By Alex Bollfrass and Kari Fuglesten
As the Senate prepares to debate the New START treaty, some outspoken critics argue that the United States is focusing on the wrong bear (Russia), and ignoring the more menacing panda (China):
And while China's strategic forces are increasing in number, diversity and capability, American nuclear forces are in desperate need of modernization. In the view of some experts, if any country can undertake a "rush to nuclear parity" with the United States, it is the world's No. three nuclear power, China.
Indeed, according to some independent groups, Beijing could become a nuclear peer of Washington's in the not-too-distant future if it so desired, in light of the expected arms cuts by the United States under New START.
Peter Brookes of the Heritage Foundation claims that nuclear arms reductions with Russia unwisely jeopardize U.S. security by overlooking the rising threat of China. The scope of New START, however, is modest and the nuclear threat posed by China is vastly overstated.
The greater threat to U.S. security in the future is nuclear proliferation. Ratification of New START will decrease this threat by honoring U.S. and Russia’s obligation under the NPT to reduce their arsenals, which makes it easier for us to ask others state to live up to their own nonproliferation commitments. Failing to ratify the treaty and summoning an arms race with China would be extremely damaging.
Opponents of New START argue that the United States must maintain nuclear dominance to remain secure and not suffer a blow to our national self-esteem. They believe that ratification of New START would be an irrevocable step toward strategic parity between the United States and China and could impede U.S. missile defense plans.
However, the arms reduction contemplated in New START in no way puts the United States in a position of parity with China whose nuclear arsenal is less than five percent of that of the United States. The treaty also does nothing to limit missile defense plans. Moreover, nuclear strategic parity with China is not something to be feared. On the contrary, nuclear strategic parity between the United States and China could lead to greater security for all in the long run.
Can China really reach nuclear parity in 10 years?
It is extremely unlikely.
The size of China’s nuclear force remains relatively low, with around 240 nuclear warheads compared to over 2,000 warheads deployed by the United States that could reach China. That is only a small portion of the U.S. arsenal, which has a stockpile of 5,113 and several thousand awaiting dismantlement. Unless China decided to make the production of nuclear weapons its national priority tomorrow, there is no way the modest reductions called for in the New START treaty would lead to anything approaching nuclear parity in the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, whether it is necessary or not, U.S. nuclear weapon modernization will receive a big boost if Congress ratifies the New START treaty as part of the package deal negotiated between the administration and Congress. In light of these facts, it is difficult to see how these unnamed “independent groups” and “some experts” cited by Brookes came to these conclusions.
Why is China secretive about its nuclear weapons?
Brookes is right to be concerned by the lack of Chinese transparency regarding the extent of its nuclear program. However, the secrecy comes from Chinese weakness, not strength. China has good reasons to obscure the extent of its nuclear program – to reduce the vulnerability of its small nuclear force. The solution to the transparency problem, however, is not more nuclear weapons, but confidence-building measures with China to mitigate misperceptions and to mute security dilemma effects.
Should the United States be worried about US-China nuclear parity in the long run?
Even though it is highly unlikely to come about in the next ten years (if it did, it would have nothing to do with the decision to ratify New START), it is always worthwhile looking a few decades into the future.
In a broad survey of The Dangers of a Rising China, The Economist found nuclear dominance to be an obstacle, not an asset in US-China relations:
China needs to be certain of having a nuclear second strike. As Robert Art of Brandeis University argues, both China and America will feel more confident if they know their homelands are secure. China has been spending money to ensure that it could answer a first strike. America should willingly surrender this military advantage because it is destabilising—and instability frustrates the overriding policy aim, which is China’s peaceful rise.
Why would this be? Imagine the alternative: The maintenance of nuclear dominance would be interpreted as an inherently hostile act and may perversely incentivize China to move against Taiwan before it is too late. It would also enhance the role of nuclear weapons as major tools of statecraft. The nonproliferation agenda, already under significant stress, would be impossible to advance and would risk a complete collapse.
The gradual emergence of US-China nuclear parity should therefore not be resisted in the pursuit of arms control with Russia, although East Asian allies will require reassurance that this is not a reduction in the US commitment to their security. In the long term, we should be strengthening bilateral security cooperation with and between Japan and South Korea and gradually evolving these bilateral alliances into a trilateral relationship that can take some of the burden of maintaining regional security off of the US in the long run.
The authors are graduate students at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.