Despite the opacity and secrecy over China’s nuclear weapons, a public debate has broken out in China about the country’s nuclear arsenal. Hu Xijin, the chief editor of Global Times — reportedly China’s highest-circulation newspaper — made repeated calls for China to quickly and massively build up its nuclear forces. Supporters of nuclear expansion believe that a larger Chinese nuclear arsenal is the key to prevent a war with Washington and “nothing else could work.” The overt nature of the debate is unprecedented and shifts public opinion toward greater enthusiasm for a more robust nuclear posture.
Hawkish, nationalistic opinion leaders add fuel to an already intensifying military competition between the United States and China that now risks spilling over into the nuclear domain. With an active arsenal of about 3,800 warheads, America’s nuclear stockpile is still almost 12 times larger than China’s, according to open-source research. But Beijing’s nuclear modernization efforts have raised the stakes. While it once was the smallest nuclear power among the five nuclear-weapon states under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (i.e., China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), it is now the third largest — behind only the United States and Russia. Worried that its arsenal will at least double before 2029, Washington has threatened to spend Beijing “into oblivion” unless it joins arms control talks. Senior U.S. officials even considered resuming nuclear testing to force China to the negotiation table.
However, America’s coercive strategy has not worked and will not work. Instead, it will reinforce a view in China that arms control is a trap laid by White House officials to contain China and undermine its security. But Washington can convince Beijing otherwise if it includes missile defense in the discussion agenda. It is time for the two countries to launch a dedicated effort on this issue because missile defense generates more Chinese suspicion about the U.S. military’s strategic intentions toward China than anything else. Previous bilateral dialogues have been too generic and superficial to tackle the sources of disagreements. But if China and the United States are willing to examine how ambiguities in both countries’ capabilities and policies have caused unnecessary mutual suspicions, they could find a new path to manage this dispute and advance mutual security.
Arms Control and Sino-American Relations
Arms control can be a useful tool for China and the United States to manage their military competition by making it less dangerous and costly. That said, the United States needs to be clear-eyed about the limits of its coercive leverage to force China into arms control. Beijing, for its part, is confident in its ability to outcompete Washington for regional military superiority and its will is hardened by the perceived U.S. arrogance to threaten an all-out arms race. In its budget for next year, China’s defense spending will grow by 6.6 percent, even though the central government’s overall budget will contract and other spending such as in education and diplomacy will see unprecedented cuts by 7.5 percent and 11.8 percent, respectively. China’s population, which is suffering economically from the pandemic and recession, might normally oppose this reallocation. But many Chinese are mobilized by perceived American hostility and support greater government investment into comprehensive military modernization.
U.S. threats also make it difficult for officials and scholars who support arms control, like me, and worry about being seen as unpatriotic for promoting cooperation with the United States. As free and open internal discussions about the benefits of arms control become increasingly difficult, China’s defense industry faces even fewer checks and the hawkish voices prevail.
China is right to be suspicious of U.S. intentions when it comes to arms control. The Trump administration has withdrawn from existing arms control and nonproliferation agreements, as did the administration of President George W. Bush. While countries engage in foreign policy to pursue their own interests, historically, the United States has often used arms control to maximize its own military advantage as opposed to promoting cooperative security. For the United States to change China’s mindset it should help Beijing reach the conclusion that arms control could be mutually beneficial and that Washington is serious in pursuing forms of cooperation that would accommodate both countries’ interests. Washington should, therefore, abandon its current approach and put forward realistic proposals. There is no more important step for Washington to take than to signal to Beijing that China’s concerns over U.S. missile defense would be part of any future arms control discussion.
China’s Top Concern
When it comes to U.S. strategic military capabilities, missile defense is China’s top concern. Beijing worries that, in a conflict, the United States might attack China’s nuclear forces and then use its defenses to block China’s few surviving weapons. By undermining China’s nuclear retaliation capability in this way, missile defenses could neutralize China’s ability to deter a nuclear attack and thus leave it vulnerable to U.S. nuclear coercion. This fear may appear exaggerated to the United States but it is genuine and widely held by Chinese strategists. In fact, it is the single most important external driver of China’s ongoing and comprehensive nuclear modernization efforts. China’s long-range missiles with multiple warheads, air-launched ballistic missiles, strategic nuclear submarines, and, in the future, intercontinental hypersonic glide missiles, among other new nuclear systems, in various ways all contribute to China’s systematic efforts to build countervailing capabilities against U.S. missile defense.
The good news is the missile defense dispute is not a result of an unresolvable conflict of interests. Washington has a longstanding official policy, which the Trump administration has rearticulated, of not aiming to undermine China’s nuclear deterrent with missile defenses. Ambiguities around U.S. policy and capabilities, however, have led to serious Chinese suspicions about whether America’s actual capabilities and plans are consistent with its stated policy. Chinese officials believe America’s true objective is more ambitious and hostile, and Beijing has invested in advanced nuclear capabilities to counter the perceived threat. The U.S. government, on the other hand, sought to reassure Beijing that its homeland missile defense is aimed only at so-called rogue states. Thus, Washington was willing to tolerate some slight growth of China’s nuclear capability in response to the American missile defense deployment. However, Beijing’s strategy to strengthen its nuclear forces lacks clarity and appears so excessive it has led the United States to suspect that China’s nuclear buildup foreshadows a shift toward a more aggressive nuclear posture.
One Chinese suspicion is whether Washington is using the North Korean nuclear threat as an excuse to build a missile defense system that is actually designed to protect the United States from China’s long-range missiles. This concern is at the core of a serious U.S.-Chinese dispute since 2016 over the purpose behind the U.S. deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense missile defense system to South Korea. Washington argued that the deployment is useful only for defending against short-range North Korean missiles. Beijing, however, believes it could enhance — and is intended to enhance — the capability of U.S. homeland defenses. This prompted China to impose severe economic sanctions and political pressure on South Korea to stop the deployment. Those punishments did not work but significantly damaged the bilateral relationship.
