China’s Nuclear Weapons Buildup, Geopolitical Ambition, and Strategic Threat
Below follows the remarks Dr. Ford prepared for delivery at the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s School in Charlottesville, Virginia, on October 15, 2021, for a seminar on “Strategic Competition and Large Scale Combat Operations.”
It’s a pleasure to speak to you here at the National Security Law Department of the Army Judge Advocate’s School, and to such a great group of experienced judge advocate attendees from the Army and across the Joint Services.
I understand that the focus of your program here in Charlottesville over the last few days has been upon issues of national security law associated with global strategic competition and the possibility of large-scale combat operations. That’s a fascinating and important topic — if rather a grim one — and I regret that I wasn’t able to attend all the rest of your meetings in this conference, just to listen.
For my own contribution, I was asked to say a few words to convey my thoughts on the general strategic challenge we face from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with a special emphasis upon nuclear weapons issues. And — with the caveat, of course, that these are only my own thoughts, and don’t necessarily reflect those of anyone else anywhere — I’m happy to try. I will also keep this discussion unclassified, limiting myself to recounting and speculating about the implications of what’s been claimed in open sources.
Since you’ve asked me to speak about nuclear weapons issues, I will start by focusing upon that aspect of the PRC’s expanding military power. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that those nuclear issues — and the nuclear-related threats the PRC presents — can be understood without appreciating the broader context of conventional military power, cross-domain challenges, and strategic ambition. Accordingly, after discussing the evolving — and rapidly-growing — PRC nuclear weapons threat, I will touch upon those aspects as well.
I. Nuclear Weapons
A. Nuclear Capabilities
It sometimes seems as if there is no end to Beijing’s self-righteousness when it comes to nuclear weapons. That self-righteousness began with Mao Zedong’s fulminations against U.S.-Soviet nonproliferation and arms control agreements, his complaints about the great powers’ nuclear “monopoly,” and the PRC’s 1958 declaration that it was developing nuclear weapons in order “to defend peace, save mankind from nuclear holocaust, and reach agreement on nuclear disarmament and the complete abolition of nuclear weapons,” and it has continued into the present day with Beijing’s claims to have a “no first use” nuclear doctrine and its endless rhetoric about disarmament.
Throughout — in an atomic-age variation on the classic imperial conceit of ostentatiously self-proclaimed Confucian virtue — Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders have seldom missed a chance to depict themselves as selflessly wise and benevolent actors working for nuclear peace. These decades of moralistic propaganda on such topics, however, make the PRC’s current enormous nuclear build-up particularly noteworthy.
At the time of the U.S. Defense Department’s first report to Congress on Chinese military power some 20 years ago, Chinese nuclear ambitions were felt to be quite modest. The PRC, it was said by U.S. officials then, had merely
“developed nuclear weapons and a limited force to deliver them in order to prevent nuclear blackmail [sic] and to obtain greater international status and prestige. Its relatively small nuclear forces are intended for retaliation rather than a first strike. Beijing’s objective is nuclear deterrence: to convince potential enemies that enough of China’s strategic weapons would survive an attack to inflict unacceptable damage on the aggressor in a retaliatory strike.”
Two decades later, the CCP’s propagandistic nuclear moralism has changed little, but Chinese nuclear practice is being revealed as something more dramatic and threatening entirely.
If over the last few years you were wondering why Beijing has refused U.S. calls to engage in to nuclear arms control, has been helping sabotage international negotiations over a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT), refuses to accept a policy moratorium on fissile material production for nuclear weapons purposes, and may perhaps even be conducting very low-yield nuclear tests, the answer is unfortunately now clear. China is engaged in a nuclear weapons build-up of what increasingly seem to be staggering proportions.
Last year’s Defense Department report on Chinese military power observed at the unclassified level merely that “[t]he number of warheads on the PRC’s land-based [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)] capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years” — a conclusion that might in itself not seem terribly worrisome in comparison to U.S. or Russian numbers that are reportedly still much larger than that figure. Yet in 2019, U.S. officials had also said that China’s total nuclear stockpile numbers would “at least double” over the next decade, and indeed, as the head of the U.S. Strategic Command has even more recently admitted, China’s current nuclear weapons building program is on track to potentially even triple or quadruple the size of its total stockpile over the next decade.
