State Department Arms Control Board Declares Cold War on China

After planning the war against Iraq, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz now heads the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board that recommends a Cold War against China.

By Hans M. Kristensen

A report from an advisory board to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has recommended that the United States beefs up its nuclear, conventional, and space-based posture in the Pacific to counter China.

The report, which was first described in the Washington Times, portrays China’s military modernization and intentions in highly dramatic terms that appear go beyond the assessments published so far by the Defense Department and the intelligence community.

Although the Secretary of State asked for recommendations to move US-Chinese relations away from competition and conflict toward greater transparency, mutual confidence and enhanced cooperation, the board instead has produced a report that appears to recommend policies that would increase and deepen military competition and in essence constitute a small Cold War with China.

China’s “Creeping” Nuclear Doctrine

Although the report China’s Strategic Modernization – written by the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) – deals with China’s overall military modernization, its focus is clearly on nuclear forces. What underpins China’s expansion of its offensive nuclear capabilities, the report says, is an “emerging creep toward a Chinese assured destruction capability” to create a “mutual vulnerability relationship” with the United States.

The objective is, an interpretation the authors say is supported by “numerous Chinese military statements,” for Beijing to get enough nuclear capability “to subject the United States to coercive nuclear threats to limit potential US intervention in a regional conflict” over Taiwan and oilfields in the South China Sea.

Yet “assured destruction,” to the extent that means confidence in a retaliatory capability against the United States and Russia, has been Chinese nuclear policy for decades. Increasing US and Russian nuclear capabilities, however, convinced Chinese planners that their deterrent might not survive. The current deployment of three long-range ballistic missile versions of the mobile DF-31 is supposed to restore the survivability of their strategic deterrent.

The “mutual vulnerability relationship” the authors say China is trying to create to deter the United States from defending Taiwan or limit US escalation options is a curious argument because it implies that the United States has not been vulnerable to Chinese nuclear threats in the past. In fact, US bases and allies in the Western Pacific have been vulnerable to Chinese attacks since the 1970s and the Continental United States since the early 1980s.

It is tempting to read the authors’ use of the terms “assured destruction” and “mutual vulnerability relationship” as borrowed components of “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD, the term for the nuclear relationship that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union during much of the Cold War.

But in responding to China’s nuclear modernization and policy, it is very important not to resort to Cold War-like worst-case analysis. To that end, two of the best analyzes on Chinese nuclear policy are Iain Johnston’s China’s New ‘Old Thinking:’ The Concept of Limited Deterrence, and Michael S. Chase and Evan Medeiros’ China’s Evolving Nuclear Calculus: Modernization and Doctrinal Debate. The ISAB members should read them.

Misperceptions or Just Out of Touch

The report contains several claims about Chinese nuclear forces and recommendations for counter-steps that appear out of sync with what the US intelligence community has stated and steps that the US has already taken. Some of the most noteworthy are listed below followed by my remarks:

* “By 2015, China is projected to have in excess of 100 nuclear-armed missiles…that could strike the United States.” Actually, the projection the intelligence community has made in public is for 60 ICBMs by 2010 and “about 75 to 100 warheads deployed primarily against the United States” by 2015. The ISAB report talks about targeting of the US “homeland.” If that includes Guam, then the force could reach a little above 100 by 2015 (it’s about 70 today). If “homeland” means the Continental United States, which has been the focus of the intelligence community’s projection, then a force carrying 75-100 warheads would likely include 20 DF-5As and 40-55 DF-31A. China so far is thought to have deployed fewer than 10 DF-31As.

* Some of the missiles “may be MIRVed” by 2015. What the intelligence community has said is that China has had the capability to MIRV its silo-based missiles for years but has not yet done so. MIRV on the mobile missiles, however, represents significant technical hurdles and “would be many years off,” according to the CIA, and “would probably require nuclear testing to get something that small.” Instead, if Chinese planners determine that the US missile defense system would degrade the effectiveness of the Chinese force, they “could use a DF-31 type RV for a multiple-RV payload for the CSS-4 in a few years,” the CIA stated in 2002. Even so, a multiple-RV payload is not necessarily the same as MIRV.

