Two top experts on China warned a Washington audience about the growing danger of China in a recent Mitchell Institute nuclear deterrence seminar.
Gordon Chang described a “decade of concern” where China may act soon to take over Taiwan or engage in aggression elsewhere, while Rick Fischer explained China’s push to reach nuclear superiority over the United States may be a companion part of that effort.
“Decade of Concern”
Chang initiated the discussion explaining China may no longer feel deterred by the United States. For example, Yang Jiechi, Beijing’s top diplomat, in March declared the US can no longer deal with China from a position of strength. The regime in July went so far as to make explicit threats to attack Japan—a key US ally-- with nuclear weapons should the government in Tokyo defend Taiwan. Put bluntly, Chinese supremo Xi Jinping on July 1 declared he would “crack skulls and spill blood” of those standing in China’s way.
Chang also explained that taking down Taiwan was part of an overall communist Chinese party view of its role in creating an entirely new international order, to be based on China’s supremacy. In this narrative, the Westphalian nation-state system now in its fifth century is to be overthrown, part of what the Chinese Communist Party leader sees as a necessary “taking down of the old world.”
Chang further explained China is not interested in “working with” the United States—cooperatively or in competition” in the existing Westphalian international system—but in making the United States and all others subservient to China. China has even declared that heavenly bodies such as the moon and Mars will be considered sovereign Chinese territory--not unlike China’s similar expropriation of vast expanses of the South China Sea—should China get there first and establish control.
China Nuclear Superiority
What military capability would be key to expand China’s hegemonic ambitions? A growing nuclear capability says Rick Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center. Known as the top US analyst of everything nuclear Chinese, Fisher explained the 250 new missile silos now being constructed in China cover an area of 700 square miles and are being constructed in a missile field [not as some reports have claimed a wind farm configuration] where silos are miles apart and of a diameter capable of holding the Chinese DF-41, the Chinese 6-10 warhead solid-fueled ICBM.
A key characteristic of the DF-41 missile is it is solid-fueled—the missile would stand alert, without the need to be fueled once a decision is made to launch. Liquid fueled rockets alternatively require extensive launch preparation. Fisher says China is “sprinting to nuclear superiority” as its new missile silos could field a force of over 2500 warheads, of which nearly all could be on alert .
By comparison, this would be 600% of the US ICBM deployed force, and 250% of the on-alert warheads now maintained by the United States on a day-to-day peacetime basis. Furthermore, the Chinese deployed nuclear systems are unconstrained by any arms treaty, while the United States is limited to 1490 ICBM and SLBM deployed warheads under the just-extended 2010 New START arms treaty between the United States and Russia.
As the US Commander of the US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard has explained, China is in the business of at least doubling—and perhaps quadrupling says Fisher—its deployed nuclear forces within the current decade. Deployed forces are those weapons systems ready to be fired—not the stockpile which includes those nuclear forces in storage or in reserve. The Admiral and others have also explained that in the last year, China has tested more ballistic missiles then the rest of the world combined.
Fisher explains China has deployed or is building at least 16 modern nuclear land based and sea-based missiles, with the silos and submarines from which they can be launched. In short, China is serious about the nuclear business. Long gone is any pretension that China is only interested in a small nuclear force, a “minimalist deterrent”, simply seeking to deter attacks by the United States against the Chinese mainland.
Fisher and Chang interpreted the on-going Chinese build-up as China creating a coercive nuclear capability, one that will more readily allow China to successfully blackmail its way through aggression against its neighbors, whether in Kashmir against India, or against Nepal, Tibet, Taiwan or in the entirety of the South China Sea, and prevent any military counter intervention, especially by the US and its allies.
As Victor Davis Hanson wrote recently, China’s geostrategic posture looks more and more like the Great Co-Prosperity Sphere of Imperial Japan launched in the decade prior to World War II. Hanson notes, as Chang did on August 5th, that China is facing some serious roadblocks to its hoped for rise to the world’s premier hegemon, a plan explained by Mike Pillsbury in his book “The Hundred Year Marathon.”
First, the Chinese Total Fertility Rate may be as low as 0.9, or fewer than one child per couple. China says Chang could lose two-thirds of its population by the turn of the century. Second, this is exacerbated by the one-child policy of the past which has created a surplus of some 35-40 million young men who have no prospects of marriage as there are not enough women of marriage-age in the entire population. That is due to young girls at birth often being killed as Chinese parents wished to have a son if they were only allowed to have one child.
Third, China also has over 350 million elderly who assume they will be cared for by the state—not being able to live with their adult children as they had expected. And the Chinese government has little current capability of caring for hundreds of millions of elderly.