In fact, despite the abovementioned bland Pentagon reference to “[t]he number of warheads on the PRC’s land-based ICBMs capable of threatening the United States,” recent reports suggest that a truly extraordinary new expansion is getting underway in precisely those ICBM warhead numbers. Specifically, Beijing has recently begun what is described as “the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever,” in the form of two new missile fields totaling about 250 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). To put that figure in context, that is “more than ten times the number of [Chinese] ICBM silos in operation today.” According to the Federation of American Scientists,
“The number of new Chinese silos under construction exceeds the number of silo-based ICBMs operated by Russia, and constitutes more than half of the size of the entire U.S. ICBM force. The Chinese missile silo program constitutes the most extensive silo construction since the U.S. and Soviet missile silo construction during the Cold War.”
Especially if those 250 silos were filled with China’s new super-heavy DF-41 ICBM — a missile reported to be capable of carrying up to 10 multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) — this would amount to an expansion of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal of shocking proportions, and is being undertaken at shocking speed. Moreover, the Pentagon has also warned that China may be “moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture” with its “expanded silo-based force.”
All this, moreover, is not even counting China’s ongoing deployment of a new class of ballistic missile submarine — thus expanding its strategic nuclear capabilities to the sea for the first time — its development of yet a further new class of ballistic missile submarine, its development of air-launched ballistic missiles, and its sizeable and still-expanding arsenal of dual-use ballistic missiles. One is hard pressed to think of any aspect of nuclear weapons and delivery system development where China is not pushing forward and expanding both its numbers and its qualitative capabilities at a rapid clip.
China has also apparently never stopped producing fissile material for weapons, and in fact recently announced the creation of new production lines that will produce huge quantities of additional plutonium. These new plutonium is allegedly for use in future civilian reactors, but could be diverted to nuclear weapons uses at the CCP’s discretion. One recent study by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, for instance, suggests that through such diversion,
“Beijing conservatively could acquire … most likely at least 1,270 nuclear warheads by 2030 — closing in on or exceeding the roughly 1,300 strategic warheads the United States currently has deployed on its intercontinental ballistic missiles.”
Bear in mind, moreover, that those words were written before the remarkable Chinese ICBM silo-building spree currently underway was first reported publicly. In light of that buildup, such warhead-production figures now seem anything but outlandish.
Such an expansion of strategic capabilities seems remarkably consonant with the depressingly bellicose saber-rattling that has been coming out of the Beijing newspaper Global Times — a journal, it is worth noting, that is owned and operated by the CCP’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily. In 2020, the editor-in-chief of Global Times wrote that “China needs to expand the number of its nuclear warheads to 1,000 in a relatively short time. It needs to have at least 100 Dongfeng-41 strategic missiles.” Warming to this theme earlier this year, he added that “[t]he number of China’s nuclear warheads must reach the quantity that makes U.S. elites shiver.” Rather unabashedly, it would appear, China is now engaged in what may be the world’s biggest and fastest nuclear weapons build-up.
Nor, it would now appear, is China averse to working on potentially highly destabilizing new “exotic” strategic delivery systems. U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall recently indicated, for instance, that Beijing may be working on a Fractional Orbit Bombardment System (FOBS) — a means of delivering nuclear weapons over a partly non-ballistic trajectory that involves at least partial Earth orbits, in order to permit weapons to arrive from potentially unwatched directions — as well as “potentially to actually put weapons in space.” As he put it, China seems to have accelerated the pace of its nuclear work, “and [that is] taking [them] in some disturbing directions.”
B. Nuclear Thinking
But one shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming that “nuclear weapon capabilities” and “strategic threat” are synonymous phrases. That’s part of it, but the details — having to do with why a country seems to want such tools and what it aspires to do with them or believes they will get it — also always matter. (Otherwise one should be more worried about the nuclear weapons powers of Britain and France than, say, North Korea — which describes the strategic thinking of no serious person.) So how do Chinese leaders view nuclear weaponry and their own country’s relationship with it?
