Chinese Views of the Changing Nuclear Balance
Soon after entering office in 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon grew worried about the nuclear balance with the Soviet Union. In the few years since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union had grown its intercontinental ballistic missile force from under 50 vulnerable missiles to over 1,000 missiles deployed in hardened silos. The Soviet nuclear breakout did not imperil U.S. retaliatory capability or technological leadership, but the trends were unfavorable.
More troubling in Nixon’s eyes was the fact that Soviet technological achievements had “immense political and psychological value.” Nixon wondered if the Soviet breakout was another Sputnik moment. “We may have reached a balance of terror,” Nixon worried. Would nuclear parity translate into greater “aggressiveness” in Soviet foreign policy? Could the United States resist Soviet aggression when faced with potential destruction? Was the United States on the verge of a fundamental shift in the superpower competition?
The United States confronts similar questions today. China is vastly expanding the size of its nuclear arsenal, fielding more and more sophisticated types of intercontinental and theater-range missiles, and demonstrating the capability to employ these forces in complex operations. China is also experimenting with new kinds of nuclear delivery systems, including long-range hypersonic glide warheads. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense estimated that China’s nuclear warhead stockpile will at least double from 200 to roughly 400 in the coming decade. China’s roughly 300 new missile silos add uncertainty to the upper bound of this estimate, since each silo could potentially contain a missile equipped with multiple warheads. These developments have led U.S. government officials to conclude that China is no longer a “lesser included case” of the nuclear threat posed by Russia, long the pacing threat for U.S. nuclear planning.
Thus far, the expert community has mostly debated the expansion of China’s nuclear forces in the context of a force that seemed likely to remain smaller than the U.S. or Russian arsenals. Some analysts have sidestepped these questions by arguing that China will not attain and does not seek parity, while others have concluded that China’s ambitions are clear and may encompass outright superiority.
The endpoint of China’s nuclear expansion is unknown. As China constructs more missile silos, however, the United States is confronted with the possibility of a Chinese arsenal that, in numbers of deployed strategic delivery vehicles or deployed warheads, rivals that of the United States. Once again, the United States faces a potential nuclear peer with uncertain ambitions.
The U.S. ability to deter large-scale nuclear attacks from China is not yet in question. But it is not yet clear whether nuclear parity will embolden China or whether parity will create opportunities for limiting nuclear competition, as it eventually did in the 1970s. The Soviet Union in the 1970s largely accepted the political status quo in Europe and was led by a regime that placed intrinsic value on numerical parity with the United States. Does China desire nuclear equality with the United States? Or is parity a waypoint on the path toward superiority?
The first step toward answering these questions is to consider China’s own potential views of the nuclear balance. The metrics through which Chinese nuclear decision-makers assess the balance is likely to have a significant impact on China’s behavior in day-to-day competition and possible military confrontations with the United States. Yet, a Chinese perspective — even a notional one — is largely missing from the debate in the United States.
There have long been a range of Chinese views on nuclear strategy. Surveying these views, however, reveals that on the question of parity, the major camps in the Chinese nuclear debate have been relatively transparent and united in their views: Numerical parity is not a salient threshold across the spectrum of Chinese nuclear thought. As a result, both sides in the U.S. debate are somewhat correct: China does not aspire to parity, but China is unlikely to be limited by it either.
Assessing the Nuclear Balance
The Chinese nuclear strategy community is multifaceted, comprising a spectrum of thinkers with varying degrees of influence. Arguably the most influential camps comprise military strategists within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chinese Communist Party leadership, which selfishly guards its prerogative as the final authority on strategic matters. Despite their internal disagreements, none of these communities see numerical parity as a salient threshold in U.S.-Chinese nuclear relations.
The term “parity” itself is not a salient concept in PLA military writings on nuclear deterrence. Seminal publications, such as the PLA Academy of Military Science’s Science of Military Strategy, frame the nuclear balance, and therefore Chinese nuclear requirements, in qualitative terms, encapsulated in phrases such as the need for China’s arsenal to be “small but streamlined.” When these concepts are tied to specific operational criteria, they also emphasize performance over size, stressing “informationization,” strong command and control, the ability to penetrate enemy air defenses, and the ability to ensure force survivability and capability “under informationized conditions.” Chinese military publications that do make reference to nuclear parity (核均势, he junshi) primarily describe a nuclear balance of terror or a state of mutual deterrence. A PLA military dictionary also defines parity in qualitative terms.
PLA nuclear thinking embraces the possibility that these requirements can evolve. In the 1990s, scholar Iain Johnston documented a shift in PLA thought away from minimum deterrence and toward something like qualitative equivalence with the United States and Russia. Yet, proponents of “limited deterrence” framed these requirements in terms of the need for Beijing to have a spectrum of credible escalation management options rather than a desire for equivalence.
