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Nuclear Minimalism

The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China's Search for Security in the Nuclear Age. By Jeffrey G. Lewis, MIT Press, March 2007, 200pp

Brad Roberts

China has always been something of a footnote for the U.S. expert community interested in nuclear weapons issues, and nuclear issues have always been something of a footnote for the U.S. expert community interested in China. The result is a gap in our understanding of the past, present, and future of China’s nuclear forces. Since the publication two decades ago of the path-breaking historical review China Builds the Bomb by John Lewis and Xue Litae, there has been only a trickle of new historical and analytical material. This relative paucity of analysis contrasts sharply with the importance of the issues at stake. The choices China makes about its nuclear future will have wide-ranging implications in Asia and beyond, as will the choices others make about their nuclear relationship with China.

Jeffrey Lewis’s new book, The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age, is thus an important addition on a significant topic. It is based on detailed analysis and fieldwork conducted for a doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland. Lewis observes that China’s search for security in the nuclear age has been poorly understood by outsiders, an observation validated every time an American speaks about China as “that country with 20 nuclear weapons” (20 is the number of warheads understood to be deliverable on the United States by long-range missiles, whereas the actual number of nuclear warheads in China’s possession is larger by a factor of 10 or more—a topic about which there is great uncertainty and no Chinese transparency).

Accordingly, Lewis begins with a survey of the evolution of China’s nuclear forces over the last four decades and the key strategic concepts that have informed its force planning. He then offers two case studies exploring the thinking of China’s leadership on the requirements of strategic stability: China’s participation in the Conference on Disarmament and its efforts there to expand prohibitions on the military uses of outer space. He also conjectures about the impact of developments in U.S. nuclear policy and posture on future Chinese force planning. The result is part history and part polemic. Its ultimate value rests on the validity of three core propositions Lewis puts forward.

The first is that China developed nuclear forces with a commitment to “the minimum means of reprisal.” Lewis begins his study with a quotation from Marshal Nie Rongzhen, a founding father of China’s nuclear program: “My attitude was clear throughout. For more than a century, imperialists had bullied, humiliated, and oppressed China. To put an end to this situation, we had to develop sophisticated weapons such as the guided missile and the atomic bomb, so that we would have the minimum means of reprisal if attacked by the imperialists with nuclear weapons.” Lewis goes on to demonstrate the ways in which this commitment to minimalism informed the development of China’s military doctrine, force structure, and national nuclear policy.

Of course, this first proposition is not controversial. Lewis’s unique contribution is to plumb the case studies to lend credence to the argument that such minimalism is deeply ingrained. He brings home the important point that China’s experts do not equate strategic stability with quantitative parity. In their view, the strategic situation is stable when China can resist attempted coercion by outside powers with nuclear weapons, an ability that rests directly on a capacity for limited but certain retaliation for any actual nuclear attack on China. Numbers do not matter, they argue, so long as the number of weapons that might penetrate to an attacker in retaliation is higher than zero.

Lewis’s second core proposition is that China’s force planners continue to be guided by this principle. This argument is more contentious, and his case in support of it is less persuasive. Lewis collects and recounts all of the information in common usage among the expert community about the numbers and types of deployed nuclear forces. China, he reports, has approximately 80 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads, with perhaps 30 on ICBMs (18 on DF-5s and 12 on DF-4s) and another 44 associated with medium-range ballistic missiles (the DF-3 and DF-21). He reports that China has no tactical weapons. He notes also China’s deployment of a large number of shorter-range missiles that are not understood to be intended for nuclear delivery. He makes brief mention of the fact that China tried to develop both air and sea legs of its nuclear triad but has allowed the former to fall into disrepair while struggling to keep even a single nuclear missile submarine functioning.

Lewis sees no reason to think that Chinese force planners intend to do anything other than preserve these existing capabilities, albeit with more-modern technologies over time. Indeed, although a few caveats are sprinkled through this analysis, his bottom lines are fairly stark. He states, “China has not yet revised the deployment pattern of its strategic forces, nor does it need to…. China will continue to maintain a modest retaliatory capability.” China “has not taken even the rudimentary steps to give its leaders the option of expanding their arsenal beyond current modernization plans.” He characterizes China’s modernization of these forces as “proposed” and asserts that China prefers the development of new systems to the deployment of them. He is dismissive of predictions by the U.S. intelligence community of anticipated growth in these nuclear forces, a case that is strengthened by the record of misprediction that he rightly notes.

These days it is difficult to read assessments such as these without recalling the findings of the Silberman-Robb Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. Although focused originally on the problem of pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the commission came to a broad conclusion about WMD intelligence more generally: “we still know disturbingly little.” This obliges us to ask here, How good is the evidence? How probing is the analysis?

