China's Growing Missile Force
What It Means for the Strategic Balance in Asia
About This Event

According to the 2006 Department of Defense’s annual report on the military power of the People’s Republic of China, the country’s ballistic missile force is undergoing an expansion and upgrade. The report states that the People’s Liberation Army is fielding “mobile, more survivable missiles” such as the DF-31A, a road-mobile, Listen to Audio


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solid-propellant ICBM capable of striking the United States. Despite Beijing’s long-standing “no first use” policy regarding nuclear weapons, Chinese military officials, scholars, and journalists have publicly argued in the past year that China should use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional U.S. attack on Chinese territory.

What does China’s continued missile buildup mean for the strategic balance in Asia and international efforts to cap proliferation in the region? Is Chinese nuclear doctrine shifting away from a “no first use” policy? What can the United States do to hedge against possible Chinese efforts to use its growing missile force to determine Taiwan’s status on Beijing’s terms? On July 11, AEI will hold a panel discussion to address these and other questions related to China’s growing missile force.

Agenda
9:45 a.m.
Registration
10:00
Panelists:
Richard Fisher, International Assessment and Strategy Center
Daryl Kimball, Arms Control Association
Evan Medeiros, RAND Corporation
Henry Sokolski, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center
Moderator:
Dan Blumenthal, AEI
Noon
Adjournment
Event Summary

July 2006

China's Growing Missile Force: What It Means for the Strategic Balance in Asia

According to the Department of Defense’s 2006 annual report on the military power of the People’s Republic of China, that country’s ballistic missile force is undergoing an expansion and upgrade. The report states that the People's Liberation Army is fielding "mobile, more survivable missiles" such as the DF-31A, a road-mobile, solid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States. Despite Beijing’s longstanding “no first use” policy regarding nuclear weapons, Chinese military officials, scholars, and journalists have publicly argued in the past year that China should use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional U.S. attack on Chinese territory.

What does China's continued missile buildup mean for the strategic balance in Asia and international efforts to cap proliferation in the region? Is Chinese nuclear doctrine shifting away from a no first use policy? What can the United States do to hedge against possible Chinese efforts to use its growing missile force to determine Taiwan’s status on Beijing’s terms? On July 11, AEI held a panel discussion to address these and other questions related to China’s growing missile force.

Richard Fisher
International Assessment and Strategy Center


China has been making significant investments in its aerospace and missile defense sectors. The Chinese leadership has emphasized survivability, mobility, dispersion, and decoys. The PLA has also invested in airborne targeting and communications assets to give its missiles much greater accuracy. The most important current modernization effort is the DF-31A, an extended-range version of the DF-31, which could be deployed as early as 2007. One of the most important questions is whether the PLA will introduce multiple warheads in the future.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, the Chinese government vociferously protested American missile defense efforts, particularly efforts to engage Japan in cooperative missile defense programs. Today, however, China is beginning to develop its own missile defenses. China’s program began in the 1960s and 1970s as a parallel to the Americans’ first-generation Sprint antimissile system, but was discontinued during the Cultural Revolution. China is now producing a version of the Russian S-300, which has a low-level antimissile capability, and a new destroyer that is entering naval service as an advanced version of the S-300, with even better tactical antimissile capability.  Despite what China says about its opposition to missile defenses, it continues to invest in its own defense capability.

Evan Medeiros
RAND Corporation

There are three main questions with regard to Chinese nuclear missile capability and doctrinal changes: What kind of strategic nuclear forces does China have? How do they think about nuclear weapons? Where will they go in the future? China’s nuclear force modernization has been fairly deliberate and fairly limited. There is no evidence of a haphazard nuclear program. Essentially, China has focused on improving mobility, invulnerability, and penetrability.

Regarding Chinese doctrine, the PLA has been a late-bloomer to nuclear strategy research. The Chinese nuclear doctrine is comprised of a set of identifiable beliefs and concepts, but it does not add up to what the West would normally call “minimum deterrence.” While Chinese strategists focus their attention on U.S. nuclear policies, they still pay attention to the activities of India and Russia.

The four major indications of a Chinese nuclear strategy are its relative distribution of land-based versus sea-based nuclear forces, the training and exercises its Second Artillery nuclear forces undertake, the modernization of its nuclear early warning and command-and-control infrastructure, and whether it adopts a much more warlike orientation.

Daryl Kimball
Arms Control Association


The core question is whether the nuclear modernization program that China is pursuing is aimed at building a larger force with a strong offensive fighting capability. China could also continue to pursue the minimum force necessary to support its existing approach to nuclear weapons and deterrence, while maintaining a relatively small reactive nuclear force that is more survivable against a first strike, whether that attack be nuclear or conventional.

China’s neighbors have reason to be concerned about its missile program because China has not joined the United States, Britain, France, and Russia in publicly declaring a stop to fissile material production for weapons. Though China has signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and halted nuclear testing since 1996, it has not ratified the treaty.

In order to pacify its neighbors, China should publicly declare it has halted fissile material production for weapons purposes. China should stop waiting for the United States to ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. China also needs to reduce the cross-straits deployment of short-range ballistic missiles, which continues to expand at a rapid pace. To prevent China from pulling the trigger in a crisis, it is suggested that the United States itself consider a no first use policy, or a conditional no first use policy, under certain circumstances involving China.

Henry Sokolski
Nonproliferation Policy Education Center

It is unclear how many nuclear warheads China has. The idea of “Damocletian overhang” is a combination of uncertainty and breakout capacity and in many cases could cause disaster. The issues to watch in China and India are their ability to break out and their capacity to deliver warheads and stockpile fissile material. These capacities have been improving. China has between fifteen and twenty-five tons of highly enriched uranium and between 2.8 and 6.8 tons of plutonium that could be used to produce weapons. Assuming China make an advanced warhead, and not a crude weapon, that much uranium and plutonium would allow for between 1,500 and 2,600 advanced weapons.

The United States needs to be tougher about how it deals with China, India, and now Russia. The Damocletian overhang is getting much worse, and the complications are growing greater.

Another problem is that our efforts to create an artificial civil-military separation between types of space and nuclear activity, we have essentially increased the Damocletian overhang by creating greater uncertainty about the chances for nuclear breakout.

AEI intern Jess Nelson prepared this summary.

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