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China’s Emergence as a Second Nuclear Peer

May 12, 2023
Brad Roberts and Lindsay Morgan

Talking Policy Podcast
Brad Roberts.

For the first time in its nuclear history, the United States faces two major power adversaries armed with nuclear weapons. China is rapidly expanding its nuclear forces, and in Russia, Putin announced in February that the country would be suspending its participation in New START, the last remaining U.S.-Russia arms control pact. In the latest on Talking Policy, host Lindsay Morgan talks with Brad Roberts, director of the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and former Obama administration deputy assistant secretary of defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, about what this means for the U.S. and the world. This interview was conducted on May 5, 2023. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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There are many things looming over the fraught relationship between the US and China—the potential for China to invade Taiwan, economic competition, and Chinese surveillance balloons floating above sensitive U.S. military sites. Another of those things is China’s ambition to become a nuclear peer with the U.S. and Russia, something it is thought to be on track to do. Where is China today, and where is it going?

When I started working on China nuclear topics back in 1996, it was generally understood that China had approximately 20 missiles equipped with nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States. Today, they are completing three fields of missile silos that will expand the number of missiles to approximately 360 nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the United States from Chinese territory. And then in addition, of course, they’ve been building their nuclear-armed submarines that give them the additional means to attack us or our allies from the sea. There’s some doubt about when they will reach that number of 360, whether that’s a year or two or three away. And there’s some doubt about where they’re headed afterward. They’re investing to have the infrastructure to build many additional warheads; whether and how they would be deployed are open questions.

But let’s assume that the New START Treaty actually expires in 2026. And [that] by 2026, China will have the same number of delivery systems, or nearly so, as Russia and the United States. It won’t have as many nuclear weapons, but it will have a good number deployed. You used the word that is in common usage here. We have been talking as an expert community in the United States for 20 years, about a possible Chinese sprint to nuclear “parity.” Now that they appear to be sprinting, we assume it’s to parity—qualitative and quantitative equivalency with the forces of the United States and Russia. [But] they don’t talk about it that way. I participated in backchannel dialogues with the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] experts on this topic for 20 years. And I’m fairly certain I never once heard them use the word parity. That may be exactly where they’re headed. My point is: we don’t know.

And we have a counter data point from President Xi Jinping. A decade ago, he was the first Chinese president to say that China’s nuclear weapons underwrite China’s great power status. And he has publicly stated that he’s pursuing a significant increase in China’s strategic potential in a manner consistent with his expectation that China will be at the center of the world stage—in the dominant position by 2035. That doesn’t sound like parity to me. I’m not predicting build-up, I’m just saying that there is uncertainty about where China’s headed.

The new CGSR report summarizes the last five decades of U.S. policy, saying that the United States has worked towards a strategy of risk reduction and relationship building, and tried to improve security by moving towards disarmament and minimizing the importance of nuclear weapons in its relationships with both Russia and China. But the report also says that the U.S. “has little to show for this effort.” Many of our listeners, most of our listeners are not close followers of the nuclear security field. Can you give us a nutshell version of what U.S. policy has been? In what ways has that policy failed, and in what ways has it succeeded?

When the Cold War ended, we were eager to seize every opportunity to move away from Cold War nuclear confrontation. There were many unilateral actions taken to reduce and redeploy nuclear weapons. We had many thousands of nuclear weapons deployed overseas—those all came home in the early 1990s and were destroyed. And from a nuclear deterrence perspective, the focus shifted onto the then immediately new problem: rogue states with weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles. There was Saddam Hussein, the epitome of a new problem. We didn’t want to focus on the use of nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear arming of Iraq. We wanted to rely on missile defense and conventional weapons, because these seem more effective and credible.

