China flexes its nuclear muscle to burn its great credentials of power

Nuclear proliferation updates

One of Joe Biden’s most urgent missions to take office was to salvage control of nuclear weapons. Two weeks after its inauguration, the President of the United States extended the New Beginning Treaty with Russia, a cornerstone of arms control that a frustrated relationship had left at the risk of expiring.

But the Biden administration is now forced to face another nuclear challenge: China. Since June, experts have discovered more than 200 missile silos under construction in the remote western deserts of the country.

“For a very, very long time, we’ve been talking about China as a future problem. Now, China is clearly a nuclear issue,” said David Santoro, president of the Pacific forum of the think-tank Hawaii is co-organizer of the semi-official US-China nuclear dialogue for 15 years until 2019.

“We have known for a while that China is in a nuclear situation. What is happening now is faster growth.”

Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen, the nuclear weapons experts who last week unveiled an 800 km2 missile silo construction camp in Xinjiang, said it was “the most significant expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal ever.”

They believe China is building 10 times more silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles it has operated now. According to his calculations, the expansion exceeds the number of silo-based ICBMs in Russia and equals at least half of the total U.S. ICBM strength.

Since its first atomic test in 1964, China has adhered to a “minimum deterrent”. politics, promising to acquire no more nuclear capabilities than those required to retaliate against an attack and asserting that it would never use nuclear weapons before.

As a result, it is believed that China has about 350 nuclear warheads, according to a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a fraction of the 5,550 American newspapers.

Unlike the United States and Russia, Beijing has traditionally kept a large portion of its atomic weapons on low alert and has kept many items in central warehouses separate from its launchers. It is because of its policy of firing only after an enemy missile has hit Chinese territory.

But those cornerstones of Chinese nuclear doctrine are eroded.

Beijing sees Washington’s development of missile defense systems as a threat because it could render its minimum second-strike capability useless. China is also concerned about U.S. reconnaissance activities along its coast where it has strategic assets, as well as U.S. space military assets.

In semi-official bilateral meetings, Chinese participants made it clear that Beijing could counter these U.S. strengths by building a larger and more sophisticated nuclear force.

Satellite images of missile silos under construction in China
Experts have discovered more than 200 missile silos under construction in China’s remote deserts

Experts believe that Beijing is moving towards a “launch on warning” stance. Instead of preparing to absorb an opponent’s first nuclear blow before taking revenge, China would launch a counter-attack as soon as it realized that an attack against them was underway.

Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army has acquired more mobile ICBMs, making it more difficult for an opponent to detect nuclear weapons. They have mounted even more tests on submarines and ballistic missiles, suitable for conventional and nuclear ammunition, such as the DF-26, a missile that could hit Guam, the Pacific territory of the United States.

U.S. analysts warn that the changes are destabilizing. “They don’t have the command and control platforms to manage their maritime and air platforms,” Santoro of the Pacific Forum said.

“On the ground, you can hold separate launchers and launchers, but you can’t do that on a sub. What worries us is that we have commanders who could attack without a link with Beijing.”

Beijing, however, seems to be taking even bigger steps.

“High-level technical considerations have motivated the modernization of China’s nuclear forces in recent years, but this is greater,” said Zhao Tong, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. Beijing, on the missile silo program.

“The expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal is increasingly driven by a change in geopolitical perspective,” he said.

“There is a popular belief in Chinese politics that a larger nuclear arsenal could help China counter the perceived strategic hostility of the United States,” he added. “They argue that Russia has been very determined to improve its interests, and that Russia is respected. So they think a bigger Chinese arsenal would also make the West respect us.”

Such a thought is supported from the top. Shortly after Xi Jinping took over the leadership of the Communist Party, he described the missile forces of the PLA as “strategic support for the country’s status as a great power,” giving China’s nuclear weapons a high-profile geopolitical role that they had never played before.

In March, Xi ordered the army to “accelerate the creation of an advanced strategic deterrent and common war-fighting systems.” The observations have been interpreted by Chinese analysts as the most explicit signal of top-level support to intensify the development of the country’s nuclear forces.

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