New START Is Not About China

China’s Nuclear Weapons Diversification and Modernization is not a legitimate reason to Delay Ratifying New START.

By Jeffrey Bean, Research Assistant in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS

In recent months, discussion has intensified in the U.S. Senate over the New START Treaty, with bipartisan experts concluding that the treaty is crucial for U.S. foreign and security policy. The Obama administration has committed significant political capital to demonstrate the genuine benefits for U.S.-Russia relations and broader American security and non-proliferation goals.

Opponents to ratification have only recently mentioned the world’s third largest nuclear weapons state, China, and its relevance to the U.S.-Russia bilateral agreement—as Peter Brookes of Heritage Foundation did at the National Review Online last week. Similar to last month’s U.S. congressional elections, fear of China’s rise has been used to make domestic political hay. On the one hand, there are real transparency concerns about China’s nuclear weapons and its development of asymmetric capabilities in cyber & space warfare, anti-access weapons, and area-denial assets. These trends should be monitored and countered, and greater transparency from the PLA about its intentions and plans for its nuclear force is imperative to answer concerns of U.S. and other Asian governments. However, China’s nuclear force by no means constitutes a legitimate reason for the Senate to scupper the New START treaty. Here’s why:

The U.S. is already committed to reducing its stockpiles to between 1700-2200 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, based on the 2002 Moscow Treaty signed by the Bush administration. U.S. forces will possess 1700 warheads next year, and New START would commit the U.S. to a further reduction to 1550 deployed warheads within seven years of ratification. By comparison, China possesses less than 300 nuclear warheads, or less than one-fifth of what the U.S. currently deploys. Anyone questioning New Start because of China’s drastically smaller force must believe that 150 warheads will make a dramatic difference. Do 150 fewer weapons put America in an untenable position relative to China?

It is true that China is diversifying and modernizing its nuclear arsenal, but the difference in stockpiles and capabilities between the U.S. & China will be monumental for the foreseeable future. U.S. STRATCOM has 450 advanced Minutemen ICBMs deployed on land, 288 ICBMs with 1152 Trident MIRV warheads in 12 state of the art Ohio class ballistic missile submarines at sea, capacity to deliver land attack cruise missiles from multiple strategic aircraft platforms, and several thousand warheads in reserve. China currently has less than 300 warheads in total, most of which are short and medium range weapons. The Pentagon says that even with China’s recent force expansion and efforts to field different delivery mechanisms, the PLA Strategic Rocket Force only has 40 warheads that could reach the continental U. S. today, on DF31-A and DF5A/CSS-4 systems. U.S. intelligence estimates that this will increase to 100 warheads by 2015.

PLA strategists have recognized that China’s retaliatory capability may have been unreliable in the past, and China has chosen to modernize its force through road mobile, solid-fueled ICBMs, so its deterrent avoids nullification resulting from growing U.S. missile defense capabilities and conventional long range strikes. While there is evidence the PLA is attempting to develop a MIRV capability for its DF31-A weapons, which would lead to an increase in warheads, Chinese land-based ICBMs are still deployed as one warhead weapon systems, according to U.S. intelligence agencies. The PLA Navy’s struggling ballistic submarine program has also recently deployed its second class of SSBNs ( the Pentagon indicates there are 2-3 subs now operating and 2-3 more under construction) armed with the unproven JL-2 missile, which cannot reach the U.S. from Chinese waters, according to the Federation of American Scientists. China’s Cold War Era Badger aircraft does not yet have intercontinental cruise missiles to deploy conventional or nuclear tipped warheads. Even hard-line U.S. deterrence experts concede that the U.S. still has an overwhelming advantage in a classic nuclear exchange scenario with China, with numerous assets remaining for other missions.

It is unlikely that China will suddenly rush to achieve a sprint to parity, and there is little economic or strategic incentive to do so. Such a program would cost hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars – an expense that a country with a per capita income of under $4,000 U.S. dollars simply cannot afford amidst efforts to lift millions of citizens out of poverty. If the Chinese did attempt to reach parity, it wouldn’t happen overnight; the U.S. would have plenty of time to redeploy its inventory. Moreover, in terms of nuclear doctrine, Chinese leadership has long reiterated it has an unconditional no first use policy and a “self defensive nuclear strategy.” China has successfully deterred a nuclear attack with a credible but minimal nuclear arsenal through the height of the Cold War, and there is no evidence that they plan a dramatic departure from that strategy.

If Americans are concerned about China’s nuclear weapons, a ratified New START agreement would give the U.S. a more credible platform for beginning strategic arms talks with China, which Beijing has preferred to put off. Ratifying New START does not inhibit the U.S. from responding to China’s new capability in the future if needed. Coupled with the treaty’s stabilizing effect on the Russian-American relationship, monitoring and verification that will prevent a spiral of suspicion leading to a new arms race, and the nonproliferation benefits of an agreement that reduces the amount of available nuclear material that could be utilized by non-state actors, New START’s benefits are considerable.

Finally, while transparency about China’s nuclear force development is a concern, do we really want to create the exact same problem with Russia, a country that has six times China’s nuclear force strength? New START ratification should stand or fall based on its merits with Russia and our global counter-proliferation and security strategies. This one can’t be pinned on China.

Jeffrey Bean is a Research Assistant with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the CSIS, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed here are the individual’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of CSIS. Photo from the Peace Plus One Flickr photostream, used under a Creative Commons license.