Threat inflation tends to lead to poor policy outcomes. When it comes to China’s nuclear arsenal, it’s important for American leaders to accurately understand the nature of the problem. Nuclear risks between the United States and China manifest differently than those of the past U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition, or that of the United States and Russia today.
Concerns regarding nuclear use in the U.S.-China context stem from, among other things, mutual mistrust and the manipulation of risk below the nuclear threshold, largely from qualitative force posture and strategy choices each country has made. Quantitative factors — most importantly the size of China’s nuclear arsenal — are less pressing.
Despite this reality, a recent exchange between Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, reveals how the nature of nuclear risk with China continues to be mischaracterized in Washington. Cotton expressed concern during a Senate hearing that China may attain “nuclear overmatch” against the United States if it were to triple or quadruple its nuclear stockpile. Adm. Davidson agreed.
But Cotton misstated the degree to which China may expand its nuclear warhead stockpile relative to the United States. In doing so, he suggests the United States should focus more on quantitative nuclear arms racing, stating that “it is much better to win an arms race than to lose a war.”
Cotton’s framing gets several facts wrong. First, the U.S. Defense Department’s most recent report on the Chinese military states that China’s warhead stockpile is “currently estimated to be in the low-200s.” This pales in comparison to the total U.S. inventory of 5,800 nuclear warheads.
Of these, 3,800 are available for deployment, with approximately 1,400 warheads already on alert delivery systems. Additionally, 150-200 gravity bombs sit in protected bunkers at five European air bases. Insofar as “overmatch” — a concept with little use to nuclear strategists — exists, it is squarely with the United States.
Cotton also incorrectly suggests that the U.S.-Russia New START arms control pact limits the United States to “800 deployed nuclear weapons.” In reality, New START permits 1,550 deployed warheads (including bombers counted as a single warhead apiece per treaty rules).
So why are senior officials and members of Congress so focused on numerical comparisons? Examining qualitative differences between U.S. and Chinese nuclear forces and accompanying doctrines is harder to do. These differences tell a slightly less alarmist story when it comes to the bilateral nuclear competition, but by no means present easy answers to the project of deterring China or avoiding nuclear war.
Since China’s first nuclear test in 1964, its leaders have not sought to “race to parity” with the United States and Russia. This policy originates in part from former chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, whose had a dismissive view of nuclear weapons, calling them “paper tigers.” But even as China has modernized its nuclear forces and practiced more sophisticated nuclear operations, it maintains a lean nuclear force — one postured to survive an adversary’s first strike and still credibly maintain the “minimal means of reprisal.” Ongoing Chinese investments in road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles and better submarine-launched ballistic missiles support this goal.
Authoritative Chinese sources, like the 2013 edition of Science of Military Strategy, acknowledge that Beijing needs to be wary of arms control and the potential trade-off between transparency and security due to its “relatively small and weak” nuclear force.
U.S. Strategic Command disregards China’s “no first use” policy, maintained since 1964; still, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force operates as if the policy is in effect. Unlike the United States, Beijing demates most warheads from their delivery systems in peacetime and only conducts launch exercises that simulate retaliatory nuclear operations.
Despite this, however, China is increasing the size and diversity of its nuclear arsenal. Even if it is nowhere close to matching the U.S. in sheer size, new types of Chinese systems may introduce important sources of escalation risk.
For just one example, consider the DF-26: a dual-capable missile system capable of “hot-swapping” conventional and nuclear warheads. This payload ambiguity is likely a feature — not a bug — for Chinese leaders seeking to manipulate risk in a crisis and thereby enhance deterrence; but it could also amplify escalatory incentives in a crisis.
The United States is in the process of modernizing its aging nuclear arsenal. Modernization goals have largely been designed to pace Russia’s expansive nuclear arsenal. Given the significantly more complex strategic deterrence requirements present in a U.S.-Russia context, any U.S. nuclear force that credibly deters Russian nuclear first-use will also do so for China.
Overinflating the nature of the challenge from China’s nuclear forces would be especially unwise if it leads to U.S. overinvestment in nuclear systems, when the challenges in the Asia-Pacific region today require improved conventional deterrence. Strategy, after all, requires matching ends with means. Bipartisan support already exists for new conventional firepower, as evidenced by approval for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
Finally, it is precisely because mistrust remains high and is growing between the U.S. and China that the two should consider arms control talks out of a mutual interest in averting war and minimizing the costs of war if deterrence should fail.
For many Americans, arms control brings to mind New START-style measures, including numerical data exchanges and reentry vehicle on-site inspections. But arms control — in its broadest sense — can include qualitative risk-reduction measures. Washington can address uncertainty regarding the growth potential of China’s warhead stockpile, for instance. Securing reciprocal commitments to cease fissile material production is a smart first step.
Chinese leaders, meanwhile, should view the Cotton-Davidson interaction as an example of how U.S. officials may interpret China’s nuclear modernization in a vacuum of information and dialogue. Chinese officials have ducked U.S. offers for strategic dialogue in recent years; hopefully, following an upcoming ministerial meeting, U.S. and Chinese civilian and military officials can discuss — and begin to define — strategic stability. By beginning this dialogue, U.S. officials can focus on solving the qualitative challenges that actually exist, rather than getting bogged down in imagined concerns about “overmatch.”
Pranay Vaddi is a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where Ankit Panda is a Stanton Senior fellow of the same program. Vaddi previously worked at the U.S. State Department. Panda has consulted for the United Nations on nonproliferation and disarmament matters.