The recent discovery of a large, new field of over 100 intercontinental ballistic missile silos in China’s Gansu province is both a fantastic find for those of us operating in the unclassified world and a stark reminder that intensifying US-China competition has a nuclear component. An expanding, modernizing Chinese nuclear arsenal is not good news for the United States, but Washington should keep the threat in perspective and think about ways to reduce nuclear danger rather than panicking and diving deeper into an arms race.
STEP 1: DON’T PANIC
The best way for the United States to begin responding to the Gansu silo field is to take a proverbial deep breath. The discovery of the silo field adds credibility to US government claims that China’s nuclear arsenal is in the process of doubling, but focusing on “doubling” without context is a recipe for panic.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Nuclear Notebook” series, which estimates the nuclear arsenal sizes of countries based on unclassified information, estimates that China has some 350 total warheads compared to approximately 1,800 deployed US nuclear weapons. Assuming that the US nuclear arsenal remains constant, a doubling of the Chinese arsenal would still leave the United States with 1,100 more nuclear weapons than China.
US-China competition is heating up across the board, but when it comes to nuclear weapons the United States has a significant advantage. A larger Chinese nuclear arsenal will reduce the relative size of that advantage, but it does not change the fundamental nature of the US-China nuclear balance that has long been characterized by lopsided US superiority.
Washington should be wary of Chinese nuclear activities, but US advantages remain intact. The most likely pathways to nuclear confrontation with China have more to do with the details of conventional military strategy than the number of Chinese silos.
The main danger of a larger Chinese nuclear arsenal is the possibility of Beijing adopting a more aggressive nuclear strategy. China’s current nuclear strategy is best described as assured retaliation. This strategy deters nuclear attacks against China by maintaining an arsenal capable of conducting retaliatory strikes after coming under attack.
A larger nuclear arsenal could allow Beijing to adopt a more aggressive nuclear strategy, but a larger arsenal could also be consistent with assured retaliation. For example, some experts argue that the Gansu silo field could be part of a shell game wherein a handful of missiles would move among the silos, which would help improve survivability against attack. Filling every silo with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile could also improve the survivability of China’s other nuclear forces by making the United States devote more of its own nuclear weapons to attacking the silo field should Washington decide to attack. The important point is that assured retaliation’s requirements are not set in stone. As threats to China’s nuclear forces grow then it makes sense that Beijing would upgrade and expand its nuclear forces to keep the strategy viable.
US policymakers should not panic in response to China’s new silo field. While it is not a welcome development, it is also neither a definitive sign that China’s nuclear strategy is becoming more aggressive nor indicative of a fundamental shift in the US-China nuclear balance.
STEP 2: USE DIPLOMACY
Avoiding panic is not the same as encouraging complacency. The US-China relationship is rapidly deteriorating, which raises the relative risk of conflict even if that risk remains low in absolute terms. This creates a worrying cycle. As the relationship gets worse, the risk of conflict increases as does the need to find diplomatic ways to reduce nuclear danger, but deepening political distrust makes such negotiations harder to start.
US policymakers are right to draw attention to China’s nuclear modernization. However, responding to China’s nuclear arsenal changes with more spending on US nuclear forces or a purely competitive approach that leaves no room for diplomacy would be a mistake. Instead, Washington should devote more attention to diplomacy and an approach to conventional deterrence that emphasizes the ability to deny China from achieving its objectives.
STEP 3: PRIORITIZE ARMS CONTROL AND CONVENTIONAL FORCE POSTURE
Responding to China’s nuclear modernization in ways that reduce rather than encourage nuclear instability should point the United States toward arms control and conventional force posture changes.
Washington should pursue arms control with China even though it will not be an easy process. Beijing is not likely to agree to caps on the size of its strategic nuclear forces — a key feature of recent US–Russia arms control treaties such as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that the Biden administration recently extended — because of how much smaller its arsenal is compared to the United States. The United States might be able to make progress on arms control measures that fall short of treaties, such as establishing government-to-government dialogues, but Washington has tried to implement such steps before with little success due to a lack of reciprocity on China’s part. American policymakers should not give up on the arms control angle, but it is difficult to see a clear path to success in the current political environment.
Changing the US approach to conventional deterrence in East Asia could also provide some nuclear stability benefits and may be easier to implement than arms control in the near term. Inadvertent escalation resulting from US conventional attacks on dual-capable Chinese targets is the most likely pathway to nuclear use in a US-China conflict. This risk is driven in large part by US conventional military strategy, which requires early attacks on sensitive Chinese targets to maximize the freedom of movement of forward-deployed air and naval forces.
An alternative approach to conventional deterrence focused more on preventing China from achieving command of the commons in East Asia rather than maintaining a dominant US military position would be a better approach. Frustrating Chinese air and naval power projection without infringing on China’s nuclear retaliatory forces would allow the United States to carry out conventional deterrence in a way that has a lower likelihood of causing inadvertent nuclear escalation.
AVOIDING THREAT INFLATION
The Biden administration’s top priority as it responds to the news of China’s expanding nuclear arsenal is to avoid panic-driven threat inflation. Washington should be wary of Chinese nuclear activities, but US advantages remain intact and the most likely pathways to nuclear confrontation with China have more to do with the details of conventional military strategy than the number of Chinese silos. A calm, measured response that prioritizes arms control and new ways of thinking about conventional deterrence would be the best way forward.
Eric Gomez is the director for defense policy studies at the Cato Institute. His research focuses on arms control and nuclear stability issues in East Asia.