Think Like a Dragon: The Global Lessons of China's Nuclear Program

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Understanding Chinese nukes is about more than strategy -- it's about culture, history, and, yes, Sun Tzu.

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Visitors walk past a Chinese-made missile at the Military Museum in Beijing / Reuters

The United States, Russia, Britain, France and other nuclear powers all regard nuclear weapons as the core function of strategic deterrence."--Jiang Zemin (2002)

It's difficult to understand China's nuclear-weapons capability and strategy. Unlike the United States, China is not a signatory to most nuclear-weapons limitation and disarmament agreements. And it is certainly not forthcoming with information about its nuclear arsenal or development program. This leaves the world without any solid understanding of the capabilities of the Chinese missile command known as the Second Artillery Corps.

Thus, what we know about China's nuclear weapons is incomplete and often speculative. But even with better empirical knowledge, understanding Beijing's strategy--for nuclear weapons or other areas--requires a background in Chinese culture and history. Only then will U.S. policy makers be able to address the challenges of China's expanding nuclear capability.

Capability

The Second Artillery Corps of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is in the process of developing a credible nuclear triad. This includes deployment of several ballistic missiles. Estimates of operationally deployed strategic weapons vary, but the most often repeated number is between one hundred and two hundred. It is also developing an arsenal of medium-range nuclear cruise missiles (between two hundred and five hundred in 2010).

In addition, the PLA Navy is growing its small number of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The PLA Air Force is growing its fleet of H-6K nuclear-capable bombers (between five and ten in 2010) and developing the H-8 stealth bomber.

Although it is difficult to determine current investments in the Chinese nuclear-weapons program, there is reason to believe that the Second Artillery Corps has seen significant increases in its budget. And with the theft of U.S. nuclear-weapons-design information, China has a strong foundation from which to advance the technological capabilities of its weapons.

Chinese Strategy

In the modern Chinese military treatise The Science of Campaigns, the essence of Chinese nuclear strategy is described as lying "in the ingenious selection of targets, ingenious choice of timing opportunities, ingenious use of forces and firepower, and the ingenious application of operational methods." This prompts several questions: Who is targeted? What is the objective? When will it happen? Where will the Chinese deploy it? And why and how will they do it?

Who? China's strategic nuclear weapons are designed to target the United States. The United States is China's current and future strategic adversary--in spite of all the rhetoric of "competitive cooperation." Chinese tactical nuclear weapons, however, have a Russian or Indian address because of tensions on the borders of both nations.

What? China's principal strategic objective for its nuclear arsenal is holding the interests of the United States hostage and deterring American leaders from using superior conventional or nuclear forces to coerce China into taking actions that "humiliate" the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or constrain its freedom of action. A strategy of deception reduces Chinese vulnerability to potential U.S. counterstrikes since it is difficult to target unknown-unknowns.

The Central Military Commission's principal fear has long been that the Second Artillery Corps does not have a credible nuclear force capable launching a retaliatory counterstrike.

In many ways, Chinese national and foreign-policy decision making is shaped by the country's "century of humiliation." The historical lessons learned during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when China fell under Western dominance, continue to shape leadership perceptions of how global powers wish to treat China. In its desire to overcome the past, CCP leaders and the PLA have been doggedly determined to never let the past repeat itself. China's nuclear-weapons program is a reflection of that underlying historical insecurity.

When? Evidence suggests that China is on a pace to build an arsenal that is equal in size and capability to the U.S. arsenal--if not superior--by 2050. Where the United States is rushing headlong toward nuclear abolition, the Chinese are on a very determined path to build an advanced arsenal equal to that of the other great powers.

Where? With a highly distributed nuclear infrastructure and deployed force, China has long focused on resiliency--always a primary concern. And with an estimated five thousand kilometers of tunnels strategically dispersed across the country, the Second Artillery Corps maintains a limited ability to strike the continental United States but a much greater ability to strike within the first and second island chains with nuclear and dual-capable weapons. These limitations will disappear in the decades ahead.

Why? In their drive to reunite greater China, which began with Tibet and most recently Hong Kong, CCP leaders are now focused on Taiwan. Concern that the United States will intervene to stop a PLA invasion of Taiwan is viewed as an intrusion into China's domestic affairs that could precipitate the use of nuclear weapons--on Chinese soil. This would not be seen as a violation of China's no-first-use policy since Taiwan is seen as a rebellious part of China.

How? China's dramatic economic growth is fueling a massive modernization effort that is spanning the breadth of the PLA Army, Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery Corps. As American companies seeing terabytes of sensitive research and development data smuggled away can attest, the Chinese are always seeking to advance their capabilities and know-how. To suggest that China is engaging in a revolution in military affairs akin to our own is not far from the truth. But unlike the United States, nuclear weapons are central to China's modernization effort.

