Perceptions and realities: dealing with difference
In its most recent virtual seminar, The Democracy Forum shone a spotlight on the build-up of China’s nuclear arsenal
A quest for status and the desire to get back Taiwan are among the drivers of China’s current nuclear expansion, according to experts at The Democracy Forum’s recent panel discussion, which focused on what has led to this momentous build-up, as well as aiming to uncover its extent and strategic imperatives.
Recalling the Pentagon’s admission, in 2021, that the PLA was on track to quadruple its stock of nuclear warheads to 1,000 by 2030, TDF President Lord Bruce noted that China’s nuclear expansion appears to be shifting towards a much less restrained and more offensive posture, leading US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to claim that ‘Beijing has sharply deviated from its decades-old nuclear strategy based on minimum deterrence’. Likewise, analysts such as Austin Long suggest that, by 2030, China’s ‘force structure and posture will be similar to America’s and Russia’s in many ways, while, in light of the Pentagon’s reassessment of Chinese nuclear capability to 1500 warheads by 2035, he cited a recent warning by General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs, that we are ‘witnessing one of the largest shifts in geostrategic power that the world has ever experienced’.
Lord Bruce also highlighted a warning by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (who recently visited China) that humanity’s future is endangered by a fundamental lack of trust between China and the US, leaving us ‘on the path to great power confrontation’, with both sides having ‘convinced themselves that the other represents a strategic danger… in a world in which the decisions of each can determine the likelihood of conflict’. Within a week of Kissinger’s visit, the Chinese government published a revised Foreign Relations Law. Article 33 states that China has the ‘right’ to carry out ‘countermeasures’ against actions that ‘violate international laws and fundamental norms of international relations’ or ‘undermine China’s sovereignty, security, or development interests’. Such actions could include semiconductor-related export restrictions imposed by the US, Japan and other counties.
Concluding his cautionary introduction, Lord Bruce underscored defence analyst Andrew Krepinivich’s warning that nuclear ‘parity… cannot be achieved in a tripolar system, because it is not possible for each member to match the combined arsenals of its two rivals. Any attempt to do so risks triggering an arms race with no possible end state, or winner’.
China’s nuclear expansion was set in the context of its wider geostrategic ambitions – as articulated in Xi Jinping’s stated goals and ideological motivation – by former British diplomat and Associate of the Council on Geostrategy, Matthew Henderson. He identified core issues raised by China’s nuclear buildup, which disrupts global security structures and poses the greatest threat to democracy, world peace and stability since the end of the Cold War. While the original objective of China’s nuclear weapon capability in the 1960s was to establish a minimum ‘no first use’ deterrent, for the past five years plans have been advancing to increase the number of nuclear warheads dramatically and update the means by which they can be delivered. This build-up is not happening in isolation, but is an integral part of the projection of Chinese state power worldwide, in the wake of its huge economic growth. This more aggressive approach has been spurred on by increased political, economic and technological tensions with the US and its partners, as China has long had ambitions to revise the current world order and replace America as the global superpower.
China is already actively engaged in fulfilling its ambitions to revise the current world order and enable China to replace America as the Supreme Global superpower, which takes the form of, for example, relentless cyber espionage, propaganda campaigns, theft of technologies and economic/political coercion. Vis-à-vis China’s efforts to resume its ownership of Taiwan, Henderson flagged up the intensifying question of how far defensive support for Taiwan from the US and others could or should go, as well as doubt over China’s supposed ‘no-first use’ policy, which is no longer sufficient for Xi Jinping’s vision. China’s alignment with the Russian regime over Ukraine creates a further nuclear challenge to the global security structure, while a second level of strategic nuclear disruption has, arguably, already been created by China’s involvement with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program – making a heavily dependent Chinese proxy hold India in a nuclear standoff – as well as that of North Korea.
For Henderson, though, the survival of free Taiwan is the paradigm at the heart of this complex crisis. At the core of China’s nuclear build-up, he concluded, lies a calculation that the US will eventually decide that China is too well-armed to risk a conflict with, and that, in the end, Taiwan will succumb to coercion without a shot being fired. Such an outcome would strike a lethal blow against democracies in the region and beyond.
