Nuclear Weapons

State Department Arms Control Board Declares Cold War on China

10.07.08 | 10 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

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