China Now Understands What a Nuclear Rivalry Looks Like

For its entire nuclear history, China has been content with a relatively modest arsenal. That’s now changing.

An illustration of five red nuclear bombs with warheads decorated as the Chinese flag
The Atlantic

The prospect of nuclear war doesn’t get much attention these days outside of think tanks, intelligence agencies, and generals’ quarters. The world’s Cold War nuclear nightmare faded with the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago. The notion that anyone might use them in a contest of mutual destruction seems like a relic of the Cuban missile crisis—a dark memory from a bygone era.

But the danger remains, not only because of the current confrontation with Russia over Ukraine’s fate. China, an old but relatively minor player in the nuclear game, appears to be significantly increasing the size of its arsenal. The U.S. Department of Defense, in its latest assessment of China’s military capabilities, forecasts that by 2030, the Chinese will have roughly tripled their current stock of nuclear warheads, to 1,000. Perhaps no other single statistic shows with such stark clarity how drastically and fundamentally the relationship between the U.S. and China is deteriorating and how much that trend could endanger American national security and global peace. For its entire nuclear history—dating back to the 1960s—China has been content with a relatively modest arsenal. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that China has 350 nuclear warheads, a pittance compared with Russia’s 6,257 and America’s 5,600. The uncharacteristic buildup shows that China’s strategic policy is changing.

That doesn’t mean Beijing is preparing to use nuclear weapons. The Chinese leadership has not made its ultimate intentions clear. Officially, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry denied undertaking any significant expansion of its nuclear arms.

Much clearer are the potential perils of China’s nuclear pivot. New nukes could add heft to Beijing’s foreign policy, which is becoming more aggressive, and influence how Washington reacts. They could spark a regional nuclear-arms race as countries that have rocky relationships with China, most notably India, enhance their own arsenal. The Chinese expansion also heightens the risk that a conventional war (say, over Taiwan) will escalate into a nuclear conflict. And on a global scale, China’s buildup could accelerate a descent into disorderly superpower competition last seen before the demise of the Soviet Union.

Half a century of American foreign policy was designed to avoid this very outcome. The primary purpose of President Richard Nixon’s 1972 Beijing meeting with Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, was to draw Communist China into the U.S. orbit and reinforce its nasty schism with the Soviet Union. By the 1990s, the fall of the Soviets and the capitalist ascent of China seemed to vindicate that approach—perhaps even heralding the ultimate triumph of American democracy over authoritarian threats and ushering in a “flat,” prosperous world.

Unfortunately, 2022 is shaping up to be a Cold War rewrite, with an unhappy ending. The adversarial shift in China’s overall posture, combined with President Xi Jinping’s apparent willingness to countenance Russia’s persistent aggression in Europe, could place the U.S. in the very predicament it evaded decades ago: a standoff with a tag team of nuclear-armed authoritarian states bent on rolling back American power. As Beijing’s relations with Washington have soured, those with Moscow are arguably friendlier than they have been since the 1950s. As if making up for a lost Cold War opportunity, the two dictatorships are supporting each other in their assaults on the U.S.-led world order.

The U.S. may not be prepared to counter this double menace. “This is really an unprecedented challenge, the threat of two peer or near-peer nuclear superpower competitors,” Matthew Kroenig, the deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, told me. “We’ve always been able to build a nuclear force to deal with the Soviet Union and then later Russia, and then China, North Korea, and Iran were lesser cases.” Thus China’s buildup “raises really fundamental questions for U.S. nuclear strategy.”

Cold War comparisons to understand U.S.-China relations today are typically misplaced. But perhaps less so when it comes to nukes. The two sides may be doing what the U.S. and Soviet Union did in the Cold War’s early stages: hurtling toward a nuclear confrontation without a safety net. “In the old Cold War calendar, it’s like 1960,” John Culver, a retired CIA analyst who once served as the U.S. intelligence community’s top East Asia expert, told me. “Both sides are arraying themselves for strategic competition, but for the U.S. at least, a coherent strategy has yet to emerge. At some point, there will be a bilateral crisis between us and China, and at that point, we both stare into the abyss, like the Cuban missile crisis forced both sides to, and decide on the parameters for dialogue. Or fail to achieve a dialogue and risk steep escalation and possible war between two nuclear powers.”

Beijing’s nuclear ambitions will prompt recriminations in Washington. Has American naivete helped enable the enemy the U.S. had sought to deter? Yet Beijing’s nuclear-strategy shift may be a product less of American decisions than of Xi’s unprecedented drive to amplify China’s power and prepare the country for a new era of superpower competition.

