Tensions are building between the US and China in the disputed South China Sea
Nuclear competition between the US and China has been building for years as Beijing takes steps towards the development of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Washington is attempting to limit China’s military build-up in the South China Sea. The contested strategic strait in the Pacific Ocean is claimed by China and neighbouring Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
A successful test of China’s new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-3, is cause for concern in Washington, The South China Morning Post reports.
The test has sent a message to the world China is ploughing on with a new class of strategic submarines, SSBNs, which could be equipped with nuclear-armed JL-3s.
Hong Kong-based military expert Song Zhongping said: “China needs to strengthen and improve its at-sea nuclear deterrent capability by increasing both the quality and quantity of its SSBNs and attack subs because the US is making every effort to restrain Chinese strategic subs from sailing further.”
He said the US’s moves “are aimed at undermining Beijing’s second-strike capability”, adding Beijing’s decision to develop more nuclear subs “was also pushed by the massive replacement of old generation submarine-launched ballistic missiles”.
Chinese aircraft carrier fleet operates during a training at South China Sea
Donald Trump on a visit to China in 2017
According to Zhao Tong, a fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Programme, based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy, the US and its allies are stepping up their anti-submarine warfare in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Zhao said in a report the US stepping up its nuclear ambitions was contributing to mistrust between the two superpowers and raising the possibility Beijing may re-think its “no first use” nuclear weapons policy, which has been in place since the first Chinese nuclear test in 1964.
In a separate report, the Washington-based US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said Beijing was looking at expanding its nuclear delivery systems, setting off debate in China over whether its nuclear arms should be used only as a deterrent and not as a “first strike”.
The threat of escalating tensions between China and the US comes after the Trump administration withdrew from a historic nuclear weapons accord struck between the US and Russia.
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In October when he announced plans to withdraw from the decades-old deal, Trump said his decision had been influenced by a need to respond to China’s nuclear build up.
Meanwhile Bryan Clark of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has argued China already has the ability to control the South China Sea.
“China now has the world’s largest navy, which has more than 300 ships.
“If you want to be able to conduct sea control in a region, having a big navy is a valuable part of that.
“China is able to focus the attention of that navy on near seas to an extent that its competitors like the US cannot.”