By – Kian Donovan;
For most of its history, China neglected to engage in the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, opting instead for what it called a “lean and efficient” nuclear arsenal that contained a minimum number of warheads. Chinese press releases and public statements maintain this notion, with the whitepaper titled “China’s National Defense in the New Era” stating that “China advocates the ultimate complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons” and that “China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security.” Their actions, however, speak to the contrary. New satellite imagery shows that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is currently building over 250 new nuclear silos, with US Pentagon estimates predicting that China’s stockpile will grow to 1,000 by 2027—even faster than previously anticipated. These developments show China’s nascent interest in large-scale vertical nuclear proliferation: the phenomenon in which a state that already has nuclear strike capability expands or enhances its arsenal. For a rapidly militarizing state like China, such investment in nuclear potential seems like a predictable and sensible security decision, and it has been justified by Chinese officials as a “vital deterrent” against the United States. There is, however, one problem with this practice: it has almost no security benefit.
Nuclear Benefits—and Lack Thereof
The disastrous consequences that come with nuclear war mean that the most prominent security gain from nuclear weapons is Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which deters potentially hostile nations from attack. This mainly applies to nuclear strikes, but states can also be deterred from conventional attacks for fear of conflict escalation towards nuclear exchange. However, as soon as a state becomes nuclear enabled, it adopts essentially all the benefits of MAD, and the gain of additional nuclear weapons contributes increasingly little to that state’s deterrent potential. When considering the thought process of a potentially hostile state, the difference between being attacked with 10 and 100 nuclear missiles—the destruction of a few cities as opposed to all—is irrelevant, since both situations would be unacceptable to any rational leader. One state having more nukes than another is inconsequential, since, as Kenneth Waltz puts it, “So long as two or more countries have second-strike forces, to compare them is pointless.”
The most plausible security reason to invest in nuclear weapons is to enhance rather than expand strike capacity, which can take a variety of forms, such as improving nuclear-strike aircraft and missile systems—both of which the People’s Liberation Army has done. The security utility of this is countering a state’s defense against nuclear weapons. If two states have nuclear weapons but one can successfully defend its territory against nuclear attack, MAD ceases to exist. By outmaneuvering such defense systems—such as the US Ballistic Missile Defense System—a state like China can reestablish the MAD that guarantees its security by ensuring its second-strike capacity.
This, however, only rationalizes China’s enhancement of its nuclear arsenal, not its expansion. China’s nuclear stockpiling can instead be explained by its stated goal of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” in which the PRC aims to match or surpass US power and revise the international system towards its interests by 2049. Nuclear stockpiling aids this goal in two ways: international prestige and foreign intimidation.
Prestige and Status of Nuclear Weapons
For almost as long as they have existed, nuclear weapons have been a source of prestige for states. Their difficulty in creation and destructive power in use make them potent symbols of status on the international stage, and thus a crucial motivation for many nuclear development programs. Britain and France, for example, both invested in nuclear weapons to keep up with rising nuclear superpowers and maintain their status in the global order. When captured and interrogated by the US, Saddam Hussein readily admitted that his desire to develop nuclear weapons was in large part motivated by their benefit of prestige among the Arab states. In 1994, a CIA analysis found that Kim Il-Sung maintained his hardline anti-disarmament stance in order to gain a “symbolic victory” over the DPRK’s enemies by ascending to nuclear status. While these examples apply for Horizontal Proliferation—where a state adopts nuclear weapons for the first time—the concept of prestige as a motive is also salient in the history of Vertical Proliferation. Since nuclear security stops being a rational concern, the acquisition of additional nuclear weapons becomes more about distinguishing a state from its peers than about protection from them. In the Cold War, Soviet officials saw their nuclear systems as a defining symbol of their superpower status and a way to force respect from the United States. Even China itself developed the Hydrogen Bomb to improve its nuclear capacity largely for the sake of international status. Building off this idea, national identity and a state’s conception of its own status are also key factors. If a state’s national identity is that of superiority to its neighbors, the goal of prestigious status of having more nuclear weapons than foreigners becomes justifiable as an endeavor to put the nation where it belongs in the international order. The aforementioned example of the United Kingdom and France, two former colonial superpowers whose international statuses were rapidly eroding in the early years of the nuclear age, can be explained especially well by this concept.
Thus, in its goal of matching and surpassing the superpower status enjoyed by the US, vertical proliferation is a very worthwhile endeavor, and Chinese officials have even made remarks justified it as such. Xi Jinping, for example, sees the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force—which controls China’s nuclear weapons—as a “strategic pillar of China’s great power status.” On a larger scale, Chinese national strategy has recently developed into using the PLA to create a more conducive international environment for the PRC’s rise to global dominance, implying a new utility of status that could serve as motivation for their recent militarization—including nuclear armament. In terms of national identity, recent decades have seen the return of a politically salient social attitude of Chinese ethnic superiority and a view of China’s rise to global dominance as a renewal of national identity, for which an expansion of nuclear capacity seems deserved—if not inevitable.
Intimidation and Power Politics
Another related motive for China’s buildup is the intimidation of the United States. Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the Chinese state-controlled media outlet “Global Times” put it best when he said, “the number of China’s nuclear warheads must reach the quantity that makes US elites shiver.” In his report to China’s 2022 National Congress, Xi Jinping described Western influence as “external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China”. Under the belief that the West will not tolerate China’s rise to power, CCP leadership has resolved to consolidate enough power to force the West to acknowledge the inevitability of Chinese dominance. China believes that nuclear buildup is an important part of this intimidation strategy—and, based on the American response, they seem to be right. In 2021, US Admiral Charles Richard, Head of Pentagon Strategic Command, apocalyptically described the Chinese nuclear threat as “a very near-term problem” for the United States. That same year, US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns stated, “We should all be concerned by the nuclear buildup in China, and that has to be a concern for allied nations as well as the United States.” As a result of this development, he is encouraging closer communication between the US and China officials to avoid a conflict, possibly implying an American willingness to concede to China in negotiations. Whether this fear will lead to tangible American concessions remains to be seen, but if China’s goal is to intimidate the US in the hopes that they will back down in China’s desired sphere of influence, then they seem to be succeeding.
Although nations around the world justify their nuclear weapons on the basis of security, such an argument often has little backing in reality. Even the smallest attacks in a nuclear war can create losses that any rational leader would never find acceptable, making the development of a large strike capacity all but useless in terms of strategic deterrence. Thus, instead of using its armament for genuine security, China is playing off the world’s perceptions of what these weapons mean in order to advance their larger goal of the rejuvenation of China by securing its superpower status and intimidating foreign entities out of its sphere of influence.
Kian Donovan is an American Undergraduate Student at King’s College London. He is currently in the War Studies BA Program while studying Mandarin Chinese. His research focuses on East Asian international politics and security.