Well, to my eye, the PRC seems to always to have seen the possession of nuclear weapons as being central to its geopolitical role in the world. This dates back to Mao’s early fixation upon acquiring them as a way, as he saw it, to strike back against the nuclear “monopoly” enjoyed by major powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union — the former being conceived as a sort of existential capitalist adversary and the latter as a revisionist opponent and perfidious betrayer within the socialist community. In his conception, Chinese nuclear weaponization was not merely something of importance for the PRC’s own security interests vis-à-vis the nuclear superpowers, but also a critical step, in effect, in world-historical development as a messianic PRC championed the true interests of socialism and of the developing world against imperialist oppression and revisionist hegemonism. Nuclear weapons, in other words, were tools with which China could help live out its destiny as a champion of righteousness and a vehicle for the world’s (secular) redemption.
Modern CCP thinking is not, on its face, nearly so grandiose as that. Nevertheless, I would argue that some echoes of that psychology persist in Chinese nationalism and Party thought today, at least insofar as leaders in Beijing seem to feel not just that nuclear weapons are essential on account of their concrete impact vis-à-vis potential adversaries, but also that they play an important role in the greater geopolitical drama of China’s destiny. Specifically, I believe leaders in Beijing see nuclear weapons as one of the crucial indicia by which it can be judged whether or not China has “returned” to first-rank status in a world it feels to have humiliated and oppressed it for generations.
Ever since an embarrassingly small and peripheral squadron of British gunboats made short work of Qing Dynasty forces during the Opium War, Chinese nationalists have fixated upon the possession of top-shelf military technology and capabilities as an essential part of how China is to avoid further such humiliation and indeed claw back for itself the status at the center of the global system of which they feel European imperialism robbed the Celestial Empire beginning in the mid-19th Century. Accustomed over the centuries to thinking of itself as the center of humanity — the “Middle Kingdom,” as it was said, which was meant in political and psychological rather than necessarily in geographic terms — China suffered a terrible blow to its self-esteem and civilizational pride when it discovered how vibrant, sophisticated, and powerful the West had become, and when China was forced, as a result, to take a subservient position to the Western barbarians in the international system.
China has never forgiven the outside world for what is described in Chinese propaganda tropes and nationalist literature as the “Century of Humiliation.” And it has been the leitmotif of Beijing’s strategic policy ever since then to reclaim the sense of geopolitical centrality and the ritualized universal deference that nationalists imagine China previously to have enjoyed from all the other regions and states of the world.
China’s strategic culture partakes of many elements, including the ancient Chinese philosophies of Confucianism (in theory) and Legalism (in practice), with modern admixtures from Leninist theory on the role of an all-powerful vanguard party and some elements of Marxist economic doctrine. A central element of Chinese thinking ever since the mid-19th Century, however, has been the perceived imperative of restoring China’s power and status vis-à-vis the other states of the world.
This ideology of national “return” — expressed in various ways over the years but epitomized by Xi Jinping’s phrasings about “national rejuvenation” — conceives of the international political arena in zero-sum, status-hierarchical terms, and imagines it to be China’s destiny to restore itself to the leading position. And this is particularly important, in the conceptual imaginary of Chinese nationalism, in relation to the countries that in China’s eyes most symbolize the power and arrogance of Western modernity: initially the United Kingdom, and in more recent generations, the United States.
I believe is hard to underestimate the importance of this theme. China is what I call a “grievance state.” It is a country whose geopolitics are obsessed by notions of lost status, and the strategic policy of which is preoccupied with clawing its way back to the role and the prominence it feels to be its birthright, but of which it feels it has been robbed by perfidious Westerners. I don’t think one can fully understand the role and importance of nuclear weaponry — or indeed Beijing’s approach to the cultivation and employment of any of the various military, economic, technological, demographic, and sociological aspects of what its strategists call “Comprehensive National Power” (CNP) — without placing such tools in the context of China’s “Great Telos of Return.”
