Assuring Nuclear (In)stability: Chinese Views on Arms Control and Missile Defense
On January 17th, the Trump Administration released the long-anticipated Missile Defense Review, the first since 2010. The 2019 report marks a major departure in how Russia and China are portrayed vis-à-vis missile defense. The 2010 version of the report emphasized that the Obama Administration was seeking engagement with both Moscow and Beijing on missile defense—even calling them partners for the future. The latest report, on the other hand, identifies China and Russia as potential adversaries and revisionist powers. Moreover, criticism of United States missile defense efforts by Russia and China is dismissed as posturing while both countries accelerate their own research.
Two weeks later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially announced the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) signed between the US and the Soviet Union in 1987. (1) Both developments, combined with Russian and Chinese efforts to develop new weapons systems such as next-generation cruise missiles (including hypersonic systems) and anti-ship ballistic missiles have considerably stoked the already high fears that the nuclear stability achieved at the end of the Cold War is unraveling.
Indeed, without a renewed effort to promote arms control, a new arms race is all but a foregone conclusion. At the same time, the old Cold War-era arms control model of only Washington and Moscow agreeing to slash their arsenals is no longer sufficient to preserve broader nuclear stability in the face of China’s growing and modernizing arsenal. The following paper looks at Chinese official and expert responses to both the demise of the INF Treaty and the latest missile defense review. While reiterating China’s traditional skepticism of arms control, the commentary clearly points to growing concern in Beijing about a potential arms race. These concerns suggest that China could be willing to participate in future arms limitation talks.
China’s official response to the US withdrawal from the INF treaty reflects long-standing PRC ideological positions and skepticism of arms control regimes. No less authority than Deng Xiaoping expressed the belief that arms control doesn’t work and was a thinly veiled attempt by the US and the Soviet Union to maintain a nuclear monopoly. In 1974 at the UN General Assembly, Deng said:
“In the final analysis, the so-called ‘balanced reduction of forces’ and ‘strategic arms limitation’ are nothing but empty talk, for in fact there is no ‘balance,’ nor can there possibly be ‘limitation.’ They may reach certain agreements, but their agreements are only a facade and a deception.”
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs swiftly criticized Trump’s decision to leave the INF, stating: “As an important bilateral treaty in arms control and disarmament, the Intermediate-Range Treaty has great significance in improving relations between major powers, strengthening international and regional peace, and maintaining global strategic balance and stability.” However, the Chinese MoFA also predictably opposed replacing the INF with a multilateral agreement that would include China.
As Carnegie-Tsinghua Center scholar Tong Zhao (赵通) notes, although there are fears about what comes after the INF, the decision to leave was not a surprise to Chinese experts given the existence of separate US and Russian plans to leave the treaty. Zhao explicitly states that there is deep skepticism of arms control in China going forward; it is seen as merely another realm where great powers compete.
Chinese state media had been covering the topic since the fall 2018 announcement that the Trump administration was considering leaving the treaty. Guangming Daily published an article that was reposted by the Chinese Communist Party’s official theoretical journal, Seeking Truth (求是), discussing the possibility. The article reiterates the official talking points that the US wanted to leave the INF as an excuse to develop its own short- and intermediate-range missile systems, and that the decision would spark an arms race.
It also quotes an expert from the Beijing-based Pangoal think-tank, Liang Yebin (梁亚滨), who sees the INF decision as driven by two factors: its limitation as a bilateral treaty that doesn’t include China, and Trump’s desire to modernize, “miniaturize,” and make “smart” the US nuclear arsenal. (2) In this new age of great power competition, Liang believes the Trump Administration sees more value in tactical as opposed to strategic nuclear weapons. If Liang is correct in his assessment, this would mean a reversal of de facto US policy since the end of the Cold War that US conventional superiority combined with security guarantees to allies that are implicitly backed up by strategic weapons are enough for deterrence and stability.
In addition to sparking a new arms race, Liang sees new dangers for US allies on whose soil tactical weaponry will presumably be deployed. The latter point should not be dismissed as just CCP propaganda; US deployment of tactical weaponry in Western Europe—despite being done at the behest of European leaders— sparked widespread protests in the early 1980s. (3) There is little evidence to suggest that deployments in South Korea or Japan would be any less controversial today.
Despite the frequent rhetoric during the Cold War that arms control was a “conspiracy,” it is important to note that when non-proliferation suited China’s interests, such as the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco that made Latin America a nuclear-weapon-free zone, Beijing was willing to be pragmatic. (4) China also eventually came around on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The lesson for today is that vocal skepticism of arms control by China should not deter the US from engaging with China on the issue.
US missile defense development has been a very public concern for Chinese officials since the 2000s. In 2016-17, the Chinese government sharply criticized the US deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea and launched a concerted economic coercion campaign to intimidate Seoul.