In our relationships with Russia, we said we no longer have a deterrence relationship with Russia. We don’t need to deter Russia. The George W. Bush administration said, we need a new strategic framework that’s about rogue states. In the U.S.-Russia relationship and with China, the U.S. pushed nuclear weapons into the background and out of the foreground. Well, Russia and China were uncomfortable with America’s pursuit of the kind of strategic posture it said it needed for rogue states. They saw missile defenses and non-nuclear strike capabilities as threatening to them and dangerous. And they perceive the United States to be willing to use its power to their disadvantage. I was a part of the Obama administration; while we were hitting the reset button [trying to improve relations with Russia], President Putin, we now know, was violating the INF Treaty. He made the decision in 2008 to interfere in our domestic politics, was killing his opponents abroad, and was getting ready for what he subsequently announced as the campaign under the banner of new rules or no rules.

President Putin and President Xi perceive the rules of the world order that we’ve tried to create as being damaging to their interests. So the U.S. effort to conciliate with Russia and China and to move nuclear weapons out of the foreground of these political relationships and push them into the background just didn’t work. Russia and China’s leaders were not prepared to accept whatever risks they saw by going in that direction and made the opposite decision to build up, diversify, and improve their nuclear arsenals. And that wouldn’t be terribly troubling to us if they were status quo powers. But clearly, President Putin is a revisionist leader who wants to destroy the existing European security architecture. And Xi Jinping has very much the same goal in Asia. We’ve been very reluctant to move into a more competitive relationship with them. But the gist of the report is that we need to make some shift to account for this new reality. If we don’t, we’re going to be much worse off in a decade.

You mentioned deterrence, a central pillar of U.S. nuclear security strategy, which has a lot to do with signaling and reading the signs of your adversaries. There’s a certain amount of psychology in how states and how leaders act. It requires having to make important strategic decisions with limited information or without knowing if the information you have is trustworthy. It’s easy to imagine states misinterpreting each other’s actions, which could then lead to escalation and mistakes. What evidence do we have that the United States understands China’s thinking in this space?

While the report is about China’s emergence as a second nuclear peer, it’s principally about the problem of having two nuclear peers as opposed to one. We were after the question of: does the emergence of a second peer, whoever it might be, impact our nuclear deterrence strategy and posture in some meaningful way? And we found some ways that it does and some ways in which it doesn’t. So we’ve called this the one plus one equals three problem. We’re looking at the three in that equation.

People tend to think of Russia as a familiar problem. Something we understand. That’s not the tone of the report. The tone of the report is: we’ve discovered that President Putin is a man who can badly miscalculate, who is willing to run very high nuclear risks, and this is a different problem from the one that Russia presented to us two years ago.

But to your question, any student of international relations knows that miscommunication, misperception, and hidden agendas are a part of every strategic relationship. President Xi has gone out of his way to explain his worldview. He’s gone out of his way to convey his confidence in China’s power, nuclear and otherwise. They have explained their approach to conflict with us in great detail, because it’s in their interest that we understand so that we are deterred. That’s what they’re after. Both Russia and China a dozen years ago issued major reports on their military doctrine and strategy, in English, for the purpose of our understanding of how much progress they’ve made. How would they act in crisis? Would they actually cross a line that might call into question our nuclear deployment? Well, that may be a secret. But it’s probably a mystery even to them. They don’t know exactly what they would do in crisis and war. We don’t know exactly what we would do. And we can be confident that signals we send will be misread. I can give you one example from the Obama administration. We conducted a review of both nuclear policy and missile defense policy. We issued a report that said, among other things, that the United States did not seek a missile defense posture for the protection of the homeland that would be credible against the large-scale strikes of which Russia and China are capable. To deter those attacks, we would rely on nuclear deterrence, which would be credible against large-scale strikes. It was intended to be a message of strategic restraint. The message received in Beijing was: Aha! They’re appeasing us, we can push some more. So, in subsequent strategic documents, we couldn’t repeat the language we had put in the Missile Defense Review, because the Chinese had received a message that we hadn’t sent. And this happens all the time.

The United States has had significant nuclear weapons superiority in terms of China. Why is China choosing to compete in a space where we have such superiority, instead of competing in a different field, where they could more easily outperform us? What does this say about China’s intentions?