The big question is: Why now? Xi is probably reacting to what he sees as a more dangerous United States. The buildup is “likely because Beijing now assesses that there is a major risk that they could fight a war with the U.S.,” Culver said. “They’ve seen the trajectory of the bilateral relationship, and they’ve decided that major nuclear deterrent capabilities are now required.”

Still, Beijing’s nuclear expansion can’t be viewed separately from Xi’s wider agenda to project Chinese power in his region and beyond—whether economic, technological, diplomatic, or ideological. “Xi has decided The time to bide our time and hide our capabilities is over. It’s time for the coming-out party,” Kroenig said. China’s People’s Liberation Army “is going to be a world-class military, and to do that you need to have a world-class nuclear force.”

China’s nuclear buildup may not immediately change certain dynamics of the current strategic situation. The U.S. will still have far more warheads. And China is already capable of striking the American heartland.

Gauging the threat depends in part on divining Xi’s purpose. He might be striving to achieve closer balance with the U.S. in the hopes of attaining greater deterrence—in other words, the sort of nuclear stalemate that prevailed during the Cold War. Xi might also be preparing China for a potential U.S. attack. In enhancing intercontinental capabilities, Xi is “ensuring that China can withstand a first strike from the U.S. and penetrate U.S. missile defenses with whatever Chinese nuclear weapons survive,” James Acton, a co-director of the nuclear-policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. He described that aspect of the buildup as a “defensive modernization’’ that won’t change the status quo.

Yet we can’t rule out that Xi has more sinister intentions. Unlike the United States, China declares as an official policy that, in any conflict, it will not use nuclear weapons first. Perhaps Xi intends to uphold that commitment. But the hundreds of missile silos that the Pentagon says China is constructing aren’t necessarily the best investments for a purely defensive strategy. These fixed sites can easily be targeted and destroyed by U.S. missiles, and thus are “not weapons you build if you were really worried about a U.S. first strike,” Kroenig said. These capabilities make more sense, he said, if China intends to have a “superpower force.”

For now, though, the biggest impact of Xi’s nuclear buildup may be on Asia, where Beijing’s foreign-policy interests are most concentrated. Rather than in an intercontinental nuclear slugfest, Beijing might be more willing to employ nuclear weapons in a local conflict—for instance, by dropping one on a U.S. military base in Japan. “I think China’s development of its regional forces is much more concerning to me and potentially offensively oriented,” Acton said. “I believe that China wants options to fight a limited nuclear war, which is a new element of its strategy.”

Short of that, simply possessing a more muscular nuclear arsenal could help Beijing promote its foreign-policy goals by constraining how the U.S. and its allies respond to Chinese actions toward Taiwan or elsewhere in the region. “In the past, the U.S. has been able to do what it wanted out there and the Chinese really couldn’t do anything about it,” Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told me. “Not anymore.”

In the longer term, China’s buildup could prompt its neighbors to respond in kind. U.S. allies protected by America’s nuclear umbrella, such as Japan and South Korea, could press Washington to develop and deploy regional nuclear capabilities to counter China. Or, worse yet, they could build their own. India, which also has a contentious relationship with China, might at some point decide to expand its small nuclear arsenal.

Clearly, Washington needs a new strategy. Experts say that simply building more nukes is not the answer—or perhaps even necessary in response to China’s expansion alone. The Scowcroft Center’s Kroenig, in a recent paper, stressed that the U.S. “must maintain a favorable balance of power over China at each rung of the escalation ladder” as a continued deterrent to Chinese military action. That, Kroenig suggested, might require the U.S. to enhance its capabilities to fight a limited regional nuclear conflict in Asia—an area in which China now holds an advantage.

Perhaps the most pressing need is to get the two sides talking. Unlike Washington, Beijing has no history of agreeing to limitations on its nuclear arms and has been dodging negotiations. But the two countries do talk about talking. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that Xi and President Joe Biden agreed in their November virtual summit to “look to begin to carry forward discussion on strategic stability”—hardly a firm commitment.

Yet even if talks achieve little in the short term, they may eventually evolve into arms-control negotiations that could stabilize the nuclear threat, as happened during the Cold War. “We have to think about managing a potentially disastrous situation and using not just military but all the tools of statecraft, especially more diplomacy to rebuild a strategic dialogue and set some guardrails,” Culver, the former CIA analyst, said. “In a crisis, we are going to have to rebuild all the dialogue we used to take as a matter of course from scratch at the worst possible time.”

But the Cold War holds another lesson—that avoiding nuclear conflict requires not only steady diplomacy but also a clear strategy. The U.S. is already a major nuclear power; the trick is convincing both its adversaries and allies that it will continue to defend its interests, whatever it takes. “If China uses nuclear weapons, it will be because it doubts U.S. resolve, not U.S. capability,” Acton said. Contending with a nuclear China is as much a matter of will as of weapons.