Calls for Start of Talks on Arms Control and Risk Reduction
to Head Off Dangerous Arms Race
Statement by Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director
For Immediate Release: Nov. 3, 2021
Media Contacts: Daryl Kimball, 202-463-8270, ext. 107; Shannon Bugos, 202-463-8270, ext. 113
(Washington, D.C.)—The Defense Department’s annual China Military Power report released today confirms what statements from department officials and revelations from nongovernmental organizations this year had already suggested: China appears be on the cusp of a significant and very concerning nuclear weapons buildup that exceeds the department’s earlier projections.
In our view, China’s nuclear advances and the increasingly competitive relationship with the United States make it more important than ever that Beijing agrees to engage in a meaningful dialogue on arms control and risk reduction. There are no winners in a nuclear war and there are no winners in a nuclear arms race. It is in the mutual interest of the United States and China to head off unconstrained nuclear weapons competition in the years ahead.
Last year, the Pentagon said that China could, over the next decade, at least double an operational nuclear warhead stockpile numbering in the low-200s. This year’s report projects that Beijing “may … have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027,” an estimate which appears contingent on the construction by China of new fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities. The report adds that China “likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030.”
The report also highlights China’s apparent plans to expand the size and diversity of its nuclear delivery platforms (including through the construction of hundreds of new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile silos) and enhance the readiness of is nuclear forces.
China’s deeply troubling pursuit of a larger and more capable nuclear arsenal and complete lack of transparency about its nuclear force plans calls into question China’s longstanding minimum nuclear deterrence policy and is likely to exacerbate tensions with the United States and undermine stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
Beijing cannot credibly claim that its nuclear weapons buildup comports with its legal obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” The failure of the five nuclear-armed nuclear weapon states-parties of the NPT to follow through on their disarmament commitments in recent years will be a major sticking point at the January 2022 NPT Review Conference.
The United States and China in particular need to start a regular and meaningful arms control and risk reduction dialogue to help avoid a dangerous arms race and a crisis that could lead to a catastrophic war and even the possible use of nuclear weapons.
The Biden administration has repeatedly expressed its desire to commence a dialogue on strategic stability and nuclear risk reduction with Beijing. But thus far, China has stubbornly and illogically rebuffed the proposal. As a nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT, China needs to engage in the nuclear risk reduction and disarmament enterprise sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, as the Biden administration continues to conduct a review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy scheduled to be completed in early 2022, it must keep the growing Chinese nuclear threat in perspective and resist alarmist calls by some to augment the United States own planned nuclear weapons spending spree.
Even if China were to decide to increase its nuclear stockpile to roughly 1,000 warheads, it would still be smaller than the current U.S. stockpile of about 3,750 active nuclear warheads. Claims that China could soon achieve nuclear overmatch against the United States are wildly overstated.
The longstanding U.S. position of nuclear superiority over China and unwillingness to acknowledge mutual vulnerability to nuclear attack has not brought Beijing to the negotiating table nor dissuaded it from modernizing its arsenal.
To make matters worse, the Trump administration’s proposed expansion of the capability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, its one-sided demand for Chinese nuclear restraint, and threats to “spend China into oblivion” have been met by an accelerated pace of Chinese nuclear expansion.
The United States cannot “arms race its way out” of the challenge China’s nuclear arsenal poses.
In fact, the United States already maintains a nuclear arsenal in excess to what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack and extend deterrence to allies. Planned U.S. spending on nuclear weapons poses a major threat to security priorities more relevant to countering Beijing and assuring allies, such as pandemic defense and response as well as pacing China’s advancing conventional military capabilities.
The factors driving China’s pursuit of a nuclear buildup are unclear but likely multifaceted. Whether China implements the projected buildup over the next several years remains to be seen and is likely to be influenced by the trajectory of the overall U.S.-China strategic relationship, U.S. and allied regional military deployments, and advances in U.S. long-range conventional strike and missile defense capabilities.
Indeed, the Pentagon has repeatedly noted that U.S. missile defense capabilities contribute to China’s nuclear threat perceptions. The November 2020 U.S. test of a sea-based missile interceptor against an ICBM-class target has likely deepened China’s concerns about the potential future vulnerability of its strategic nuclear forces.
The Biden administration, and Congress, must avoid taking steps that would compound nuclear tensions with China and give Beijing a cynical excuse to expand its arsenal.