Well, first of all, they are competing in those other areas. They have built a very impressive navy. They’re building a very impressive air force. They have the world’s premier space program, except for its human component. But their ability to wage war in space is exceptional. Their cyber program is world-class. They have put in place all of the ingredients of a military solution to the problems they face in the security environment. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to go execute those military solutions. But they’ve created for themselves a comprehensive approach to their problems of deterrence and defense. We’re focused on the nuclear piece because that gets Americans’ attention. The space piece didn’t capture anyone’s attention. The other pieces don’t as much either.

China would disagree with something you said right up front, which is that the U.S. has always been in a position of superiority. Of course, that’s true numerically. But in terms of strategic balance of power, their military dictionary defines parity as a condition in which there is a rough equivalency of strategic potential. And from their perspective, historically, there was equivalent credibility to their deterrence strategy and ours. Their nuclear strategy was very simple. If America struck at those 20 nuclear-tipped ICBMs [inter-continentual ballistic missiles] with nuclear weapons, we Americans would kill a lot of Chinese along the way. And they could threaten to smuggle a nuclear weapon into Los Angeles harbor or somewhere else weeks or months or years later and kill a lot of people in exchange. That would look credible to us. We were deterred by the threat of one weapon getting through sooner or later. Whereas we were deterring them in a manner they considered foolishly excessive. So, they didn’t perceive a position of nuclear inferiority. That’s part of what perplexes me about their buildup.

You mentioned that you participated for four decades in track 2 or track 1.5 dialogues with the Chinese. In your last interview with Talking Policy, you said that the overall impact of those dialogues at the official level was negligible. There was a lot of rich dialogue, but it didn’t seem to influence official outcomes. Do those dialogues still exist? Do they help correct some of this potential for misperception?

There’s still a little bit of track 2 activity, but track 1.5 dialogues were all killed in 2019 by mutual consent, that both Beijing and Washington. The United States’ concern for 20 years was to lay the groundwork to move the dialogue to track one. That was the U.S. ambition and the Chinese simply rejected any move to track one, despite on a couple of occasions, presidential commitments to do so. And, then began to lower the participation. We began to lose the generals, and then it was colonels, and then there were no PLA, and then it wasn’t really a track 1.5 discussion, it was a discussion among the expert communities. That’s useful and interesting, but the experts appear to have very little traction in China. The discussion in Beijing has become very closed. The expert community has not seemed to be a trusted agent. So the ability through interactions with colleagues and in the Chinese expert community to influence the way Chinese officials understand American thinking has all just broken down. There have been U.S. efforts to reinvigorate the dialogue. But so far, we don’t have a Chinese counterpart that is willing to do that.

For years, China has had a small number of nuclear weapons. But in the last few years, China has suddenly acted as if its nuclear arsenal is not sufficient. And it’s not totally clear why. I read a piece in Foreign Policy magazine speculating that maybe this is just part of a long-term strategy that is now reaching its next step. Or maybe it’s simply that as China has become stronger, it’s become bolder. Or maybe it’s because the domestic power structure has changed, and Jinping can do whatever he wants. What do you think?

I think we don’t know the answers to those questions. And that’s the world we live in. There are very few things in public policy that have a single explanation. When governments act, it’s usually as a result of a coalescence of various interests and imperatives. They’ve gone from 20 to 360 while our missile defense posture has gone from zero to 44. And while we’ve been talking about Conventional Prompt Global Strike since 1988, we still don’t have any. So, for me, it’s hard to find the logic of these changes being driven by changes in the U.S. posture. I think there’s a stronger political argument, when Xi Jinping says, hey, I want to be at the center of the world stage, design me a nuclear posture for that. I think we’re seeing the emergence of a more confident China. Certainly, a more powerful China. Whether in a future world China will feel more comfortable and at ease and will be a more cooperative partner is unclear. I hope so but the behavior we’re so far seeing is not cooperative, its confrontational. And while we want to encourage developments that improve our prospects for cooperation we also need to be wary of the possibility that what’s coming is a much more of a sort of belligerent and dangerous China that seeks to remake the world in its image, which is an image that’s directly contrary to our values and the values of our allies.