Fourth, but this is not the only “health” problem the country faces. Over 300 million Chinese are active smokers. The related cancers may overwhelm the Chinese health care system. Fifth, on top of which, massive industrial pollution, especially from the production and use of coal, is causing serious respiratory diseases among the population. Industrial and chemical pollution is also widespread, all of which is largely hidden from western observers.
These five factors contribute to why both Chang and Fisher believe this is the “decade of concern” when the Chinese communist party leaders may decide it is time to take over Taiwan.
To reach that conclusion, both examined the other benign explanations for the current Chinese nuclear build-up.
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Chinese Nuclear Build-Up
Many China observers remain enthralled by the Chinese governments self-proclaimed “peaceful rise” narrative for its growing economic and military power.
But not Chang and Fisher.
If the new missile silos were largely going to be filled with dummy or decoy warheads as some analysts have argued, then China could not be part of any arms control agreement as “launchers” are defined as and include all silos—with or without real missiles.
Thus, the idea as also put forward that China will trade the empty silos in return for agreeing to an arms control deal doesn’t hold water. Why would the US trade its real missiles for Chinese fake missiles—all of which would count under any verifiable arms deal?
What about US missile defenses which is blamed for the Chinese build-up? The US did indeed build a relatively small missile defense force of some 44 interceptors, now deployed in Alaska and California. This missile defense was built in 2003-4, and while it may expand to 66-100 interceptors, the force in no way significantly blunts China’s retaliatory deterrent capability. What it does is protect against limited nuclear capabilities such as those of North Korea, as well as possibly being able to blunt limited first strikes—those envisioned by escalate to win strategies—of China and Russia.
As Fisher and Chang underscored, the Chinese “build” junks the long-held narrative that China’s nuclear forces serve no coercive purpose and would never be used first. Gone therefore is the false narrative that China is somehow a very special, benign, pacifist nuclear power.
The good news is that the US and its allies may be taking such threats seriously.
Threat to International Order
Recent deployments in and around the waters of Taiwan by US and allied Navy warships—including Canada, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands—may underscore it is hoped a seriousness with which the Chinese threat to international order is viewed.
But some analysts ask, do the current international rules matter? Isn’t their room for “diversity” including China’s vision of international order?
The Islamic Republic of Iran often references the existing international rules as “the great arrogance”, pushed by the United States for its own benefit. China appears to have adopted such a view, but ironically wants to adopt its own rules for everyone else to follow, while giving itself the option to break other international law with impunity. Even when the Arbitral Tribunal found China’s creation of artificial islands throughout the South China Sea as illegal.
In the decade prior to the outbreak of World War II, Imperial Japan, and Nazi Germany both decided the old international rule book was to be jettisoned. Unfortunately, the old treaties banning war and limiting armaments, created to stop such rule breaking, were of not much use in the face of the rising military of both of these axis powers. To a very great extent as well, unfortunately, the United States and its allies slept through the rise of Japan and Germany, despite warnings from such great leaders as Winston Churchill.
We now are faced with the rise of a highly militaristic China, cooperating with a nuclear armed Russia, and allied with terror states such as North Korea and Iran. In recent military exercises, the United States lost quickly and badly to China over Taiwan. And in a recent study done by the Mitchell Institute, the US- can deter China re Taiwan, but only with a fully modernized military especially a robust strategic bomber force. But if a China takeover is a “fait accompli”, the game may be over.
Deterrence then is the name of the game about which the United States and its allies must be serious.
That entails modernizing both US conventional and nuclear forces and keeping the bi-partisan commitment between the administration and Congress struck in 2010 to complete the nuclear modernization effort. The good news is the modernization is now the program of record. The bad news is that in some respects, writes the Nuclear Weapons Council, “operational vulnerabilities” may emerge if only minimal funding is approved.
The Senate Armed Services Committee recognizes this, having added $25 billion to the FY2022 defense budget. The Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Senator Shelby is contemplating adding $50 billion to the military construction budget to deal with the backlog of unfunded maintenance and improvements needed by America’s shipbuilding, test, nuclear lab, and military training facilities. Some House Armed Services Committee members are also seeking to increase the overall defense top line when that committee meets in early September to mark up the defense bill.
In conclusion, deterrence has worked to prevent great power armed conflict since the dawn of the nuclear age some 75 years ago. A strong allied partnership and a peace through strength strategy held the peace. And also ended the Soviet empire.
But following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US mistakenly went on what retired USAF Maj. Gen. Garret Harencak described as a “procurement holiday from history”, where we stopped being serious about deterrence, and eventually ran out of road down which to kick the modernization can.
Obviously, China is serious about its hegemonic objectives.
The open question is how serious is the United States?
Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute.