions of the Chinese leadership. But the study in International Security draws a different conclusion from similar information. It concludes China’s new nuclear capabilities reflect “greater debate about the posture China may need to implement” its 60-year-old assured retaliation strategy. 

The New York Times article also features a pair of sentences from an article by Chen Jiaqi. At the time he wrote them in 2021 he was working with graduate students in the “School of Joint Service,” which used to be an independent “PLA Logistics Institute” before it was incorporated into China’s National Defense University in 2017. That is not a job, or a workplace, that suggests expertise and influence on Chinese nuclear strategy. A search on Chen’s name in the overseas edition of China’s massive CNKI database of publications returned only one article on military affairs: the one cited by the New York Times

Neither nuclear weapons nor nuclear strategy are listed as keywords and for good reason; the author only mentions them in passing. The two-page article appeared in Defense Industry Conversion in China, a bimonthly magazine sponsored by the Chinese Association for the Peaceful Use of Defense Technology. It was placed in the “Visual Angle” section of the magazine in between an article titled “A Study on Methods for Improving Temperature and Humidity Monitoring Systems in Ordnance Stores” and an article called “Research on the Construction of an Integrated Equipment Security Management Systems.” This is not a publication where Chinese nuclear policy professionals or decisionmakers are likely to go looking for information or advice.  

The focus of Chen’s article, titled “New Requirements for the Development of Weapons and Equipment Construction in Future Wars,” is on China’s perceived need to adapt to a wide range of emerging military technologies. A paragraph on “disruptive technologies” describes the US-Soviet nuclear arms race as an anachronism that is giving way to a new and broader form of technological competition. The next paragraph mentions drones and the robodogs publicized by Boston Dynamics as examples. 

The two seemingly alarming sentences containing the words “strategic deterrent capabilities” and “strategic deterrent weapons” quoted in the New York Times follow the less threatening opening sentence of the paragraph that contains them: 

“Strong strategic deterrence is an important foundation for creating an environment for the peaceful development of the country and an important condition for ensuring national security and stability.” 

For Chen, the term “strategic deterrent” is not a euphemism for nuclear weapons. Later in the same paragraph he refers to “nuclear weapons and other traditional strategic deterrent weapons” as well as “strategic weapons based on new theories and technologies.” Nuclear weapons are one of many other types of “strategic” weapons he believes China must continue to develop. Chen concludes by echoing a sentiment that has been part of China’s internal discourse on military affairs since the “self-strengthening movement” in the latter decades of the 19th century: 

“In order to comply with the trend of new military changes in the world and to meet the needs of China’s future construction, we must not relax the development and construction of weapons and equipment.” 

Twenty years ago, not long after I took a job that required acquiring a better understanding of Chinese nuclear weapons policy, a Chinese colleague, who worked in its nuclear weapons lab, warned that scouring Chinese military publications for relevant information was not the best use of my time. “People who know don’t publish,” he said, “and people who publish don’t know.” A remarkably small number of Chinese analysts can speak authoritatively about their country’s nuclear weapons policy. They don’t publish much of what they know in open sources. 

An increasingly insular Chinese government concerned about corruption and espionage is closing international and domestic windows into Chinese nuclear thinking. New regulations are reducing the ability of foreign researchers to access Chinese publications. Most of what is still available in open sources is either opinion or propaganda. A new Chinese espionage law is creating strong disincentives for knowledgeable Chinese analysts to meet and share information with foreign counterparts.  

Within the Union of Concerned Scientists, we are uncertain about the future direction of Chinese nuclear weapons policy. We are gravely concerned about two things we can see clearly in satellite images. The first is the construction of several hundred new missile silos. The second is the improvement of China’s nuclear weapons test site.  But we are also concerned about US speculation that these two developments indicate Chinese nuclear strategy and intentions have changed. In the absence of authoritative information, we think it is dangerous to encourage readers to jump to conclusions, especially US decisionmakers, who are currently considering increasing the size of the US nuclear force in response to imagined changes in Chinese nuclear strategy. 

One authoritative source cited in the New York Times article is a summary of a speech by Xi Jinping to the 2nd Artillery. We have not had an opportunity to review it yet, but hope to present a robust analysis in the near future.

EDITORIAL UPDATE, 2-14-24: 3,700 of the warheads cited above are in the current US stockpile. The rest are retired and awaiting dismantlement. ↩︎ 

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