In this reader’s view, the evidence is more mixed than Lewis depicts it. His work says very little about the dramatically increased flow over the last decade of money and political commitment to the Second Artillery. This is the part of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) responsible for China’s strategic missile forces, nuclear and otherwise, and it has gained higher prominence in Chinese defense planning and decision-making over the last decade. Its doctrine has been thoroughly updated, reflecting enhanced reliance on missile warfare by the PLA more generally. There is only one reference to the buildup of short-range missiles across the strait from Taiwan, which over the last decade has put roughly 100 new missiles into the field each year.

Although these short-range missiles are not believed to be nuclear tipped, the dramatic buildup is illustrative of a significant change in the way the PLA thinks about the wartime role of the Second Artillery. There has also been a considerable flow of military literature reflecting sustained recent effort to think nuclear policy and strategy issues through. Lewis only briefly describes a long-running Chinese debate about the continued credibility of a no-first-use policy. This is the pledge, in place since the founding of China’s nuclear capability, not to be the party in a conflict that initiates the use of nuclear weapons.

China’s December 2006 Defense White Paper helps to bring home just how much is changing in the PLA. It offers a vision of dramatic military transformation for all of the major elements of the PLA. It describes an overall strategy aimed at creating a “solid foundation” of military capabilities by 2010, “major progress” by 2020, and a fully modern military by 2050. What might this imply for the future of China’s nuclear force? The White Paper gives only a few hints in this regard. It reports that the Second Artillery “is quickening its steps…to increase its capabilities of land-based nuclear counter-strikes” and promises strengthened naval nuclear counterstrike capabilities.

The strongest case for the argument that something else may be afoot is made by Lewis himself: developments in the U.S. strategic posture seem to be creating major pressure on China to adapt its force structure in significant ways. As the United States moves toward stronger missile defenses, more-effective non-nuclear strategic strike capabilities, and enhanced intelligence and surveillance systems, China will have to adjust its posture in order to ensure that it remains effective and sufficient in the face of possible U.S. pre-emptive attack. This will mean a larger force and also a force that is more capable and ready. At the very least, China seems headed toward the deployment of a new sea-based leg of its nuclear deterrent plus a new land-based leg consisting of at least two new road-mobile missiles.

Chinese military experts also talk increasingly frequently about a deployment of five to seven warheads atop the existing silo-based missiles as a counter to U.S. missile defense. Steps such as these could result in an increase from 20 to 100 or more nuclear weapons deployed by China capable of reaching the United States.

Perhaps these quantitative and qualitative improvements are in the realm of what Lewis sees as consistent with “current modernization plans.” Many others would interpret a dramatic increase in the number of deployed weapons capable of striking the United States as a “fundamental revision of deployment patterns.” The truth may be a bit of both. The buildup is seen by many in China as an effort to restore the status quo ante, meaning the viability of a deterrent put at risk by improving U.S. defensive and offensive capabilities. Lewis argues that the Bush administration’s envisioned “new triad” does not yet exist in any tangible form and thus that China is not yet compelled to respond to it. China’s experts are more impressed by what they see as progress by the United States in deploying initial missile defense capabilities, new non-nuclear strike capabilities, and improved surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

Lewis does note that, “within China, of course, voices for much larger deployments do exist.” Without elaboration or substantiation, however, he goes on to argue that “these voices seem unlikely to exert much influence over the next decade given the nature of the Chinese political system.” At another point, he offers the surprising proposition that “changes in the U.S. force posture will probably not be the decisive factor affecting the future direction of China’s nuclear forces,” also without elaboration.

In short, the evidence about the state of China’s current nuclear force modernization plans is mixed. From this author’s perspective, it is not strong enough to lead to confident predictions of any kind. Lewis’s analysis would have been stronger had he at least sketched out and tested some of the alternative interpretations that the available data suggest.

Lewis’s third core proposition is that future Chinese restraint in the posturing of its nuclear force requires a promise of restraint by the United States in the form of an explicit acceptance of mutual vulnerability as the basis of strategic stability. In other words, so long as the United States chooses not to deploy capabilities that undermine China’s deterrent, China will not have to undertake any of that “proposed” modernization.

The notion that Chinese restraint is contingent on U.S. restraint strikes me as sound. The notion that stability requires some mutual understanding of the mutual, reciprocal nature of restraint also strikes me as sound, although it does strike some as appeasement, as a willingness to acquiesce to the competitive instincts of a rising power.

There are two more fundamental problems with this proposition. One is that Washington cannot promise Beijing not to develop the U.S. strategic posture in ways that damages China’s perceptions of the credibility of its deterrent. The question is how much damage and how much of it is intentional. The United States is motivated to develop a strategic posture that insulates it from the attempts by “rogue states” to create relationships of mutual vulnerability, and this posture will also affect U.S.-China strategic relations. A limited missile defense that is effective against a small North Korean nuclear missile force will have some effectiveness against the small nuclear missile force of its neighbor. Analogous arguments can be made about the impact of improved strategic strike capabilities encompassing better and more-prompt non-nuclear options.