* China’s “substantial expansion” of its nuclear posture “includes development and deployment of…tactical nuclear arms, encompassing enhanced radiation weapons, nuclear artillery, and anti-ship missiles.” That would certainly be news if it were true, but the intelligence community hasn’t talked much about Chinese tactical nuclear weapons and what it has said has been contradictory, ranging from China might have some to “there is no evidence” that they have any. Several of China’s tests reportedly involved enhanced radiation or tactical warhead designs, but whether China is working on fielding tactical nuclear weapons has not been confirmed. China did conduct what appeared to be operational tests of tactical bombs in the past, which they might have fielded, but ISAB does not mention bombs.

* China’s modernization includes “a growing capability for Conventional Precision Strike and other anti-access/area-denial capabilities” including “submarine-launched ballistic missiles.” That China would use nuclear missiles on its future strategic submarines for “anti-access/area-denial” capabilities is news to me and would, if it were true, represent a dramatic change in Chinese nuclear policy. But I haven’t seen anything that suggests its true, and the overwhelming expectation is that China will use its SSBNs as a retaliatory strike force, if and when they manage to operationalize it.

* The US “should reaffirm its formal security guarantees to allies, including the nuclear umbrella.” The US does that regularly when it extends the security agreement with South Korea and Japan. In addition, in response to the North Korean nuclear test in October 2006, President Bush reaffirmed that “The United States will meet the full range of our deterrent and security commitments.” One week later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Tokyo where she emphasized the nuclear component by saying that “the United States has the will and the capability to meet the full range – and I underscore full range – of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan.”

* The US should “pursue new missile defense capabilities, including taking full advantage of space,” to counter China’s growing nuclear capability. For a State Department advisory committee to recommend using missile defenses to counter Chinese nuclear missiles is, to say the least, interesting given that the State Department has publicly stated and assured the Chinese that the missile defense system “it is not directed against China.”

* The US should “publicly reaffirm its commitment to retain a forward-based US military presence in East Asia.” The US has actually done that quite explicitly over the past seven years by shifting the majority of its aircraft carrier battle groups and nuclear attack submarines to bases in the Pacific, by beginning to forward deploy nuclear attack submarines to Guam, by sending strategic B-2 and B-52 bombers on extended deployments to Guam, and by forward deploying the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-75) to Japan. The Pentagon describes the recent Valiant Shield exercises as “the largest Pacific exercise since the Vietnam War.”

Pacific Exercises Now Biggest Since Vietnam War

While ISAB recommends increasing the US military posture in the Pacific to counter China, the Pentagon says recent exercises, including the thee carrier battle group Valiant Shield 06, are now the largest since the Vietnam War.


* “For almost two decades, the United States has allowed its nuclear posture – its stockpile, infrastructure, and expertise – to deteriorate and atrophy across the board.” Although the stockpile is much smaller compared with the Cold War and industrial-scale production of new nuclear warheads has ceased, ISAB’s characterization of the US nuclear posture is way off.

Instead, during the nearly two decades the authors describe (assuming that means since 1990), the US has deployed eight new SSBNs, deployed 336 Trident II D-5 SLBM on its entire SSBN fleet, deployed 21 B-2 stealth bombers, deployed the Advanced Cruise Missile, deployed the hard-target kill W88 warhead (including in the Pacific), deployed three modified nuclear weapons (B61-10, B61-11 and W76-1), completely overhauled the Minuteman III ICBM force, deployed two new classes of nuclear-powered attack submarines capable of launching nuclear cruise missiles, deployed a modern nuclear command and control system with new satellites and command centers, modernized the Strategic War Planning System (now called ISPAN), created a “living SIOP” strategic nuclear war plan with broadened targeting against China and new strike options against regional adversaries, and built a multi-billion dollar Science Based Stockpile Stewardship Program to certify the reliability of the nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing and provide weapons designers with unprecedented knowledge about warhead aging and the skills and tools to refurbish existing warheads or build modified ones.

Where Are The Non-Military Policy Recommendations?