Recent publications appear to take a more ambiguous view of nuclear requirements. Where force-sizing criteria are presented in such sources, the criteria are strategic rather than operational. For instance, some sources emphasize a nuclear counterattack that serves to shock the enemy into submission and contributes to de-escalation. This view of sufficiency is inherently dynamic. As the authors of the Science of Military Strategy argue, “against different objects of deterrence, or against the same object of deterrence under different circumstances, the deterrent effects … will not be the same.” China’s military planners should therefore endeavor to have a “deterrence mode, deterrent intensity, and deterrence tactics … for each nation, a tactic for each event, and a tactic for each circumstance.”
Thus, if Chinese planners do come to see a tension between a “small but streamlined” arsenal and an effective one, there is strong reason to believe that efficacy will win out. This view of sufficiency is consistent with force sizes well below, equal to, or above that of the United States.
The Chinese academic nuclear strategy community also dismisses numerical parity as a salient construct. For instance, in a seminal volume chartered by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Liu Chong, the deputy director of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, argued that “the possibility of direct armed conflict [between nuclear powers] can be significantly reduced” only when they reach parity in terms of mutual assured destruction. Li Bin, a professor at Tsinghua University and a former Chinese nuclear scientist, has argued that “China has never pursued quantitative parity in nuclear weapons” and instead is focused on catching up technologically. Lu Yin, a PLA colonel and researcher, argued that the United States and China “should not use the Cold War-style balance of nuclear forces … which was based on mutually assured destruction, as the foundation for U.S.-China strategic stability.” However, it is not clear how much influence this group of experts has on the group of PLA and party elders with final say on nuclear policy matters.
Numerical parity may become more prominent if, as Tong Zhao has observed, hawkish voices gain greater influence. Leading the charge is Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper. In 2020, Hu called on China to grow its arsenal to 1,000 nuclear warheads to “shape the attitudes of U.S. elites toward China.” Since then, Hu has reiterated support for a larger arsenal while dismissing Western concerns that China is engaged in a nuclear breakout. Hu’s pronouncements hearken to a broader shift in China’s approach to nuclear weapons from a more rationalist approach toward a more emotional and multifaceted one. Nuclear weapons are not just useful deterrents (or enablers of conventional war), they are also an index of national power.
If this becomes the dominant view, the numerical balance may loom larger in U.S.-Chinese nuclear relations. Again, however, questions arise as to the end goal of China’s expansion. If 1,000 warheads were to fail to win China the respect that Hu and his allies believe they deserve, there is nothing in the logic of his argument to preclude an arsenal of 1,500 or 2,000 warheads.
Thus, much will hinge on how General Secretary Xi Jinping himself sees the nuclear balance. Xi has emphasized the political value of an advanced nuclear arsenal, praising the PLA’s nuclear missile arm, the Second Artillery Force (now the PLA Rocket Force), as the “strategic pillar of our great power status.” Xi’s recent call for an acceleration of efforts toward “high-caliber strategic deterrence” suggests dissatisfaction with China’s nuclear posture, but Xi has not articulated a vision for the future. Since the Chinese Communist Party’s broader foreign policy agenda is premised on a recapitulation of China’s preeminent international status, perhaps only superiority — however defined — will do.
Implications for the Emerging Nuclear Competition
A favorable view of the nuclear balance, qualitatively or quantitatively, could provide Chinese leaders with greater confidence in crises and a sense of greater opportunity in war. In peacetime, a favorable nuclear balance could also affect China’s willingness to enter disputes that incur some risk of nuclear escalation. In turn, perceptions of Chinese confidence could affect the credibility of Chinese coercive threats and lead to a sense of growing U.S. unreliability. All this could shift the balance of influence in Asia toward China. Much will depend on how key regional actors connect developments in the nuclear competition to broader judgments about U.S. and Chinese longer-term intentions, reliability, and power.
To the extent that PLA strategists retain the support of party leaders, qualitative metrics will continue to shape Chinese nuclear modernization. Yet, continuity in strategic thought does not preclude dynamism at the operational level. Today, by investing in more precise nuclear capabilities of varying ranges, Chinese planners may believe that strategic stalemate requires a wider range of discriminate nuclear options. Conversely, there is no evidence that the PLA has embraced a damage limitation requirement—the ability to preemptively neutralize a significant portion of the U.S. nuclear force to limit the harm it could cause to China. This would raise the salience of the numerical balance in Chinese planning, although PLA thinking could evolve once again, if such evolution is not already underway.
A rise in hawkish Chinese nuclear thought has uncertain implications for Chinese nuclear development. Because this view is largely political, requirements for the nuclear balance depend on how Chinese hawks interpret the behavior of other nations toward China. According to this logic, if the major powers continue to deny China its legitimate role in Asia and beyond, the nuclear balance must be inadequate. If they show China deference, the balance is favorable. This approach is as open-ended as it is conceptually limited. Xi’s association of the PLA Rocket Force with China’s great power status, and similar associations in PLA military writings, appear to embody the premise that great powers have great nuclear arsenals. The question then becomes how these political requirements are translated into operational criteria, and how these criteria would intersect with established policy.
