A new U.S. State Department report alleges that China may be cheating on its pledge to abstain from nuclear tests. The language of the report is nuanced, however, and the unclassified executive summary, all that mere mortals like you and I can read, points to Chinese activities that “raise concerns” about Beijing’s adherence to standards of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
This behavior assumes special significance as the United States deploys new nuclear weapons in the region, debates the deployment of new missiles in Asia and calls for China’s inclusion in new arms control measures.
Every year, the State Department releases a report on “Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments.” Its content is often controversial. Not only does it offend governments it calls out for violations, but its conclusions are frequently disputed within the arms control and nonproliferation communities as well, with each alleging that politics, rather than facts, are determining its conclusions. Last year’s report was widely criticized for letting political considerations shape its analysis.
This year the report noted “a high level of activity” at China’s Lop Nur nuclear test site. Pointing to “possible preparation to operate its Lop Nur test site year-round, its use of explosive containment chambers, extensive excavation activities at Lop Nur and lack of transparency on its nuclear testing activities,” the analysis concludes that these “raise concerns regarding its adherence to the ‘zero yield’ standard” (a nuclear test that does not use an explosive chain reaction ignited by a warhead).
There are some issues with the accusation. First, the “zero yield” standard cited by the State Department is disputed, which the report sort of acknowledges by qualifying the word “standard” with the phrase “adhered to by the U.S., France and the United Kingdom.”
Second, the report notes that China blocked data transmissions from sensors operated by the CTBTO, the organization that verifies compliance with the CTBT. But a CTBTO spokesperson quoted in The Wall Street Journal said the interruption occurred between 2018 and August 2019 and there have been no problems since then.
Third, China is not a signatory to the CTBT (neither is the U.S. for that matter) and the treaty hasn’t entered into force, so as Rebecca Hersman, a nuclear expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies observed, “it’s difficult to consider these actions in a compliance context.” Finally, China says it is committed to the nuclear test moratorium and its Foreign Ministry dismissed the U.S. accusation as “entirely groundless, without foundation and not worth refuting.”
The accuracy of U.S. allegations of Chinese cheating is actually beside the point. There is no mistaking Beijing’s relentless military — and nuclear — modernization efforts. The Chinese government hasn’t been shy about showing off its capabilities, parading new nuclear missiles and its newest technologies, including a hypersonic glide vehicle with a range of 1,000 to 4,000 km, for all the world to see at national celebrations last year.
While U.S. officials insist the main and official reason that Washington withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was Russia’s cheating, China weighed heavily on their thinking. Unrestrained by the limits imposed by the INF Treaty, Beijing has steadily expanded its missile inventory and now has one of the world’s largest arsenals.
In 2017, when Harry Harris, now U.S. ambassador to South Korea, was head of the Pacific Command, he warned Congress that China “controls the largest and most diverse missile force in the world, with an inventory of more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles,” and about “95 percent … would violate the INF if China was a signatory.”
China’s missile inventory is an indispensable tool in efforts to secure its interests in East Asia; those include reunifying with Taiwan and protecting its territorial claims in the East and South China seas. Those missiles will target U.S. assets at sea or on land — bases in Japan or Guam — to prevent those forces from intervening to frustrate Chinese plans.
The U.S. response has been twofold. First, the administration of President Donald Trump has called for trilateral — U.S., Russia, China — arms talks, both conventional and nuclear, theater and strategic. China dismisses that demand, insisting that its nuclear capabilities are a fraction of those of the U.S. and Russia.
Beijing says it is committed to denuclearization, but it will only do so in coordination with other nuclear powers. That means it will sit out arms talks until the two biggest nuclear powers reduce their nuclear arsenals to that of China’s size.
Beijing has about 300 warheads, while U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear warheads have been cut about 85 percent from the Cold War peak to a maximum of 1,550, with authoritative estimates of their entire arsenals at 3,800 and 4,490 nuclear weapons, respectively. Earlier this year, China’s Foreign Ministry repeated that Beijing has “no intention” of joining trilateral arms control negotiations.
China flatly rejected joining new INF talks. Describing its “unswerving” policies as “defensive in nature,” China’s representative at the United Nations called withdrawal from the treaty “another act of unilateralism and escape from international obligations by the United States … aimed at relieving restrictions and seeking absolute military advantage.”
The second U.S. response is to deploy new missiles to this region, as intermediate-range missiles can’t reach Chinese targets from the U.S. homeland and China will be trying to keep U.S. naval platforms out of range. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced days after the INF withdrawal that such missiles would be coming to Asia “sooner rather than later,” and earlier this year the U.S. deployed a new low-yield tactical nuclear weapon that can be fired from submarines.
Last month, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command requested more than $20 billion in additional money to “regain the advantage” in the region. This includes money for intermediate-range weapons such as Tomahawk cruise missiles. That will not be enough, however.
The U.S. and its allies must have sufficient quantities of munitions in the region to threaten Chinese missiles and other targets, while also possessing defensive capabilities to shield assets from Chinese attacks.
This requires close coordination and planning by the U.S. and Japan to develop what Japanese analyst Musashi Murano calls “a politically sustainable missile deployment plan,” or an approach that is as responsive to public concerns as those of the military. Murano notes that by “deploying a judiciously balanced mix of defensive and offensive systems, the Japan-U.S. alliance can ultimately deter the use of force by China and head off conflicts before they occur.”
Messaging to the Japanese public will be critical. China “firmly opposes” U.S. deployment of intermediate-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region and warned that it “will not stand idly by and will be forced to take countermeasures” if the U.S. does so. Countermeasures will certainly include a disinformation campaign that blames the U.S. and the alliance with Japan for any tensions or instability.
To be clear, the U.S. has not yet asked Japan, nor any other regional ally, to accept new missiles. But that request will surely be coming, and it is likely to arrive as, if not before, Tokyo and Washington begin tough talks on host nation support for the U.S. military presence in Japan. In addition, the U.S. is only discussing with allies the deployment of conventional weapons.
But modernization of China’s military capabilities and the allegations in the State Department Compliance report could, says David Santoro, a nuclear policy analyst (and colleague) at the Pacific Forum, “serve as justifications that the U.S. needs to step up its game vis-a-vis China and, for instance, proceed with the missile deployments it has proposed. Washington could use these allegations to convince skeptics at home and doubtful allies that these deployments are the right course of action.”
That is especially worrisome, warns Santoro, because it could transform the U.S.-China relationship. “We’re heading toward a future in which nuclear weapons will move from the background to the foreground of the U.S.-China relationship. This is unchartered territory because the U.S.-China nuclear relationship has been relatively muted,” he argues, and because the two countries are not talking to each other about these issues “there is no foundation on which to build cooperative measures to reduce instability.”
In that world, noncompliance with unratified treaties may be the least of our concerns.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”