The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) nuclear weapons expansion is one of the United States’ most significant threats.

For decades, China has operated roughly 20 silos for its liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) known as the DF-5; now, it looks to be building ten times more, presumably to house its newest ICBM, the DF-41.

“The Chinese missile silo program constitutes the most extensive silo construction since the U.S. and Soviet missile silo construction during the Cold War,” reported 9news.” The number of new Chinese silos under construction exceeds the number of silo-based ICBMs operated by Russia and constitutes more than half of the size of the entire U.S. ICBM force.”

China has “an operational nuclear warhead stockpile in the low-200s,” according to the Pentagon, and STRATCOM commander Adm. Charles Richard indicated earlier this year that “China’s nuclear weapons stockpile is expected to double (if not triple or quadruple) over the next decade.” If this is the goal, the new silos may be able to help China achieve it.

Alexei Arbatov, a Russian nuclear weapons expert, said that with China’s scientific, production, and resource potential, China would be the only country in the world that can compete with Russia and the United States as strategic nuclear missile force within ten years.

Senior U.S. military officials have also sounded the alarm.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall III said, “If they continue down the path that they seem to be on—to substantially increase their ICBM force—they will have a de facto first-strike capability.” But, he added, “I’m not sure they fully appreciate the risks that they’re adding to the entire global nuclear equation.”

The construction of approximately 250 additional silos by China has significant ramifications for international relations and China’s global influence. Yet, for decades, the Chinese leadership has maintained a minimal deterrent and is not involved in any nuclear arms race. 

Although it is unclear how many missile silos will be built, the massive silo construction and China’s other nuclear modernization programs appear to contradict these policies: the build-up is far from “minimal.” Instead, it seems to be part of a race for more nuclear weapons to better compete with China’s adversaries.

The construction of the silos is likely to exacerbate military tensions, fuel fears of Chinese intentions, and strengthen arguments that arms control and constraints are naive. The U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals cannot be reduced further but must be adjusted to account for China’s nuclear build-up.

Arms control is the most straightforward approach to limiting China’s nuclear weapons, but it isn’t easy to achieve. Since the late 1990s, the United States has attempted to engage China on atomic matters with limited success. These efforts have been confined to enhancing transparency about force structure plans and strategy and communicating nuclear doctrine and goals, rather than revealing precise constraints on weapon systems.

The Trump administration attempted to widen nuclear arms limitations to include China. Still, it failed miserably by turning the effort into a public-relations farce by pushing for China to be included in a New START treaty renewal, reported FAS.

Beijing, predictably, rejected the move, saying that “it is unrealistic to expect China to join [the United States and Russia] in a negotiation aimed at nuclear arms reduction,” especially since China’s arsenal is still a fraction of the size of the U.S. and Russian arsenals.

STRATCOM’s recent testimony to Congress suggests it sees China’s actions as anything but stabilizing:

“To fully assess the China threat, it is also necessary to consider the capability of the associated delivery system, command, and control, readiness, posture, doctrine, and training. By these measures, China is already capable of executing any plausible nuclear employment strategy within their region and will soon be able to do so at intercontinental ranges as well. They are no longer a ‘lesser included case’ of the pacing nuclear threat, Russia.” [Emphasis in original.]

The Biden administration is now working on its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which will establish the role and structure of the United States’ nuclear posture over the next decade, reported the bulletin.

Admiral Richard declared (and STRATCOM later tweeted) that he thinks “it doesn’t matter why China is & continues to grow & modernize [its nuclear and conventional forces]. What matters is that they are building the capability to execute any plausible nuclear employment strategy….”

China would undoubtedly stand out among the five declared nuclear-weapon states as violating its treaty obligations at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (currently scheduled for early 2022).

Although the treaty does not expressly prohibit a nuclear weapon state from modernizing—or even increasing—its nuclear forces, China’s unprecedented and growing nuclear arsenal, as well as its refusal to participate in nuclear arms control talks, are clearly in violation of the treaty’s spirit and the pledge under Article VI to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

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