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China-US relations

As the US takes the leash off nuclear weapons, how will China react?

Zhou Bo says the Trump administration’s nuclear posture review demonstrates that nuclear weapons still matter in our post-cold-war environment, but this is unlikely to change China’s defence-oriented nuclear policy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 6:23pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 8:09pm

The Trump administration’s recently released nuclear posture review raised eyebrows. The review includes developing low-yield warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles and, in the longer term, new submarine-launched nuclear cruise missiles, along with the potential launching of nuclear strikes in response to a non-nuclear attack on the United States or its allies.

The development of a low-yield warhead is primarily because of Russia. The administration’s concern is that, in a conflict in Eastern Europe, Russia might use tactical nuclear weapons first because of its relative weakness in conventional arms. The Russians could therefore force the US into a “suicide or surrender” dilemma, eventually leading Washington to back down. Therefore, the Pentagon needs to develop low-yield warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles that could penetrate Russian defences to deter Moscow from its “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear strategy.

The problem is that an adversary couldn’t necessarily tell whether an incoming submarine-launched missile was carrying a single low-yield warhead or up to eight thermonuclear warheads. Therefore, the adversary could only choose a massive nuclear response.

The Bush and Obama administrations reduced the role of nuclear weapons considerably. Championing a nuclear-free world, Barack Obama renounced development of new nuclear weapons. It is a sea change that Trump could opt for a nuclear response against a non-nuclear attack. According to senior administration officials, the situation includes an enemy attack on civilian populations, critical infrastructure or nuclear command and control sites. But as revealed by The New York Times, it would most probably come in response to a cyberattack.

This is also problematic. How can one be sure where the cyberattack came from? What if the perpetrators instigate such an attack from a third country?

Nuclear weapons far from laughing matter

Even to laymen, a nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack appears morally wrong. But this policy demonstrates the bigger role of nuclear weapons in the post-cold-war world. It is telling that, to North Korea, it is worthwhile to “eat grass” to develop nuclear weapons. In his end-of-the-year address, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said global anxieties over nuclear weapons are at their highest since the cold war ended.

Since Donald Trump took office, he has displayed a penchant for military build-up. Under the slogan of “peace through strength”, he has allowed more than US$700 billion for 2018 in defence spending. For many in the US, such a sharp rise in defence spending is robbing Peter to pay Paul at the cost of, say, diplomacy and foreign aid. According to the New START Treaty, the US and Russia have to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 by 2021. What is the use of adding a few small nukes?

Putin may boast, but his new nuclear arsenal is unlikely to change the balance of power

Russia’s response is not surprising. In a state-of-the-nation speech, President Vladimir Putin said Russia would develop a nuclear-powered cruise missile, a nuclear-powered underwater drone and a new hypersonic missile with no equivalent anywhere in the world.

How might China respond? In the 2018 US National Defence Strategy, China was described, for the first time, as the top strategic competitor ahead of Russia, “using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarising features in the South China Sea”.

Of all China’s defence policies, those on nuclear weapons have proved to be the most consistent. Since the dawn of the 21st century, China has broken quite a few “taboos” in defence policies, such as not joining military exercises with foreign countries or stationing troops on foreign soil. These changes reflect China’s efforts to adapt to the changing world, but its nuclear policy – prominently featuring a “no-first-use” approach – hasn’t changed since the first Chinese nuclear test in 1964.

Where China’s top leaders will hide to survive nuclear fallout

And this is for good reason. China’s time-honoured “no-first-use” policy is rooted in its belief that nuclear weapons’ only use is for deterrence purposes. Today, China has grown into the world’s second-largest economy and its self-confidence is at an all-time high. This confidence is reflected in the Chinese military’s objective to become fully modernised by 2035 and to become first-class by the middle of the century.

In the nuclear arena, Beijing is still confident that a small but effective nuclear arsenal, with an assured second-strike capability, is sufficient. The new American nuclear posture is a straw in the wind that won’t shake China’s nuclear policies for the foreseeable future.

Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science