Published: 14 May 2020, 07:53 PM IST
On May 8, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times, Hu Xijin commented in his weibo post that “China needs to expand the number of its nuclear warheads to 1,000 in a relatively short time and procure at least 100 DF 41 strategic missiles.” This was needed to “curb US strategic ambitions and impulses towards China,” he added. The discussion in the weibo (Google translation) appeared to support the view, though some did mention the fate of the Soviet Union which got into an unrestrained competition with the US.
The next day, in a longer editorial comment in Global Times, Hu, noted that while in the past the numbers of Chinese weapons were enough for a nuclear deterrent, they may not be sufficient to deal with the US government’s “strategic ambitions and bullying impulse” against China.
Hu argued that in the past, China was seen as a second rate country by the US, but today it had recognized it as a strategic competitor. Since Trump took office, he noted, China was the target of US “nuclear arsenal investment.” If China continued in its old thinking, it “would bring us a tragedy.”
An accompanying article in Global Times the same day featured a noted Chinese military expert Song Zhongping as saying that the US was no longer seeing nuclear weapons for just deterrence. They are “now viewing them as deployable [for use] on the battlefield”. He was referring to the US decision to field low-yield nuclear weapons in February this year.
Chinese experts like Song and Wei Dongxu saw the possibility of conflict spilling over from what was happening in Taiwan and the South China Sea. The article noted Chinese nuclear force modernization in the form of the fielding of the DF-41 road-mobile missile, the testing of the Type 096 nuclear submarine and its companion JL-3 missile and the development of the H-20 stealth bomber. The issue that seems to be bothering Beijing is that of numbers. As of now estimates say that China has 290 warheads, as against 6,000 each held by Russia and the US, but of which only 1500 or so are active.
On the same day, asked to comment on Hu’s remarks, Hua CHunying, the official spokeswoman of the foreign ministry said that those were Hu Xijin’s personal views “and he enjoys freedom of speech in China.” Pointing to Beijing’s No First Use policy on the employment of nuclear weapons, she said it was the duty of the big nuclear powers (US and Russia) “ to further reduce their arsenal drastically”.
Other more moderate voices have also spoken up. On Monday, Tsinghua Professor and top nuclear expert Li Bin, wrote in The Paper that the size of the arsenal is a matter of scientific calculation and that there was nothing in Hu’s argument that was specific as to why a thousand more weapons were needed. He offered a four point algorithm that would help reach that number of weapons that were “enough.” There could be circumstances, arising out of new roles for the weapons, or technical issues, which deemed the number insufficient. But people like Hu, needed to point out what these were instead of deriving some new numbers “intuitively.’
All this debate in China could well be a trial balloon floated by the government itself. The reasons are not too far to seek. Besides the February 2020 decision to field low-yield nuclear weapons, the US is also moving to rope in China for any future arms control talks.
Nine months from now, in February 2021, the last remaining arms control agreement—New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), that limits long range nuclear weapons—is set to expire. The US has been delaying the talks for its extension because it now wants China to be part of the treaty as well.
The US walked out the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia in August 2019 claiming that Russia was violating the treaty by deploying a new type of cruise missile, the 9M729 which violated the provisions of the treaty .
Russia, in turn, blamed the developments for the US abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. But the subtext of the decision was China which has hundreds of what would be INF class missiles on the mainland, ones that can hit Taiwan, Japan, India and the US territory of Guam.
Both the INF and New START were essentially US-Russia agreements. Now, with China looming larger in US calculations, it wants Beijing to also join up to any future agreements, even though the Russians are game to renew New START for another five years. China legitimately claims that in terms of numbers, its arsenal is simply too small for it to be involved.
New START now restricts deployed strategic warheads and bombs held by the US and Russia to 1550, a steep reduction from the 6,000 cap of START 1, though the warheads have been “retired” not scrapped. China is reported to have some 290 strategic warheads.
While there is no confirmation of Chinese numbers, the US NSA Robert O’Brien believes that they are “moving ahead very quickly on every type of advanced platform and weapons system known to man.” China itself acknowledges that it is modernizing its arsenal, but does that mean numbers or delivery systems ?
Old treaties expiring is bad enough, as is modernization of the weapons delivery system. But even more dangerous are the new emerging threats in the nuclear area—the use of AI and hypersonic missiles. For India, a fledgling nuclear weapons state, such trends can only bode ill.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)