The report concludes that the existing U.S. nuclear forces are not sufficient to meet today’s challenges, and certainly not sufficient to meet the challenges of tomorrow. It recommends that the United States plan and prepare to deploy additional warheads and bombs from the reserve and upload weapons once it’s no longer bound by the constraints of New START, which is 2026. Is there a risk that this approach would just drive an arms race or accelerate what is already happening?

Of course there’s that risk. Public policy is often a choice between the least bad options. There are risks in anything the United States might choose to do. There are risks in doing nothing. People listen to our recommendations and think, “My god, this is crazy and it’s going to make the problem worse. Let’s just wait and see.” Well, our group doesn’t like the wait-and-see strategy, because we can already see significant emerging threats and an erosion of strategic stability and new difficulties for our allies, and hundreds of new weapons pointed at America.

I want to be clear about what we’re recommending. Some people say, look, China is going to have thousands of nuclear weapons in the middle of the 2030s [so] we should build up thousands of new nuclear weapons too in anticipation of their rise. We’re not recommending that. That would generate an arms race that would not contribute to the security of the United States or its allies. On the other extreme, people are saying, we already have too many nuclear weapons, let’s just accept more risk in our deterrence strategy. Well, we’ve accepted a lot of risk [already]. Some of that is evident in President Putin’s boastfulness with nuclear weapons in Ukraine. While President Putin has “built a nuclear scalpel for every military problem in Europe,” we have not built a new nuclear weapon since 1990. We have allowed our nuclear systems to age dramatically to the point where we’re probably going to lose capability before they’re replaced by modern systems. That doesn’t send a message of political resolve to presidents Putin and Xi. And it certainly leaves our allies very anxious.

The problem we’re most worried about is the risk that we’ve accepted in our extended nuclear deterrent. When the Cold War ended, we brought all our weapons home except for a few bombs in Europe. And we bet on our strategic systems as tools of extended deterrence. You see this [concern] in the debate in South Korea today, and arising discussion in Japan about the possible future redeployment of nuclear weapons into Asia by the United States. There’s a discussion among allies in Europe about whether NATO’s posture, designed in 1991, is fit for purpose in today’s world. We’re trying to recommend a middle path that says yes, you don’t need the big arms race solution. But you can’t just stand by and do nothing. That will erode the security environment further. There’s a middle course that involves some response with increases to the force in combination with an arms control proposal to Russia and China that would be fair to all three and allow us to avoid an arms race.

The report overall recommends a controversial agenda that responds to a perilous international order. Do you think that domestic politics in the United States will support this agenda? There are a number of things in the report that you say Congress needs to approve—how realistic is that given the political climate in the United States?

We’re all inclined to wring our hands about the political climate in the country. Overall, I’m discouraged. I find one note of encouragement, which is that for the last 12 years, the nuclear policy of three very different administrations has been almost identical. And Congress has supported, on a bipartisan basis, the main elements of the policies adopted by these administrations. We, in fact, have a good deal of bipartisanship in this area.

For the last decade, we’ve done a very good job of ignoring the changes in the security environment. When the Cold War ended, there were many changes that were positive. And from a nuclear perspective, those changes enabled a great many changes to our policy and our posture, changes that everyone was pleased to make. Today’s security environment has changes that are as far-reaching as the changes at the end of the Cold War. And the implications for our nuclear policy and posture are likely to be equally wide-ranging. But unfortunately, these are changes we don’t want to make. And for Presidents Putin and Xi, this will be a test of their assessment that we are a country in decline and retreat. If we fail to respond to the challenge they’ve created in the nuclear domain, whatever we do subsequently will be from a position where we are seen to be not credible. The relationships with Russia and China and North Korea have all deteriorated significantly, and they’ve put nuclear weapons at the center of their strategies. That means that any conflict with them is going to have a nuclear dimension. That doesn’t mean nuclear weapons will be employed. But there will be a lot of nuclear threats, and a lot of nuclear threats to our allies and possibly limited strikes in the regions. These are unpleasant realities that we ignore at our peril.