This helps explain China’s extraordinary present-day nuclear weapons build-up. My suspicion is that Beijing has probably always intended — somehow and at some point — to achieve qualitative and quantitative nuclear weapons parity with the United States and the Russian Federation, and perhaps more even than that. Until they felt their technological, industrial, and financial capabilities were up to the task, however — and that their country was well-enough positioned to manage the repercussions of their ultimate nuclear ambitions becoming clear — Chinese leaders employed dissimulation, engaging in moralistic rhetoric about disarmament and nuclear “no first use” and trying to persuade the rest of the world that they represented no threat.
For decades, therefore, China’s nuclear weapons policy was simply one more manifestation of Deng Xiaoping’s famous “24-character” exhortation to “bide your time and hide your capabilities.” Today, however, Xi Jinping clearly feels it is no longer necessary either to “bide” or to “hide,” and the CCP is building up its nuclear arsenal with enthusiastic abandon.
Nor, I fear, does the PRC want first-rank nuclear weapons capabilities simply for the status they are perceived to convey in a nationalist context that still smarts over the defeat inflicted upon China in 1842 by a British flotilla able to employ the military fruits of the Industrial Revolution against the decrepit Qing Dynasty. Today, Beijing clearly also hopes to use an intimidating array of nuclear weaponry to create what I term an “offensive nuclear umbrella” — that is, to use strategic nuclear deterrence to create tactical “space” in which China can more easily and safely move against smaller neighbors, particularly Taiwan, without fear of U.S. intervention.
Indeed, the Xi regime no longer particularly bothers to hide this ambition. Amidst a growing crescendo of recent aggressive deployments and rhetoric against Taiwan, for instance, the propaganda organ Global Times has justified its calls for a hugely expanded Chinese strategic nuclear arsenal on the grounds that “[o]n this basis, we can calmly and actively manage divergences with Washington to avoid a minor incident sparking a war.” By helping facilitate regional aggression under cover of strategic deterrence — trying to force the United States, in effect, to abandon the idea of defending Taipei, Tokyo, or Seoul in order to avoid risk to Chicago — is another way in which CCP planners seem to hope to make nuclear weapons serve the revisionist strategic ambitions encoded in China’s “Telos of Return.”
It is worth stressing that Beijing’s huge new nuclear build-up is occurring in a context in which the relative military threat to China are — objectively — at their lowest level in generations. The United States has cut its nuclear forces to a small fraction of its Cold War numbers, presently possessing only 3,750 nuclear weapons, according to the Biden Administration’s recently-declassified figures. (That compares to upwards of 31,000 in the mid-1960s, and in the low-to-mid 20,000s at the end of the Cold War.) The Russians, too, have cut their arsenal hugely over this period, down today from about 40,000 as a Cold War peak to a reported 6,372.
As a result of all this, China today faces the smallest nuclear threat from Washington and Moscow that it has seen in many decades. In recent years, moreover — as I’ll recount in more detail in a moment — the relative conventional military threat to China from the United States has also plummeted, though in this case not because we’ve been cutting back, but because Beijing has been furiously modernizing and building and increasingly capable suite of conventional capabilities.
China, in other words, is not just continuing but rapidly accelerating its nuclear buildup at a time when it faces fewer threats from the United States and Russia since well before I was born. If you needed one, therefore, there could hardly be any clearer signal that Beijing’s military posture and nuclear buildup are not about responding to threats: it is about naked, aggressive geopolitical ambition. We forget this at our peril.
II. Conventional Military Power
For these reasons, I think it would be a great mistake to view Beijing’s rapidly-expanding nuclear capabilities in isolation from other aspects of Chinese power. For reasons of brevity, I won’t address economic and technological competition this morning — though you should always remember that strategic planners in Beijing seem to regard all such aspects of “comprehensive national power” as being interrelated and mutually-reinforcing. But I would like to flag for your attention the importance of the expanding capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in other military domains.