Dr Tong Zhao, a Senior Fellow at the Nuclear Policy Program and China Center, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, saw the internal domestic drivers of China’s nuclear buildup as a key focus, including how Beijing’s perception of US-China competition and its internal centralisation of political power affect its thinking on nuclear issues. Many international experts focus on technical level drivers, argued Zhao, but these are no longer the main drivers. Today, China is driven by a deeper logic: the necessity to increase its security and safety, with an emphasis on the political value of nuclear weapons as an important source of its global status. Without them, China feels it will be treated unfairly within the international community; therefore, it needs to develop a nuclear arsenal commensurate with its global status. With China having narrowed the power gap between itself and the US, Zhao highlighted the Chinese leadership’s perception that the US is desperate to prevent or slow China’s further growth. If China can demonstrate a stronger nuclear capability, this would make Western powers think twice. So, China’s nuclear build-up is driven by both fear and ambition – two sides of the same coin – as China increasingly embraces an existential threat perception about Western intentions. The international community needs to understand both these aspects in order to better manage relations with China.
Part of this challenge, added Zhao, is the growing information and perception gap between the West and China, with China controlling information access and managing public opinion within the country. The number of well-informed people is very small, and everything is influenced by the unique information environment within China, which has led to a collectively developed perception about the China-US or China-West confrontation, and the need to use nuclear weapons. China’s own military and civilian experts are not even well informed about its nuclear program, and this lack of internal transparency is seriously undermining internal policy coherence. So, concluded Zhao. we are facing a much larger problem than just a nuclear arms race, as it is all driven by a growing information and perception gap at a societal level.
Addressing the notion of deterrence, especially changes and continuities in the Chinese perception of deterrence, Dr Amrita Jash, a professor at Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), discussed shifts in understanding in what constitutes credible minimum deterrence against other nuclear armed states in a changing security environment. She underscored China’s quest for status – as well as its involvement in flashpoints such as the Himalayan border with India and the South China Sea – and its view of nuclear deterrence as a visible symbol of its great power status, with China’s increasing nuclear stockpile showing that minimum deterrence is no longer sufficient to enhance this.
Jash viewed China’s current, continuing defensive position with caution, saying that, while the risk of a shift to limited deterrence is low in the immediate future, it cannot be ruled out in the long term, as China’s stockpile grows in number and sophistication. Even if China has ‘no first strike’ intentions at present, we cannot rule them out, she concluded, as its capabilities are shifting due to strength and status. The risk is real, and mounting.
We use the phrase ‘Great power competition’ about China and the West, said John Erath, Senior Policy Director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. This is descriptive but not definitional, as there is also great power cooperation in terms of trade, finance, business, etc. Too much emphasis on competition, therefore, does a disservice. With growth in the notion of ‘Great power competition’, there is a belief that security is waning, and nuclear danger is growing. What has brought this change? wondered Erath. He believed it was the perception of China’s Western Pacific neighbours, which want greater US presence in the region to counter China’s growing aggression and militarism.
When we consider nuclear weapons, we must consider them as components of a larger security situation, since no country ever builds a nuclear force without an important security reason to do so. Historically and traditionally, the drivers of China’s nuclear policy has rested on three key pillars: maintaining minimum deterrence; economic success, with China wishing to be seen more as an economic than a military power; and a ‘no first use’ policy. But these three pillars are all crumbling now, with China’s economy under stress, the minimum deterrence policy cast aside, and regional powers no longer believing in China’s NFU. In calculating what policy prescriptions Western countries powers should follow, we have to deal with the difference between perception and reality, said Erath, and understand that China is playing a different game. We must not reduce the ‘Great power competition’ to purely military terms, for an arms race is not in any nation’s interest, as each has other priorities. Erath argued that the more important level of the competition between China and the West is an intellectual one – a competition of ideas and visions of how the world should be ordered. This can be seen most clearly in the sphere of information, which is really where we should be competing, and where Western governments should be investing. This will create an opening where we can have arms control.
A final summing up by TDF Chair Barry Gardiner MP highlighted the importance of affording status to China, as well as of gaining a true sense of where China is coming from, in order to pierce the veil of appearance and get to the reality of the situation.
Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently, he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London