One of the most striking features of the report is its almost complete focus on military options and the absence of other policy components. It contains no analysis of or recommendations for how to engage China on nuclear arms control or confidence building measures to limit or influence the nuclear modernization, operations and policy. It is almost as if there must be another unknown chapter to the report.

Although the authors believe there are a number of measures the US should take to reduce the prospect for misunderstanding and the chance of miscalculation, those recommendations are few and limited to continuing existing Track II discussions, military-to-military contacts, and asking the Chinese to be more transparent.

The report concludes that China does not desire a conflict with the United States, and describes a disconnect between the political and military leadership, and a “clear paranoia and misperceptions about US intentions….” Without presenting any analysis, it concludes that the US ability to shape or change Chinese choices related to its strategic modernization may be “very constrained” and that there is no point in trying to “educate” the Chinese.

On the contrary, the report concludes that the US should “reject” Chinese arms control proposals because they will constrain US military freedom. And US arms transfer to allied countries in the region “should be an important dimension of US non-proliferation policy.” Indeed, the “most important” policy recommendation is for the United States to “demonstrate its resolve to remain militarily strong….”

And in a recommendation blatantly “imported” from the Cold War, the authors say the US should “focus” its research and development on “high technology military capabilities” that China doesn’t have to “demonstrate to Beijing that trying to get ahead of the United States is futile (much the way SDI did against the Soviet Union.”

The report essentially capitulates on non-military policy options toward China.

So What Exactly Was ISAB Asked To Do?

The advisory board was asked to come up with ideas that could “move the US-China security relationship toward greater transparency and mutual confidence, enhance cooperation, and reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding or miscalculation that can contribute to competition or conflict.” That’s a quote!

Instead, the authors appear to have produced a paper that would – if implemented – likely move the US-Chinese security relationship in the opposite direction by deepening military competition and mistrust.

Indeed, the review looks more like the kind one would expect from the Pentagon rather than the State Department, which is supposed to pursue a wider set of policies and different agenda than the military. It is all the more striking given that the charter for ISAB – which used to be called the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Advisory Board (ACNAB) – describes that the board is supposed to “advise with and make recommendations to the Secretary of State on United States arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament policies and activities.”

The Secretary’s hope has been for ISAB to provide “independent insight, advice, and innovation,” and serve as “a single advisory board, dealing with scientific, military, diplomatic, political, and public diplomacy aspects of arms control, disarmament, international security, and nonproliferation, would provide valuable independent insight and advice….”

Concluding Remarks

The militaristic focus of ISAB’s report and its lack of recommendations for arms control and broader public diplomacy to defuse rather than continuing and deepening the competitive and mistrustful relationship between the United States and China suggest that ISAB has failed to live up to its charter.

No matter what one might think of China’s military modernization, the ISAB appears instead to have drawn up a very effective plan for a Cold War with China.

Although the authors correctly state up front that the US-Chinese relationship “differs fundamentally from the US-Soviet relationship and the strategic rivalry of the Cold War,” they nonetheless land on a set of recommendations and observations that strongly resemble a China-version of the Reagan administration’s aggressive military posture against the Soviet Union.

If implemented or allowed to color US policy toward China, the policy recommendations would continue and very likely lead to a deepening of military competition and adversarial relationship between the United States and China – exactly the opposite of what the Board was asked to come up with. It is precisely reports like this that create the “deep paranoia and misperceptions about US intentions” in the Chinese military.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should denounce the ISAB report to make it clear that the core of US policy toward China is not containment and Cold War posturing. And one of the first acts of the next Secretary should be to appoint a new advisory board that can – and will – develop recommendations that can “move the US-China security relationship toward greater transparency and mutual confidence, enhance cooperation, and reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding or miscalculation that can contribute to competition or conflict.” Mission not accomplished!

