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China’s nuclear program still shrouded in secrecy

by Michael Richardson

China’s program to expand and modernize its conventional armed forces is well-documented and closely watched by nearby Asia-Pacific states, as well as the United States and other more distant countries with interests in the region. However, China’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery systems (missiles and aircraft) is shrouded in secrecy — and controversy.

Japan and other Asian countries worry that the Obama administration, anxious to reduce the $80 billion cost of maintaining and refurbishing America’s aging nuclear arms infrastructure, may be overlooking evidence that China’s atomic arsenal is much bigger than officially estimated.

They also worry that Beijing may be seeking nuclear parity and eventual superiority over both the U.S. and Russia, a development that could undermine U.S. pledges of extended deterrence to protect its nonnuclear Asian allies, including Japan and South Korea, from nuclear attack or blackmail. The upshot would be increased pressure on vulnerable Asian nations to develop their own nuclear weapons.

Most U.S. arms control officials and analysts continue to say that China has between 240 to 400 nuclear warheads, nearly all of them on ballistic missiles in underground silos or on mobile launchers that are hard to find and destroy. These include long-range missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Such a force is less than a third of the arsenals kept by the U.S. and Russia, which between them still have far more long-range nuclear weapons than any other states with nuclear arms, despite big negotiated cuts in their inventories.

Still, the Chinese force would be enough to ensure strategic deterrence, meaning that if China was attacked by a nuclear power, it could still retaliate and inflict unacceptable damage.

China’s state media have reported various steps in recent months to improve the survivability of the country’s nuclear arsenal and enable it to launch a devastating retaliatory strike. One step is to put multiple nuclear warheads on land-based inter-continental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, each one capable of striking a different target.

In its annual report to Congress on May 6 on military and security developments involving China, the U.S. Defense Department said that the Chinese armed forces were also developing and testing several new classes a variants of offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, upgrading older missile systems and devising methods to counter ballistic missile defenses to ensure that enough nuclear armed Chinese missiles would reach their targets in a conflict.

The Pentagon added that China was now close to having five nuclear-powered submarines that could launch a new class of nuclear-tipped missile, the JL-2, with an estimated range of more than 7,400 km. This would give the Chinese Navy “its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent,” the Pentagon report said.

China has not publicly declared how many nuclear weapons it has and there is no way for outsiders to verify their estimates. China officially proclaims a “no first use” policy, stating that it would use nuclear forces only in response to a nuclear strike against China.

The pledge has two parts: first, that Beijing will never use nuclear weapons first against any nuclear-weapon state; and second, that it will never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any nonnuclear-weapons state or nuclear-weapon-free zone of the kind that exists in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

However, a senior Chinese general warned some years ago that if the U.S. attacked China with precision-guided conventional weapons in a conflict over Taiwan, Beijing might respond with nuclear arms. He was subsequently promoted.

China’s military doctrine puts a high premium on concealment, deception and surprise. Gen. Viktor Esin, a former commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, told officials and journalists in the U.S. on a visit in December that he had concluded China might have 850 nuclear warheads ready to launch, while others were kept in underground tunnel storage for use in an emergency. He estimated the total size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal at between 1,600 and 1,800 warheads.

Esin, now a professor at the Russian Academy of Military Science, said that Moscow was so concerned that it would consider abandoning the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed with the U.S. in 1987 if the Chinese build-up did not stop. The INF Treaty bans the U.S. and Russia from having missiles with ranges of up to 5,500 km, as well as their launchers and related support facilities. The ban covers short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles.

Meanwhile, China, North Korea, Iran, India and Pakistan have all been expanding and modernizing their ballistic missiles in these categories, ostensibly as a deterrent against attack. This has been fueling a dangerous, although seldom acknowledged, nuclear arms race in Asia.

The danger is intensified because some of these ballistic missiles can carry conventional high-explosive warheads or nuclear warheads, and in a conflict there would be no way of differentiating between the two until too late.

Some cruise missiles deployed by China and other Asian countries are also dual-use, meaning they can carry conventional or nuclear warheads. China also has aircraft that carry nuclear bombs.

A 2009 study by the U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center said that new medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles being brought into service by China, North Korea, India and Pakistan were “strategic systems, and most will be armed with nonconventional warheads,” a reference to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The study said that China currently deployed three different ballistic missiles for “regional nuclear deterrence.”

The head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, said in August that he did not believe that China had massively and surreptitiously enlarged its nuclear arsenal. Nonetheless, he has been ordered to report to Congress by the middle of August on whether an underground tunnel complex in China, reportedly stretching for more than 4,800 km, has been used to conceal a secret nuclear weapons build-up.

The recent Pentagon report to Congress on China said that it had “a technologically advanced underground facility (UGF) program protecting all aspects of its military forces, including C2 (command and control), logistics, missile and naval forces.”

The report added that given China’s no-first-use nuclear weapons policy, the Chinese military had assumed it might need to absorb an initial nuclear blow while ensuring that its leadership and strategic assets survived.

Unraveling China’s nuclear secrets without its cooperation will be nearly impossible. The best hope may be for the U.S. and Russia to make any future nuclear arms reduction negotiations contingent on participation by China, India and Pakistan.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.