Without understanding Chinese strategic culture, however, all of this is of little more than passing interest.

Strategic Culture

Modern Chinese strategic culture differs from that of the West in fundamental ways. While the influence of Hellenic philosophy, Enlightenment rationalism and American exceptionalism shape U.S. strategic culture, Chinese strategic culture remains heavily influenced by The Five Military Classics, Daoism and Confucian philosophy.

As Alistair Ian Johnston has pointed out in his analysis of three thousand years of Chinese military history, when China was at its weakest, it employed a strategy of appeasement. When it grew stronger but remained relatively weak, China employed a defensive strategy. When China was militarily superior, it took the offense.

However, in the minds of the Chinese, they have always acted defensively--never offensively. Thus, China has always acted to defend its territorial integrity and core interests, never to further or expand its interests.

With many in the West familiar with Sun Tzu's Art of War, it should come as no surprise that Chinese nuclear-weapons strategy is characterized by ambiguity, disinformation and secrecy--all critical to good generalship, according to Sun Tzu. These characteristics are important because they have the potential to achieve victory through "acting without action"--a precept of Daoism.

In other words, China can achieve its strategic objectives--"winning without fighting"--by employing ambiguity, deceit and secrecy in such a way that the United States follows a path (the Dao) that is desired by China--pushing the United States out of East Asia.

While American strategic culture is characterized as: (1) determine the desired outcome (ends); (2) ascertain the methods to achieve those ends (ways); and (3) operationalize a strategy (means); Chinese strategic culture does not begin with the "ideal" (ends) and then develop a way to bring it to fruition.

Instead, Chinese strategic culture focuses on the path (Dao) taken by "the general." By taking advantage of opportunities as they arise--exploiting the situation--the optimum outcome is achieved. In other words, the Chinese do not a have cultural imperative that leads them to establish a desired end state to which they orient their action. They are opportunity maximizers.

This may seem odd or difficult for the Western reader because it is, in fact, very different from our own cognitive approach. In Chinese thinking, understanding the potential of a situation leads the general to profit when advantageous circumstances arise. This is a critical skill and capability. Ambiguity, deception, secrecy and other methods are all tools for maximizing advantageous circumstances.

There is much less of a tradition in China of setting clear long-range objectives and then building a plan to achieve them. The importation of communism from the West, in some ways, institutionalized the approach, but communism in China has always been heavily influenced by a culture and philosophy that is much older and ingrained in Chinese thinking.

All of this may be interesting, but it leaves the "so what?" question unanswered. Understanding both China's nuclear future and its approach to strategy matters for several reasons.

So What?

China's long-stated no-first-use policy must be understood within the context of Chinese strategic culture, which acts to defend historic territorial integrity. China would notview its use of nuclear weapons in a Taiwan conflict as a first use because Taiwan is considered Chinese territory. Thus, the United States could be caught off guard by a Chinese nuclear strike against a carrier battle group in the Straits of Taiwan--admittedly a low-probability situation.

Consistent with the earlier historical pattern found by Johnston and others, China's nuclear policy shifted from minimum deterrence (1964-1987) to credible minimum deterrence (1987-2002) to limited deterrence (2002-present); and when China develops the capability, it will shift to mutually assured destruction's current iteration.

Although Chinese nuclear doctrine is premised on credible retaliation, China will develop a capability and doctrine for escalatory war fighting. This means that China is in the process of moving beyond the nuclear thinking of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Chinese leaders are learning from the United States and developing their own nuclear doctrine. Younger Chinese military officers in particular are more Western in their strategic thinking, but they can also be more bellicose in their nuclear views.

And don't forget that China isbuilding a nuclear arsenal of equal or greater capability to the United States with a principal aim of deterring U.S. freedom of action in the Asia-Pacific region--erasing all insecurity.

Finally, unfolding geopolitical events (seen as Daoism's path) are carefully watched by the Chinese. America should expect China, consistent with its strategic culture, to take advantage of opportunities (perceived or real American weakness) when they arise. But do not expect this to occur with a clear end state in mind--remember that Chinese strategic culture teaches us that in this respect, Eastern and Western thinking are not the same.

If the United States is to "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific region, it must realize that China has every intention of closing the nuclear gap and using its atomic arsenal to achieve its strategic interests. To be successful in the region, the United States must tame the dragon--but first it must understand how the dragon thinks.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, an Atlantic partner site. Follow @TheNatlInterest on Twitter.

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Presented by

Panayotis A. Yannakogeorgos & Adam Lowther

Panayotis A. Yannakogeorgos is a cyber-defense analyst at the Air Force Research Institute. Adam Lowther is a research professor at the Air Force Research Institute. The views expressed are those of the authors.

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