The China and Nuclear Reunion Is Only a Motive Away


Feb 24, 2001

This commentary originally 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" by 2015.

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 motivated.

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 motivated China.

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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