One possibility is that PLA planners accommodate demands for a more politically useful arsenal into their existing approaches to nuclear deterrence. In the 1960s, for instance, the Soviet Union designed its missile force to reconcile political demands for parity with Soviet military requirements. China too could opt for a hybrid approach, one in which continuity in nuclear doctrine and basic strategy coexist with an arsenal designed to impress.
Alternatively, China could embrace a brasher approach, fielding wider capabilities for limited nuclear use against a range of military targets and underwriting this capability with a larger arsenal of intercontinental-range forces. This shift could also involve an abandonment of its no first use pledge and an embrace of the Russian view that there are strategic advantages to casting a nuclear shadow early in a conventional conflict. Such a shift would guarantee a return to a wide-ranging and intense nuclear competition. The United States would face strong pressures to adapt its strategic posture just to ensure its ability to meet existing requirements, and it will confront hard questions about how to manage the competition without further erosion of U.S. advantage.
Alternative Nuclear Futures
The available evidence of China’s nuclear expansion is consistent with both continuity and change in Chinese nuclear thought, complicating U.S. efforts to assess the continued adequacy of its own forces. This ambiguity also complicates efforts to reengage China in nuclear dialogue. As a result, the Biden administration should think through the implications of multiple futures for the U.S.-Chinese nuclear relationship. Two scenarios are worth examining in greater detail: continuity in the Sino-American nuclear relationship, and significant deterioration.
First, China could remain on its current trajectory, fielding more and more capable weapons with a range of use options. While stopping short of outright numerical parity, the strategic consequences would be similar. The United States would be hard pressed to meet established operational requirements against multiple nuclear powers simultaneously. The greatest challenges would arise at the regional level. In Asia, China would gain a limited nuclear first use capability. Since the conventional military balance in the region has shifted in China’s favor, this would call into question America’s ability to use nuclear weapons to deter major non-nuclear attacks on its Asian allies.
Qualitative parity at the global level would give China a greater ability to threaten key aspects of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, such as by engaging in lower casualty strikes on command and control nodes, submarine ports, and bomber bases, or by holding at risk a greater number of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles. This would not imperil America’s capacity to retaliate to large-scale nuclear attack, but China’s ability to target intercontinental ballistic missiles silos in the United States would present Washington with hard choices about how it operationalizes its nuclear strategy.
The most pressing questions raised by this scenario surround how China sees its nuclear strategy in this new context. U.S. officials have expressed deep skepticism that China will abide by its no first use pledge, suggesting that U.S. nuclear employment policy does not expect China to do so. However, China’s new capabilities would naturally raise questions about the role of no first use in contributing to strategic stability. China recently floated the idea of negotiating a mutual no first use pledge with the four other nuclear weapons states recognized in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. How would China expect to enforce such an agreement in light of its new first-use capabilities?
The second scenario is the worst case: The hawks win the Chinese nuclear debate. China would continue building out its force until it rivals or exceeds the U.S. force both quantitatively and qualitatively. China could also aim, consciously or unconsciously, for technological superiority, pursuing new forms of nuclear capabilities, improved defenses, and a more robust counterforce. Regardless of the status of China’s no first use pledge, the United States would be forced to prepare for the possibility of Chinese first use in a conventional war.
China’s attainment of qualitative superiority, potentially in the form of greater capability against U.S. nuclear forces or the development of technologically novel nuclear weapons, would be more troubling. Uncertainty about the depth of China’s geopolitical ambitions and a lack of experience in Sino-American nuclear relations could trigger a crisis, either a heightened period of tension akin to the 2017 North Korean nuclear crisis or a serious crisis akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Either would create the potential for rapid escalation through miscalculation. Even if the United States and China manage to avoid a sudden explosion of suspicion, Chinese qualitative superiority would also likely encourage further arms competition and deepen mistrust.
This possibility would place a premium on the United States acting quickly to manage the risks to its nuclear strategy and posture, which would surely strain the fragile bipartisan consensus that exists around nuclear modernization. It would also demand new scrutiny of China’s nuclear outlook. In the past, Chinese thinkers viewed strategic stability through the lens of the overall military balance. As such, they chided the United States for seeking confidence and security building measures with China. Echoing Russian rhetoric, Chinese interlocutors argued that the United States already enjoyed too much confidence and security. If China embraced nuclear preeminence, the question would naturally become whether China had itself opted for absolute security. Chinese scholars once expressed concern about action-reaction cycles in U.S.-Chinese nuclear relations. Do they continue to share this concern?
Brian Radzinsky is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The views expressed here are his personal views and should not be attributed to his employer or its sponsors.
Image: Xinhua (Photo by Wang Peng)