The disagreement over the missile defense battery in South Korea hinged largely on technical questions about the capabilities of a single truck-mounted radar system. Using publicly available information, nongovernmental experts were able to make insightful estimates about the technical capability of the AN/TPY-2 radar and its potential impact on China. Therefore, with a joint study based on open-source data, the two countries could have clarified some of the technical ambiguities over that radar’s capability. But the failure of the two sides to recognize the existence of a genuine technical disagreement led to a missed opportunity for substantive engagement on this specific but critically important issue, which then caused mutual misinterpretations of each other’s strategic intentions.
What Should Beijing and Washington Do?
The existing distrust between China and the United States on missile defense has its roots in the accumulation of mismatched understandings on various concrete issues, such as if certain radar systems can track Chinese warheads, whether some missile defense systems are overkill against North Korean technologies, and why Washington is contemplating space-based interceptors. Exchanging complaints at the political level won’t help. Instead, efforts to tackle disagreements over narrowly defined but concrete issues have the best chance to clarify unintended ambiguities.
As a first step toward mitigating distrust, Washington and Beijing should conduct a joint expert study about the technical feasibility of building a missile defense system that could deal with North Korean missiles without significantly affecting China. This study should take place at the unclassified level and use only open-source data. Previous open-source research indicates that this approach can be technically feasible and help minimize political complications. Of course, this could backfire. Experts could conclude from this study that it is impossible to design such a missile defense system due to various technical and geographical constraints. Yet recognizing that there are practical challenges for the United States to counter the North Korean threat without affecting China could, in itself, help mitigate worst-case thinking in Beijing.
In addition, Washington should demonstrate to Beijing that it is serious about exploring options that may make its missile defense less threatening to China’s nuclear deterrent in the future. When the United States contemplates new missile defense plans, it should analyze what technological choices and deployment strategies can best minimize their potential impact on China’s long-range nuclear missiles. American officials should release declassified excerpts of the technical studies to the public so that Chinese experts can analyze U.S. thinking on the matter. This can be a confidence-building measure for those U.S. missile defense plans that concern China most, including those of building layered homeland defense and of building boost-phase missile defense systems in Northeast Asia that can intercept missiles before their engines burn out.
Another step to demonstrate U.S. sincerity would be to indicate its willingness to have an expert-level discussion with China to explore the possibility of incorporating missile defense into an inclusive arms control framework. Under such an arrangement, the United States could continue expanding its missile defense against so-called rogue states, if Washington also cuts certain nuclear attack capabilities simultaneously. A trading mechanism between strategic offensive and defensive weapons could provide a flexible framework for Washington and Beijing to achieve two goals simultaneously: enhance bilateral strategic stability and protect unique security interests.
Joint technical studies, transparent decision-making, and expert-level discussions on missile defense can also be the subject of U.S.-Chinese-Russian trilateral arms control talks. Russia shares the same concern with China about U.S. missile defense and has more experience than China in negotiating with the United States. With Moscow on its side, Beijing may feel more comfortable with starting an arms control discussion with Washington. That said, whether a bilateral or trilateral discussion, U.S. willingness to engage on the issue of missile defense could pave the way for Chinese restraint in its nuclear modernization. By broadening the discussion beyond a narrow focus on offensive nuclear capabilities, this would help address a major obstacle to Sino-American arms control cooperation — the considerable asymmetry in their nuclear stockpiles. In Washington, there is concern about whether China’s growing interest in a rapid nuclear response capability, coupled with the advancement of its early warning system and theater-range nuclear forces, indicates a shift toward a more aggressive nuclear employment posture aimed at limited nuclear use. Greater Chinese transparency on these issues could serve as a goodwill response to reciprocate the U.S. openness to discussing missile defense.
The rapid deterioration of the U.S.-Chinese relationship highlights the urgency — and reveals a potential opportunity — for substantive engagement on longstanding security disputes. Worried about a race to the bottom, senior Chinese officials repeatedly declared that China is willing to talk about all issues of mutual concern with Washington through a series of dialogues. American officials have also called on China to join an arms control framework with the United States and Russia. But Washington offered little hint of the intended scale and scope of that framework and it is not clear what it wants Beijing to sign up to. To China, which has much less experience in arms control negotiations, the whole undefined concept may appear too intimidating to commit to. A more promising approach is for Washington to engage Beijing in quiet and substantive exchanges on a range of more specific security concerns, including on the issue of missile defense. Radical arms control measures like numerical reductions in nuclear capabilities are unrealistic for the near term, but initial talks can start with less controversial measures identified above.
In a new research report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I outline additional steps Washington and Beijing can take, both individually and cooperatively, to prevent their missile defense dispute from further exacerbating mutual hostility and fueling a burgeoning arms race. Crude coercive threats will not get Beijing to the negotiation table. At the same time, the opacity surrounding China’s nuclear program is unhelpful in generating trust with the United States. But cool-headed efforts to address the missile defense dispute can help open the door to serious and broad-ranging arms control cooperation in the future. The two countries should turn their previously superficial and sporadic dialogues into substantive efforts to address the underlying sources of disagreements and clarify ambiguities. There are mutually beneficial options to prevent a costly and dangerous arms race but the window to engage may close soon.
- Tong Zhao (@zhaot2005) is a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. He is the author of Narrowing the U.S.-China Gap on Missile Defense: How to Help Forestall a Nuclear Arms Race.