Despite Regime's Claims, Chinese Nuclear Arsenal Should Concern the U.S. | Opinion

For the last two years, the United States has attempted to move past the outdated Cold War construct of bilateral arms control agreements that only apply to the United States and the Russian Federation. Our team, led by Special Presidential Envoy Marshall Billingslea, sought to bring the Chinese into discussions about nuclear arms and stability. Regrettably, the refrain from the Chinese was consistent. Fu Cong, the director general of China's Department of Arms Control, summed it up in an interview: "There are only two largest nuclear weapon states, there [is] no third largest nuclear weapon state.... It is more reasonable to put China in the same category as France and [the] U.K."

Admiral Charles Richard, the Commanding Officer for the U.S. Strategic Command, helpfully provided the counters to that comparison.

In a February 2021 essay published in Proceedings titled "Forging 21st-Century Strategic Deterrence," Admiral Richard laid out just how different the British and the French are from the People's Republic of China (PRC). Open-source estimates put the PRC's nuclear stockpile in the low 300s, with the French in the high 200s, and the British stockpile hovering just under 200. While these might seem comparable, the important point is not what the numbers currently are, but where they are headed.

"The People's Republic of China is...on a trajectory to be a strategic peer and should not be mistaken as a 'lesser included' case," Admiral Richard argues. Among other things, the U.S. STRATCOM commander points to the heavy PRC investments in a variety of nuclear delivery systems. He lays out the nuclear investments the Chinese are making on land, including both road-mobile and silo-based ICBMs. The PRC also has new submarine-launched missiles and a Jin-class ballistic missile submarine that will be able to deploy with 12 missiles on each. Even if these subs will not patrol much past the first island chain, they will be able to hold key U.S. forces at risk. Additionally, with the completion of a nuclear-capable long-range bomber the PRC will be fielding a so-called triad—the ability to deliver nuclear weapons by land, by submarines and by aircraft. Neither the British nor the French field a triad, nor are either making investments on items such as road-mobile ICBMs.

The most notable point that Admiral Richard makes, however, is the number of weapons the Chinese are striving to achieve: "China's nuclear weapons stockpile is expected to double (if not triple or quadruple) over the next decade." In 2019, the then-director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, General Robert Ashley, stated that "Over the next decade, China will likely at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in history." While the two statements are not inconsistent, Admiral Richard's goes further. A stockpile of 640 in ten years is different from 1280. How different?

China submarine
A Great Wall 236 submarine of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, billed by Chinese state media as a new type of conventional submarine, participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China's PLA Navy in the sea near Qingdao, in eastern China's Shandong province on April 23, 2019. China celebrated the 70th anniversary of its navy by showing off its growing fleet in a sea parade featuring a brand new guided-missile destroyer. Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP/Getty

Well, when the New START Treaty expires after the unconditional five-year extension just agreed to by Presidents Putin and Biden, the world could be staring down the barrel of a PRC that is a few short years away from reaching a degree of parity with the United States. This is certainly not where the British or the French will be.

There is another important way the British and the French differ from the PRC, and that goes to the duplicitous nature of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). When considering how to achieve or maintain security and stability between national powers, it is impossible to ignore the character of the regimes involved. A country's national agendas, military doctrines and cultures communicate to American defense planners the degree to which its weapons programs pose a threat to the United States and its vital interests. To imply an equivalence between the CCP and the French and British in this respect is farcical. France and Britain, respectively our nation's oldest and closest allies, share our precepts regarding the inherent dignity of the human person, the inviolability of national sovereignty and the superiority of democratic republicanism as the system most conducive to just governance and human flourishing. Despite our many differences on various policies, they are allies in the free world.

The CCP, on the other hand, seeks to replace the current world order with one under its leadership and sharing its Marxist-Leninist characteristics. It is a direct threat to America's allies in the Western Pacific and to America's ability to make good on its security commitments in the region. It rejects precepts the United States upholds, like the freedom of the seas and the right of nations to live at peace regardless of their military capabilities. Furthermore, the CCP is looking to redraw boundaries and address perceived wrongs of the past. This is nothing new. Most don't recall the PRC's attempted rewrite of the Treaty of Peking, which led to Chinese forces ambushing Soviet soldiers on Zhenbao Island. This incident almost led to a nuclear conflagration.

Two defining characteristics of the PRC are its opacity and its dishonesty. When the PRC commits to Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and says it is not conducting supercritical nuclear tests and that it has a "no first use" policy, there is good reason for skepticism. Over the last four years, the CCP showed to the world in the starkest terms just how grossly dishonest the regime is. Consider some of the claims the CCP has promulgated—"There is no human-to-human COVID transmission"; "There are no concentration camps or forced sterilizations in Xinjiang"; "The CCP will be a leader in reducing the planet's green-house gasses." The next time it says China shouldn't be a part of arms control because it's "just like the Brits and the French" it needs to be shouted down in unison by all responsible actors.

Ryan Tully served as the Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs and Senior Arms Control Advisor on the National Security Council. He was previously a Professional Staff Member for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a Naval Intelligence Officer.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.