Background Information: ISAB Report: China’s Strategic Modernization | Chinese Nuclear Forces 2008 | US Nuclear Forces 2008 | FAS/NRDC Report: Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning

7 thoughts on “State Department Arms Control Board Declares Cold War on China

  1. This was a well researched and thoughtful piece. Those who believe China is not building her military forces to confront the US need only to look at her declaration that the South China Sea is Beijing’s territory and all the natural resources that may be found there are HERS. The PLAN newest naval base on Hainan Island is very close to the Strait of Malacca and offers deep water access to her hidden sub pens. Moreover, China is constantly pushing her citizens in the US to endeavor to “grab” as much US developed technology as they can to bring home….The W88 warhead is old news, China has also managed to get information on the new US Navy’s 21st century technology aircraft carrier new electro magnetic launching systems. These are just the tip of the iceberg.

    She’s no friend to the USA, meanwhile inside China the People’s Armed Police is working hard to keep the 800 million Chinese who don’t have the access to basic entitlements, under their thumb. The 1400 IRBMs she has aimed at Taiwan are more than enough to turn the island into a burial pyre for 23 million Taiwanese. Her two “island defense chains” are meant specifically to keep the US well away from her mainland in the event of a conflict. By current accounts, 2040 is the target date for China to have equal military status with the USA….

    Her ongoing cyber attacks against the US companies and the US government are part of her strategy to gain the upper hand over the US. Space is her newest frontier….China a friend to the US….Hardly. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.

    Reply: The point is not to pile on ever more reasons for why the Chinese government is bad, but how to create a foreign policy that tries to improve relations and avoid the confrontation that military modernization and counter-modernization on all sides will inevitably lead to. The question the ISAB was asked, but in my assessment didn’t answer: How to “move the US-China security relationship toward greater transparency and mutual confidence, enhance cooperation, and reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding or miscalculation that can contribute to competition or conflict.” HK

  2. America can’t do much to move the relationship toward more transparency and mutual confidence. The ball is in China’s court.

    How can your realistically expect to have mutual confidence with an unstable, corrupt government like the Chinese government? China has so many problems that if the global economy remains depressed for more than a couple of years then I will start to wonder about the survivability of the government.

    One just needs to ask a basic question about China to truly understand its current state. How can a communist government survive with all that capitalism?

    Does complaining about transparency work? We can see the results of years of complaining about China’s lack of transparency concerning its military buildup. China has only recently made a token attempt at transparency.

    Why won’t China clearly explain to us why they are building up their military? Two Chinese generals provided the answer when they threatened the nuclear destruction of American cities over Taiwan. So the reason for their buildup is to confront America. China can’t very well say that, now can they?

    Also, I wonder why China is building underground bunkers under many of its large cities? That’s rather odd unless one expects to initiate a nuclear war at some point in the future.

    China builds vast bunker complex ‘in case of attack’

    Chinese Naval Bunker, Dumb Idea?

    Beijing Expands Strategic Underground City

    “Around the same time, Chinese authorities disclosed the existence of other underground cities and the roles they might play in case of a nuclear attack. According to a report released from the Research Office of the State Council, Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Jinan, and other major cities were addressed.”

    You do know that China is building many submarines? Some of these contain ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. I wonder where those warheads are targeted?

    I think your attitude is more likely to get Americans killed because by the time you have figured out that you’re wrong, it will be too late to do anything about it.

    Reply: You speak of the situation as if China is about to attack us and our military has somehow withered away. I don’t agree with the conclusion that “the reason for their buildup is to confront America.” The US threat, that they see, is certainly part of the motivation, but it is also driven by Russia, which they almost went to war with in the 1980s, and India, which they did go to war with in the 1960s, and by Japan and other countries in the region that are modernizing their military forces. That said, they certainly have the United States on their radar screen and see when our carrier battle groups sail up and down their coast, when we forward deploy B-2 bombers, F-22 fighters, and attack submarines to Guam, and when we shift the majority of our strategic submarines, aircraft carriers, and attack submarines into the Pacific.

    For the Chinese to spend vast amounts of money on building underground bunkers doesn’t necessarily signals that Beijing plans to initiative a nuclear war. China has been digging tunnels and bunkers since the 1980s, and anyone who spends just a few hours on Google Earth can see how prevailing the use of underground facilities is at Chinese military sites. It shows that China feels both threatened and vulnerable and has done so for a long time. Is it possible, just possible, that a too strong US military posture in the Pacific can also have a counterproductive effect by giving hardliners and Cold Warriors in China the argument they need to get money for a buildup?