Thus, even in the absence of a U.S. intention to challenge the Chinese deterrent, China must take steps to preserve the viability of its deterrent. The issue is not how to avoid this. Instead, the issue is how to manage this. How can the two countries modernize their capabilities and transform them for new challenges without an intensification of competition and a harmful intrusion of nuclear issues into the political relationship?

The other problem is with Lewis’s expectation that the United States can make a promise to China that it accepts a relationship of mutual vulnerability. As it turns out, this is much easier said than done. Lewis’s view seems to be that the Bush administration has it all wrong about China, and he calls for a repudiation of the ideas in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) as the shortest route to the goal he seeks. He attacks the NPR with gusto and along the way makes claims that simply are not supported by his evidence. “China is prominently featured in the 2001 NPR,” he asserts, although it apparently rated only a single mention in what was the Bush administration’s first effort to move from military planning against specific threats to military planning aimed at bringing into being a suite of capabilities suited to a broad range of plausible contingencies.

He argues further that “China’s strategic forces are increasingly supplanting Russia’s arsenal as the primary benchmark for determining the size and capabilities of U.S. forces,” a bit of argument that seems to miss the relevance of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which capped the size of U.S. and Russian operationally deployed strategic warheads at 1,700-2,200 each in 2012. He adds that “assumptions about the configuration and purpose of China’s nuclear arsenal determine not just the overall U.S. force posture but also the mix of capabilities identified in the 2001 NPR,” a case that is even more difficult to support.

Lewis is setting up an argument that all of this wrong thinking should be swept aside, thus enabling a return to a view of the strategic landscape that would make possible the promise he deems central to stability. Alas, it is not that simple. The Clinton administration was no more willing than this Bush administration to offer China such a promise. This decision was apparently taken after some serious internal discussion.

This points to an important theme left undeveloped in Lewis’s book: the underlying continuity, from China’s perspective, in the development of U.S. strategic thinking since the end of the Cold War. In the common Chinese view, the end of bipolarity increased U.S. freedom to maneuver, which it has exercised liberally by military and other means for nearly 20 years. Already in the late 1980s, the United States began to develop improved non-nuclear strategic strike capabilities. Already in the early 1990s, members of the George H.W. Bush administration and then the Clinton administration were discussing pre-emptive options at high levels and doing so publicly. Already in the mid-1990s, the United States was moving aggressively to create first theater and then national missile defenses.

Lewis might have done more to bring out the ambivalence evident over the last decade or so in the United States about offering China a promise of mutual vulnerability in the name of stability. It may well be the right call, but the ambivalence deserves some attention. It has something to do with profound uncertainty about what the rise of a powerful China weakly governed by an unaccountable one-party system might mean for the future security order. It also has something to do with a sense that stability is important, but after the Cold War, nuclear stability need not have a sacrosanct place in the hierarchy of security values.

Lewis rightly argues that a laissez-faire attitude toward this particular strategic relationship will not suffice. Avoidance of an intensification of strategic competition as China and the United States modernize and transform their strategic postures requires management. Lewis recommends a strategic stability dialogue, arguing that China has eagerly sought such a dialogue for at least a couple of decades. He would focus that dialogue on a pre-Bush arms control agenda encompassing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a fissile material cutoff treaty with verification measures, among other items, including a bilateral no-first-use pledge.

The recommendation for strategic dialogue has an obvious appeal, but alas, it is not particularly well developed. Lewis fails to mention two prior efforts at nuclear dialogue by the Clinton and Bush administrations that both faltered on an absence of Chinese transparency. He offers no commentary on the Bush administration’s separate effort to build a nuclear dialogue with China around the “responsible stakeholder” theme first articulated by then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. Moreover, his book apparently was finalized before the April 2006 summit commitment by Presidents George W. Bush and Hu Jintao to initiate a military-to-military dialogue on nuclear issues. A year later, at the time of this writing, the Chinese have yet to accept an invitation to schedule what was to be the first step in the dialogue process, a visit by the head of the Second Artillery to Strategic Command. This raises a basic question about the eagerness for strategic dialogue that Lewis imputes to China’s leaders.

Lewis has done us a service by helping to raise a debate about the future of China’s nuclear forces, the interaction of China and U.S. modernization/transformation efforts, and the desirability of a dialogue that effectively manages the relationship. His assessment of the problem strikes me as a bit lopsided, with its singular emphasis on the United States as the driver of instability and his convenient assumption that changes are not already afoot in the Chinese posture. His prescription strikes me as lacking an adequate understanding of China’s search for nuclear security and of America’s search. Yet, after a decade or two of U.S. debate about how to achieve the necessary and desirable strategic relationships with the “rogues” and Russia, it is time to have the debate Lewis invites about how to achieve the right U.S. nuclear relationship with China.


Brad Roberts is a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He is co-author with Robert Manning and Ronald Montaperto of China, Nuclear Weapons, and Arms Control (2000).


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