In terms of conventional military power, for instance, China has come a long way in building for itself the kind of forces upon which it would rely in moving against neighbors such as Taiwan or Japan while holding the U.S. Navy and Air Force at arms’ length. The pace of this development over the last two decades has been quite impressive.
At the time of the U.S. Defense Department’s first report to Congress on Chinese military power in the year 2000, the PLA had begun to “shift its strategic focus from the protracted, large-scale land warfare that characterized Mao Zedong’s ‘People’s War’ to fighting small-scale, regional conflicts along China’s periphery,” and had begun to prioritize “developing the technologies and tactics necessary to conduct rapid tempo, high-technology warfare in Asia.” Nevertheless, at that point, it was said that “China’s options are limited in seeking to offset U.S. power,” in part because “[t]he technological level of China’s defense industrial complex is too far behind that of the West to produce weaponry that could challenge a technologically advanced foe such as the United States.”
As described in last year’s Defense report, however, things could hardly be more different. While we were learning hard lessons and honing our counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency skills against low-technology opponents in the Middle East, the PLA has been getting itself ready for us.
The 2020 DOD report on Chinese military power recounts a PLA that is well on its way to achieving its objective of “becom[ing] a ‘world-class’ military by the end of 2049 — a goal first announced by General Secretary Xi Jinping in 2017.” This appears to mean that by the hugely symbolic 100th anniversary of the CCP’s seizure of control in China in 1949, the Party will control “a military … that is equal to — or in some cases superior to — the U.S. military, or that of any other great power that the PRC views as a threat.”
Indeed, in conventional military power, the Pentagon warns, “China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas,” including shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and the deployment of high-end integrated air defense systems (IADS). The 2020 report also notes “the recent sweeping efforts taken by CCP leaders that include completely restructuring the PLA into a force better suited for joint operations, improving the PLA’s overall combat readiness, encouraging the PLA to embrace new operational concepts, and expanding the PRC’s overseas military footprint.”
The key point here is not that the PLA remains “the largest standing ground force in the world,” for that has been true for a long time. The crucial new piece is that the PLA is steadily transitioning into “a modern, mobile, and lethal ground force by fielding upgraded combat systems and communications equipment and enhancing its ability to conduct and manage complex combined-arms and joint operations.” For its part, the PLA Navy has grown hugely, now constituting “the largest navy in the world,” and “an increasingly modern and flexible force … largely composed of modern multi-role platforms featuring advanced anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors.” And Beijing is increasingly focused upon using such capable forces in playing “a more active role in advancing its foreign policy, highlighting the increasingly global character that Beijing ascribes to its military power.”
III. Cross-Domain Challenges
A. Cyberspace Threats
But conventional military power is only part of the challenge, for China has also been working to build up its military capacities in novel or emergent “battlespace” domains such as cyberspace. The PLA’s cyber forces have been reorganized and consolidated a new “Strategic Support Force (SSF),” which the U.S. Defense Department describes as “a theater command-level organization established to centralize the PLA’s strategic space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities.” Notably, the SSF includes a component that is specifically “responsible for cyberwarfare, technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and psychological warfare.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the SSF’s “current major target is the United States.” At this point in history no one needs me to point out China’s extensive campaign of cyber-facilitated industrial espionage against the United States and other Western countries — a long-term strategy of intellectual property theft on a massive scale, which has brought about what the former head of the U.S. National Security Agency called “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”
Less well understood, however — but of more immediate concern for U.S. war planners, and those of you in the military legal community concerned with Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) issues — are the more directlyoffensive aspects of PRC cyber activities. In particular, it is essential to understand the degree to which Beijing appears to be preparing to mount catastrophically destructive cyberattacks upon U.S. critical infrastructure in time of conflict.
This threat has been building for some years. At least as early as 2011, scholars at the U.S. National Defense University warned that
“[a]nalysis of [People’s Liberation Army] writings suggests a number of characteristics that might govern PLA employment of computer network attacks in a conflict involving the United States. These characteristics include … using computer network attacks in the opening phases of a conflict, potentially even via preemptive attacks.”