You wrote a book in 2015, called The Case for Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century. That was not too long after Obama’s famous Prague speech in which he envisioned a world free of nuclear weapons, and only a few years after the New START Treaty went into force, which committed the United States and Russia to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. You were making a contrarian argument about the utility of nuclear weapons that wasn’t necessarily popular at the time. The world has changed a lot since then. Do you feel somewhat vindicated?

Oh, no, I don’t think of it that way. I wish I’d been proven wrong. But sales [of the book] continue to bump up each year a little bit because it’s assigned in more and more classrooms, and it was recently translated into Japanese, which is an interesting sign of how much the times are changing. I’m just back from a trip to Hiroshima where I participated as the keynote speaker in what was allegedly the first conference on nuclear deterrence in Hiroshima.

And you were recently awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, an honor bestowed by the prime minister of Japan and rarely given to citizens of other countries.

Thank you for mentioning that. What made the workshop in Hiroshima interesting were the questions that came from the floor. It was a very well-attended event, lots of students were present. Obviously, there was a very strong pro-disarmament worldview. But the questions were all about: how do I square that worldview with the reality we now see around us: nuclear weapons right across the street in North Korea, missiles going over Japan fired from North Korea, China, Russia. They were struggling with how to put these two things together. And I’ve encountered that repeatedly in Japan—there is a sea change in response to the new nuclear threats created by Russia, China, and North Korea.

President Obama’s speech is sort of like a Rorschach test. Remember, there were two halves to it. People remember one half or the other half. It was both a commitment to take practical steps towards the long-term goal of disarmament and a commitment to ensure that so long as nuclear weapons remain, the United States would maintain a deterrent that was safe, secure, and effective, and provide that protection to our allies. We were asked as an administration to do both of those things. And we did both, much to the dissatisfaction of both sides of the political spectrum that didn’t like what was being done for the other. The fact that it took so long to negotiate New START, when all we were doing was taking a little teeny tiny step, the Obama administration was prepared to go further. The Russians weren’t. But it was still over a year of grudging negotiation. And they had so many grievances about so many things. And similarly, you may recall, in President Obama’s inaugural speeches, he offered an open hand to North Korea. Had nothing to show for it. And a similar open hand to China, but no dialogue. The warning signs were already there.

In an ideal world, a career trajectory would go on a linear path, up, up, and up, in terms of supporting whatever global problem or whatever societal problem a person has chosen to tackle through their professional life. The ideal would be that that problem is addressed more and more and things get better and better over the course of a career. Your career in nuclear weapons security has seen highs and lows. Right now, things are at a low. When you’ve devoted your life to something—to making the world better than it is—how do you grapple with where things are today?

First of all, by not dwelling on it. But this has become a very common topic, especially in more private exchanges with people. It was a topic of much discussion in the Hiroshima gathering. But being focused on the question of how to find hope in dark times helps you to do so.

I came out of a master’s program from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1981, at the height of the NATO Euro Missile Crisis, I watched all of my classmates rush to the nuclear subject and I ran screaming in the opposite direction. I had the impression that in the nuclear business, most people had made up their minds. There was a lot of shouting, they didn’t like each other, there were sharp opinions. I couldn’t imagine how, as a young person, I could make any impact in a crowded field. It was really only 15 years into my career, after I had concluded a Ph.D., that I began work in this area, somewhat reluctantly. And it was really only a decade later that I finally had to accept that the nuclear thing had trapped me. That moment of acceptance came with turning and looking behind me and wondering, who was in the queue? Nobody. When I was 40, nobody coming out of graduate school was interested in nuclear things. There were no positions to go to work in. Slowly, the real world has brought this problem back to people, and now there’s a whole generation of very capable young people, ready to go. And I take my hope from my engagements with them.

These are hard problems. They’re not insoluble problems. They require curious minds, disciplined minds, creative people. And those people exist in abundance in America and elsewhere. So ultimately, I believe in our capacity as individuals, and I believe in the capacity of our institutions to meet these challenges.

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