Thursday, February 22, 2007

China's nukes grow up

Beijing is rolling out a new generation of nuclear weapons. Should the world be worried?
Jonathan Adams
Taipei Times, Monday, Aug 22, 2005

When hawkish Chinese general Zhu Chenghu said last month that Beijing might launch a nuclear attack against the US if the US attacked China, security experts dismissed the remarks as intimidation tactics. They said China wouldn't dare use its meager force of some 20 outdated ICBMs against the continental US, which would strike back with a massive arsenal that would wipe the Middle Kingdom off the map. More likely, China's force would be pulverized in its silos by US precision-guided weapons before it could be used.

True enough -- but such assessments are rapidly becoming obsolete. After some two decades of testing and development, China is on the verge of a major upgrade to its nuclear arsenal, a key part of its overall military modernization. It's now believed to be deploying its next-generation ICBM, the Dong Feng 31 (DF-31), a mobile, solid-fueled missile with an estimated range of at least 7,250km -- capable of hitting Alaska. Within the next few years, China is expected to deploy the DF-31A, which will be able to strike Washington and New York. Within the next 10 years, it's expected to field new submarine-launched nuclear missiles. And while predictions of the size of China's new arsenal are at this point only wild guesses, experts believe it will boast easily double or triple the warheads of today's known force. "This particular upgrade from silo-based missiles to mobile ICBMs is the most significant nuclear-force development in more than 20 years," says James Mulvenon of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis in Washington.

That doesn't mean the US needs to go back to the days of "duck and cover" drills. China's new arsenal does not represent an aggressive threat to the US, analysts say. Rather, it reflects China's effort to keep pace with US military advances and protect its small force. But it's a coming of age for Beijing's nuclear program that will give it a far more credible deterrent against the US' advanced weaponry, and against the US intent to raise a missile-defense shield over North America. Where before China had a force of clunky ICBMs stuck in silos that made them sitting ducks for a lightning-quick preemptive strike, now it will have a sleek new arsenal on wheels and rail -- and later, hidden underwater. This force, like China's current one, will be targeted primarily at US population centers as a powerful deterrent to any rash US action, or if that fails, as desperate retaliation in a devastating nuclear showdown.

Of course, based on how little is publicly known about China's nuclear program -- which Beijing shrouds in the utmost secrecy -- a healthy skepticism about its arsenal is in order. "All of us are guessing, and the people who know aren't talking," says Jeffrey Lewis, a research fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland in College Park.
In the past, reports of China's nuclear deployments have been greatly exaggerated. And even when it is fully deployed, the might of China's new arsenal shouldn't be overstated. While a major advance in the context of China's missile program, it still pales next to the arsenals mounted during the Cold War. Says Evan Medeiros of the RAND Corp, a US think tank: "China finally deploying the DF-31 is kind of like China finally putting a man into space. It's like, `Congratulations, China, welcome to the 1960s.'" Even if China keeps expanding its arsenal, it's not likely to match any time soon those of Russia or the US, which still bristle with thousands of warheads ready to lob at potential enemies.

So are concerns about China's new nukes alarmist? Not entirely, security experts say. No one would be paying much mind to China's buildup were it not for the possibility of a showdown over Taiwan. The island nation has been drifting slowly but steadily away from China, while Beijing has vowed to prevent a permanent break, by force if need be. The US is committed to sending its aircraft carriers to help defend Taiwan against an unprovoked attack. That adds up to a real, if remote, possibility for a three-way crisis that could play out in highly unpredictable ways.

Most ominously, such a conflict could lead to a Chinese nuclear threat. General Zhu's comments were made in the context of just such a nightmare scenario. "Both China and the US are fully aware that Taiwan could be a trigger to escalate nuclear tension between the two powers," says Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council for Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei.

Moreover, while China publicly has a `no first use' nuclear policy, neither Chinese nor US analysts truly believe Beijing would honor that promise if push came to shove. "No US military planner in their right mind would operate under the assumption that China in a time of warfare would hold to its `no first use' pledge," Medeiros says. "It's not irrational to expect China, in the dark days of a nasty conflict, to redefine the conditions under which its `no first use' pledge applies." One Chinese security expert who did not wish to be identified said Beijing should drop its `no first use' pledge because it simply isn't credible. Like General Zhu, the analyst thought that China should make clear that it would "retaliate with whatever means we have" if it felt its core national interests were threatened.

No wonder some experts are on edge. "There are a lot of people who are worried about this," Mulvenon says. "We don't know nearly enough as we should about how this would play out in a crisis."

To be sure, such contemplations belong to the bleakest of doomsday scenarios. And analysts have pointed out that comments like Zhu's serve a useful psychological purpose: trying to make US planners believe China just might be crazy enough to nuke a US city. In a crisis over Taiwan, most believe cool heads would prevail -- at least enough to keep a conflict conventional. "Both the US and China would take very cautious steps, and be careful not to escalate the confrontation to a nuclear level," says Arthur Ding, a research fellow at National Chengchi University's Institute of International Relations in Taipei.

For that reason, security analysts tend to be more concerned about China's conventional buildup: its arsenal of short-range missiles on the coast across from Taiwan (now above 700 and counting), its growing submarine force and its mounting ability to wage asymmetrical warfare through cyberattacks and other means. In one line of thinking, China's new nuclear arsenal may even be a good thing, insofar as it makes Beijing feel more secure in its deterrent capabilities.

But for people paid to be pessimists, the possibility of tragic miscalculation, however slim, suggests a need for high-level, official US-China nuclear discussions and confidence-building measures, akin to those between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Too bad such talks don't appear to be happening. While defense officials from both sides meet regularly, nuclear issues aren't on the agenda, analysts say. "There's no channel of dialogue on these issues between the US and China," Medeiros says. "And there needs to be."

According to Mulvenon, the Pentagon has on numerous occasions tried to engage Beijing in nuclear talks, but to no avail. That he chalks up to China's insecurity: For a country so outgunned by the US, Beijing sees little strategic interest in becoming more transparent. But with China putting the finishing touches on its new nuclear toys, and no solution to the Taiwan question in sight, a little more daylight could potentially go a long way.

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