A Global Times editorial on the latest Missile Defense Review that the People’s Daily reposted dismisses missile defense as a “face-saving project (面子工程)” for the US while also predicting that it will undermine mutually assured destruction. It also argues that missile defense won’t give the US any advantages in talks with Iran or North Korea either. When it comes to China, no matter the gains in US technology, offense still has a major advantage over (missile) defense. The editorial ends with the terse concluding remark that missile defense “deceives” the American people.
Fan Gaoyue (樊高月), a visiting professor at Sichuan University and a retired officer from the PLA Military Science Academy, believes that the US is using missile defense as bait to lure competitors into a costly and unwinnable arms race. In addition to bankrupting competitors, Fan thinks that missile defense is intended to attach US allies and partners at the hip. Although Fan mentions that both Russia and China will take countermeasures, he also believes that neither really has any true agency. Both compete with the US because Washington labels them as “potential competitors.” If Washington called them “strategic partners,” Fan claims the behavior of Beijing and Moscow would be more cooperative.
Lastly, Tong Zhao has written that US missile defense could reduce the ability of Russia and China to launch a nuclear counterstrike (or at the very least increase those fears in the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai). But he stopped short of suggesting that missile defense increases the likelihood of a nuclear first strike or counterforce operation by the US—one of the criticisms of missile defense levied by some nuclear experts in the US. (5) The idea is that while missile defense could not protect the US against a large and technologically sophisticated nuclear arsenal, it could successfully intercept a thoroughly degraded force that is down to a handful of missiles. Under such a paradigm, China and Russia would be compelled to not only increase spending on nuclear weapons and R&D to keep pace with missile defense but also potentially adopt risky strategies such as preemptive first strikes.
The Big Picture
Chinese commentary on both the demise of the INF Treaty and the new Missile Defense Review stresses that the most likely outcome is a new arms race. The cost of some next-generation nuclear weapons systems and missile defenses is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Worse, without political leadership and confidence-building measures directed at adversaries, the spending will only exacerbate strategic rivalries, making everyone less secure.
While it is futile to attempt to halt the inexorable gears of technological advancement towards new weapons systems, such as hypersonic missiles or laser defense, that can potentially disrupt nuclear stability, that does not mean arms control efforts should be shunted aside.
In the late 1980s, US and Soviet leaders were able to overcome profound mistrust and vested interests to come to the negotiating table. In the lead-up to the INF negotiations, Gorbachev was explicit to his politburo that tactical nuclear weapons served no discernible military purpose: "Everybody understands that 100 missiles would suffice to [expletive] Europe and the greater part of the Soviet Union...What, are we planning to fight a war?” Today, even as there are debates that existing nuclear doctrines are too dated and fail to account for changes occurring in Asia, there is an urgent need to bring the logic and imperative for nuclear stability back to the forefront of political discussion among nuclear powers.
While reading both the news and expert commentary today, one can’t help but get a sense of déjà vu. Europe and Northeast Asia are once again on the precipice of a nuclear standoff. The circumstances are different, but the risks are not. Both Russia and China are adversaries, but that does not mean engaging with them in arms limitation talks is contrary to US interest. In the case of latter, the opinions cited here hint that China’s fears of an arms race are palpable enough that Beijing might seriously consider endorsing new arms control regimes.
Lest we forget how dangerous the Cold War was, I am concluding this piece with a recollection by Robert Gates:
“As he recounted it to me, Brzezinski was awakened at three in the morning by [military assistant William] Odom, who told him that some 250 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. Brzezinski knew that the President’s decision time to order retaliation was from three to seven minutes… When Odom called back, he reported that 2,200 missiles had been launched. It was an all-out attack. One minute before Brzezinski intended to call the President, Odom called a third time to say that other warning systems were not reporting Soviet launches. Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour. It had been a false alarm. Someone had mistakenly put military exercise tapes into the computer system.” (6)
(1) Despite speculation that Washington withdrew from the INF treaty due to Chinese build-up of intermediate-range missiles and their strategic ramifications for Northeast Asia, China’s non-party status to the treaty played a marginal role in the decision. The primary catalyst for the decision was frustration over repeated Russian violations of the treaty. The two preceding administrations shared similar concerns about Russia’s testing and eventual deployment of the SSC-8 cruise missile: any debate on the subject was over what to do about it.
(2) In this case, he means using new hi-tech and/or AI.
(3) See Euromissile Crisis (1977-83).
(4) The treaty was overwhelmingly popular in the global “non-aligned” movement, which China considered itself to be a part of.
(5) Limited nuclear strike specifically intended to cripple the nuclear capacity of an adversary.
(6) Robert M. Gates. “From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How they Won the Cold War,” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 114.
Yevgen Sautin is a Ph.D. candidate in modern Chinese history at the University of Cambridge where he is a Gates Scholar. His dissertation focuses on Manchuria in the early years of the PRC. He is interested in the political history of China and Taiwan, U.S.-Sino relations, and Sino-Russian relations. Prior to Cambridge, Yevgen worked at U.S. Bancorp as a strategic risk analyst. He was also a Boren Fellow at the National Taiwan University and a Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Yevgen speaks and reads Chinese and Russian and has published commentary in Chinese for Taiwanese media.