    No matter what one might think about China’s military modernization – and I’m certainly no fan of it nor advocating turning a blind eye, I’m interested in smart and visionary people coming up with ideas that can help fix the problem, not lamenting about how bad the Chinese are. My “attitude” with the ISAB paper is that it appears to recycle Cold War posturing while failing to offer anything that can steer the relationship in another direction. That ought to be a priority of a State Department advisory committee.

    If I were a Chinese planner and thought the ISAB paper represented US policy – or indicated what will be the trend, I would certainly be worried about what’s to come next and recommend to my superiors that they prepare for it. The ball is not just in China’s court; the ball is in both of our courts. HK

  3. [Edited] Hans, you worry too much about Wolfie and the State Department, which runs on a budget less than what the DOD spends on medical care, according to Bob Gates. There are plenty of such papers floating around in the United States. The Chinese don’t even need to read them to get the idea. United States has been sticking all sorts of threat under the nose of China for many decades. China knows that it is not personal; US has been doing this to many others, from the Russians to the Iranians. China is determined to have a good marriage with the United States by maintaining her ability to threaten a nasty divorce that neither party can tolerate. Naturally, United States wants his freedom unfettered by the marriage. Hence the bickering, which is essential for all good marriages.

    Reply: Not bad for inter-state marriage counseling. Only, when mom and dad fight, the strife doesn’t threaten millions of people around the Pacific. HK

  4. I agree with you, Mr. Kristensen, I would like to see more of a constructive, intelligent endeavor from US administration to improve the relationship with China. Not a direct threat to the USA, China must be treated as a strategic partner. I believe it is the US responsibility to construct and lead a plan focused on a greater transparency – on both sides – and particularly on non-proliferation and disarmament. An overstretched missile defense is not an answer.

  5. [Edited] The estimates asserted in the report bring the Cold War era “competitive analysis” studies published by “Team B” to mind. However, you seem too kind in your concluding remarks:

    “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should denounce the ISAB report to make it clear that the core of US policy toward China is not containment and Cold War posturing.”

    How can you assert that our long-term policy is not one of containment and posturing in light of our balance-shifting pacts with China’s regional competitors? For example: “Senate gives final OK to US-India nuclear deal

    Reply: Although the US policy/posture toward China can appear to include both containment and Cold War posturing, it is – so far – very different from the posture that was applied toward the Soviet Union. The key word that you left out was “Cold War,” which I used to underscore the difference. That said, I agree that our policy/posture certainly contain elements that look similar. But China is a different adversary; it doesn’t have the kind of global expansionist ambitions that the Soviet Union did – Taiwan seems to be the only such territorial claim – one that the US one-China policy supports if it can be accomplished peacefully. The Spratly Islands dispute appears to be about access to resources, as does China’s venturing into the India Ocean and Africa. Regardless, for a State Department report to be so void of policy recommendations other than military posturing is problematic. HK

  6. [Edited] You are only discussing the US. What about India, which is facing a threat from two nuclear armed nations, Pakistan and China (allied against India), which are claiming Indian territory (2 states out of 28). China is double the size of India (militarily; economically).

    Reply: The ISAB report only discussed US policy, thus my focus on that aspect. As for India’s situation, it has been a probable target for Chinese nuclear weapons since the 1960s, with only modest effect on India’s sense of security for most of that time. It is not just India that is “facing a threat;” Pakistan and China also believe they’re are facing a threat: India. Now that India is developing nuclear weapons that appear intended for use against China (Agni III and Agni IV), the dynamic between the two countries will likely evolve too. The security of both countries will suffer if that dynamic evolves into an arms race or capability race. HK

  7. My question is if India engages in war against China who you think will be helping India in the war since India in not capable of winning on its own?

    Reply: If India were the aggressor, I think the answer is no one. If China were the aggressor, my guess would be – depending on the circumstances – the United States. But it’s hard to imagine realistic circumstances under which China in this day and age would suddenly attack India. Rather than drawing up worst-case scenarios and military postures to back them up, both countries are better off focusing their efforts on building a lasting relationship that makes war less and less likely. HK

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