The U.S. Defense Science Board warned in 2017, moreover, about the growing danger of “large-scale and potentially catastrophic cyber attacks by … China,” noting that Beijing was “increasing [its] already substantial capabilities to hold U.S. critical infrastructure at risk by cyber targeting of inherently vulnerable [information and communication technologies] and [industrial control system] architectures.”
And the U.S. Director of National Intelligence emphasized in his 2019 global threat briefing to Congress that “China presents … a growing attack threat to our core military and critical infrastructure systems.” Beijing, he noted “is improving its cyber attack capabilities,” and China at that point already had “the ability to launch cyber attacks that cause localized, temporary disruptive effects on critical infrastructure — such as disruption of a natural gas pipeline for days to weeks — in the United States.” Not for nothing, therefore, did I warn in office at the State Department that
“[we] face growing threats to our critical infrastructure from PRC and Russian efforts to prepare for possible all-out warfare in the cyber domain. … The trend is clear, and things are worsening.”
Nuclear weapons policy issues are thus today greatly complicated by our adversaries’ development of what might be termed “nuclear-adjacent” wartime capabilities — that is, the ability to mount attacks with potential strategic impact, such as against civilian critical infrastructure on scale. These problems are likely to become only more acute as the PRC (as well as Russia) continues to expand its cyber-toolkit.
Reflecting this entanglement of nuclear deterrence with matters of cross-domain strategic impact, the U.S. Defense Department’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review made clear in its description of U.S. nuclear declaratory policy that
“[g]iven the potential of significant non-nuclear strategic attacks, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat.”
As I noted in a State Department policy paper last year, this idea of a “significant non-nuclear strategic attack”
“is a critical new element in U.S. nuclear declaratory policy, and lest there be any confusion about whether a cyber attack could potentially constitute a ‘significant non-nuclear strategic attack,’ I can say with confidence that it most certainly could if it caused kinetic effects comparable to a significant attack through traditional means.”
These cross-domain issues are of huge importance for nuclear deterrence itself, and for what might follow in the event that deterrence fails. I thus encourage all you sharp military lawyers in the audience this morning spend more time thinking through the implications of these developments for operational law practice. The situation is notably complex, and becoming more so.
B. Counterspace Threats
In the interests of brevity, I won’t belabor the point, but analogous things can be said about Chinese development of counterspace capabilities. Such weaponry could also potentially have strategic impact if it were used to threaten the space-based assets and architectures upon which U.S. warfighting capacity depends for critical communications, intelligence collection and strategic warning, and strategic command-and-control — and upon which our civilian economy depends to a great extent as well.
So far, rather more has been said publicly about Russian development of such counterspace capabilities than China’s. Russia, for instance, has not merely developed terrestrially-based anti-satellite weaponry, but also on-orbit systems that it has tested at least twice. As I noted in describing those tests in a State Department paper last year, “Russia seems already to have placed weapons in space.”
It may be, however, that China is not far behind. The new U.S. Space Force recently told the media, for instance, that China presents a “full spectrum of threats” in outer space, and Air Force Secretary Kendall also recently drew attention to Beijing’s “potential to actually put weapons in space.” (China already, for instance, reportedly has a satellite with a robotic arm that could be used to grab or damage other satellites in orbit.) Here too, therefore, cross-domain effects of potential strategic import thus may be complicating traditional nuclear deterrence questions. As with cyberspace, therefore, we may need more serious thought from our operational lawyers about the LOAC and IHL implications.
That’s a lot to chew on, and pretty much none of it is good news from the perspective of U.S. national security. Nevertheless, as you think through the implications of “Strategic Competition and Large Scale Combat Operations” in the context of China and nuclear weaponry, I wanted to make sure that you got a feel not just for Beijing’s huge nuclear build-up, but also for the entanglement of nuclear weapons and deterrence questions with a range of additional cross-domain challenges and broader geopolitical issues. I look forward to our discussion.
— Christopher Ford