‘Minimum deterrence’ unpersuasive as China builds up nuclear capabilities

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
The Chinese flag is seen in this illustration taken May 30, 2022.

Doesn’t this deviate from the conventional policy of having a minimum nuclear capability for self-defense? China must be aware that its rapid military buildup is escalating tensions in the international community and threatening stability.

China is building many silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at multiple sites in inland desert areas, an investigation by U.S. experts has revealed.

The number of these silos identified in satellite images is more than 200. The silos are believed to be for the Dongfeng-41, a new type of ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, and are equipped with launchers. The deployment of the missiles would pose a major threat to the United States.

According to a U.S. Defense Department report released last year, China has about 100 ICBMs. The silo construction is progressing at a pace that will double the current number of ICBMs that it has. Why is China building silos with such haste?

China has a no-first-use principle in which the country will not use nuclear weapons unless it encounters a nuclear attack from other countries. It has stressed its stance of positioning a “nuclear strategy of self-defense” and keeping its “nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required” as its pillars, and has also stated that it will not threaten to use nuclear weapons against other countries.

The revelation this time of the buildup of ICBM facilities raises strong suspicions about China’s claims. It is only natural that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his concern, accusing Beijing of “sharply deviating from its decades-old nuclear strategy based on minimum deterrence.”

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the United States and Russia is a framework for nuclear disarmament that limits the number of ICBMs and other long-range missiles and nuclear warheads. In January this year, the two countries agreed to extend the treaty for five years.

China does not participate in the treaty. It is in a position to strengthen its nuclear capabilities without any impediments. The United States intends to draw China into a new nuclear disarmament treaty. However, before that happens, China may be aiming to increase its amount of nuclear weapons and close the gap in military strength with the United States.

China is also in a hurry to increase its submarine-launched ballistic missiles and strategic bombers, which along with ICBMs form the three main pillars of nuclear capability.

The problem is that China has not disclosed the number of nuclear warheads and ICBMs, among other data, making the reality extremely unclear. If China emphasizes a minimum level of nuclear capabilities, it should release the actual numbers.

China’s military buildup could lead to a situation in which the United States and Russia question the effectiveness of the disarmament treaty and shift their stances to a nuclear arms race, and there are concerns that the significance of the treaty would be diminished.

Under such circumstances, it is unlikely that the international momentum for disarmament will improve. China must fulfill its heavy responsibility as a major military power.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 25, 2021.