China harsh reaction to the deployment of the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea in response to the significant danger of a North Korean nuclear attack (see the New York Analysis study on that topic) has raised the key question of Beijing’s nuclear arms capabilities and practices. Unfortunately, much of the information necessary to make valid policy choices is limited.
Beijing’s excessive response has not been limited to anti-missile systems. A Jamestown Foundation report cites Chinese sources, closely tied to the government, stating that “Northeast Asia is under imminent threat of a New Cold War,” with the U.S. and its Japanese and South Korean allies pitted against China, Russia and the DPRK.”
With this prevailing attitude, it’s important to understand the status of China’s nuclear forces.
But this information may significantly underestimate the true size of the arsenal. A Diplomat study notes that “China officially communicates the least about the size, status and capabilities of its nuclear forces. “
A Georgetown University study by Dr. Philip Karber points out the challenge of correctly estimating the nuclear capability of a secretive state. In the case of China, a large number of weapons may be concealed in a vast array of tunnels.
“During the cold war we missed 50% of the Soviet stockpile…while the U.S. has tracked PRC tunnel construction for years, the scope, magnitude and strategic rational behind the “Underground Great Wall” has been under appreciated…the Chinese buildup of their Theater-Strategic Rocket Force has not been the focus of a comprehensive all source analogy…public numbers [of atomic warheads] could be easily off by a factor of 10…”
A 2011 Washington Post article outlined the extraordinary dimensions of the “nuclear tunnels:” “According to a report by state-run CCTV, China had more than 3,000 miles of tunnels — roughly the distance between Boston and San Francisco — including deep underground bases that could withstand multiple nuclear attacks… The lack of interest, particularly in the U.S. media, demonstrated China’s unique position in the world of nuclear arms.For decades, the focus has been on the two powers with the largest nuclear stockpiles by far… of the five nuclear weapons states recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, China has been the most secretive. While the United States and Russia are bound by bilateral treaties that require on-site inspections, disclosure of forces and bans on certain missiles, China is not.”
The Georgetown researchers have concluded that China’s arsenal may include not hundreds of warheads, but thousands—possibly 3,000.
China’s policy on the use of its nuclear prowess is getting more belligerent. Beijing is using the legitimate response to North Korea’s illegal nuclear weapons program and its threats to use them as an excuse to move to a more aggressive posture.
Senior Colonel Yang Yujun, spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) said in July that “We will pay close attention to relevant actions of the U.S. and the ROK and will take necessary measures to maintain national strategic security as well as regional strategic equilibrium.” Recently, reports Infowars “China warns that it is reconsidering its policy not to use nuclear weapons against South Korea…”
Despite Beijing’s public denunciation of North Korea’s nuclear program, it makes clear that it will tolerate no external interference with its development, leading to the question of whether it actually finds Pyongyang’s weapons a useful counterweight for American and South Korean forces.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently released policy paper, downplays the looming threats from North Korea’s nuclear weapons, proclaiming “Currently, the situation in the Asia-Pacific region is stable on the whole, with a strong momentum for peace and development. The Asia-Pacific region is a stable part of the global landscape. To promote peace and seek stability and development is the strategic goal and common aspiration of most countries in the region.” (the report says that “China’s position on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is consistent and clear-cut. China is committed to the denuclearization of the peninsula, its peace and stability, and settlement of the issue through dialogue and consultation.”) However, the Report objects to defensive regional alliances, stating “To beef up a military alliance targeted at a third party is not conducive to maintaining common security.”
China’s potentially significant hidden nuclear arsenal, as well as its increased confidence in asserting its power, looms as am existing major threat.