This commentary appeared in Los Angeles Times on February 24, 2001.
ARLINGTON, VA. -- Over the past 10 years, the debate on national missile defense
has concentrated mostly on emerging missile-armed states like North Korea and
Iran and how it would affect the strategic relationship between the United States
and Russia. But in terms of potential to respond, the country that has barely
been talked about is China.
We tend to overlook China because it has opted to keep an arsenal of only about
20 single-warhead missiles that can reach the United States and because it is
not a party to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But we ignore China at
our peril: It has the resources and the technical know-how to be a much larger
nuclear threat, perhaps deploying as many as 1,000 warheads on single- and multiple-warhead
missiles capable of reaching the United States. What China lacks today is the
strategic motivation for a large nuclear buildup. Whether its motivation will
change will depend on the nature of its strategic relationship with the United
States, which will be characterized by issues such as trade and Taiwan, not
just missile defense.
Some analysts argue that a large build-up of Chinese nuclear forces is likely
regardless of what the U.S. does. But a recent Pentagon report predicts that--absent
a U.S. national missile defense--China's force is likely to continue to grow
slowly, deploying only "tens of missiles capable of reaching the United States"
The report notes, however, that the pace of China's modernization maychange
"as its strategic requirements evolve--particularly if the United States deploys
NMD." Indeed, some intelligence reports estimate that the Chinese could increase
their nuclear force to as many as 200 warheads capable of reaching the United
States in response to the relatively limited defense proposed by the Clinton
administration. And China's response could be much more dramatic if it is sufficiently
To gauge China's potential over the next decade or two, it is interesting to
review what the Soviet Union was able to accomplish with its intercontinental
ballistic missile force between 1960 and 1980. Despite the widely publicized
missile gap that John F. Kennedy highlighted during the 1960 presidential campaign,
the Soviet Union had only four ICBMs in 1960, all with single warheads. After
being embarrassed in the Cuban missile crisis, Soviet leaders placed a heavy
emphasis on expanding their nuclear forces. By 1970, the force had expanded
to more than 1,200 missiles, and by 1980 its force had exploded to more than
5,000 warheads on some 1,100 missiles.
What does the Soviet experience say about China? If China chooses, could it
duplicate the Soviet buildup of the 1960s and 1970s? Two factors are essential
for building up a nuclear arsenal: the capacity to produce large numbers of
missiles and the materials to produce the nuclear warheads.
In 1997, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen reported to Congress that China
would have "the industrial capacity, though not necessarily the intent, to produce
a large number, as many as a thousand, new missiles within the next decade."
Most of those missiles are expected to be short- or medium-range, road-mobile,
solid-fueled and armed with conventional warheads. Indeed, the Pentagon estimates
China will have some 500 short-range M-11 missiles pointed at Taiwan by 2005.
If China's intent changes, however--perhaps spurred by the deployment of U.S.
national missile defense--it could refocus its resources on boosting production
of long-range missiles. China already has demonstrated that it can build large,
solid-fueled missiles and deploy more than one warhead on each missile. So producing
500 to 1,000 missiles over a decade or two is not out of the question for a
In addition to missiles, China will need highly enriched uranium and plutonium
to expand its arsenal. China reportedly stopped producing highly enriched uranium
in 1987 and plutonium in 1991, so it may have to rely on its existing stocks
for any warheads made over the next five to 10 years. Precise estimates of China's
inventories of weapons-usable materials are difficult to make, but according
to "Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996, World Inventories, Capabilities
and Policies," generally regarded as the most accurate public source on nuclear
material inventories, China has enough for 1,000 to 2,500 weapons. China already
has approximately 400 nuclear weapons, most of them on shorter-range platforms.
That still leaves enough material to make as many as 500 to 2,000 new weapons,
just from existing stocks. (This assumes that China has produced 15 to 25 metric
tons of highly enriched uranium and two to six tons of weapons-grade plutonium
and that it takes 20 to 30 kilograms of uranium or four kilograms of plutonium
to make a single weapon.)
Whether China would actually take such aggressive measures to expand its strategic
nuclear force is far from clear. It would be a sharp break from the recent past,
since military modernization has been the lowest priority of Deng Xiaoping's
list of Four Modernizations. Moreover, nuclear forces have long taken a back
seat to conventional forces in budget allocations, a fact that the Pentagon
proliferation report suggests is still true today. That pattern could continue
even in the face of a limited U.S. national missile defense system. Unlike the
Soviet Union with its centrally planned economy, China has strong elements of
a market economy. This may make it difficult for the Chinese government to extract
the necessary resources from the rest of the economy for a large defense buildup.
But a much larger strategic nuclear force cannot be ruled out if China came
to believe its national security or international prestige demanded it.
The only thing that stands between China and a large strategic nuclear arsenal
is motivation. And that could be deeply affected by the decisions that the United
States makes about national missile defense and perhaps even theater missile
defense in Asia.
Ultimately, the United States may decide that, on balance, its security would
be better off with a national missile defense, even if China expands its nuclear
forces significantly. But China's possible response and all of its implications
must become part of the debate.
David E. Mosher, who spent a decade at the Congressional Budget Office analyzing
nuclear and missile defense issues, is a nuclear policy analyst at RAND. Lowell
H. Schwartz is a research programmer at RAND.
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