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  • China’s Development of a More Secure Nuclear Second-Strike Capability:Implications for Chinese Behavior and U.S. Extended Deterrence
  • Benjamin Schreer (bio)

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is in the midst of improving its nuclear arsenal, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Since the details of this nuclear modernization process remain clouded in secrecy, estimates of the numbers of China’s nuclear warheads vary significantly. Pessimists believe that Beijing could possess well over 1,000 warheads, most of which are assumed to be hidden in a complex system of underground tunnels.1 In contrast, this essay agrees with conservative assessments that the total size of China’s nuclear arsenal is approximately 250 warheads, delivered by land-based ballistic missiles, aircraft, and an emerging ballistic submarine fleet. The U.S. intelligence community expects that the number of these nuclear warheads capable of threatening the U.S. homeland will more than double to over 100 by the mid-2020s.2

China is on a long-term path of replacing its old liquid-fuel, moveable DF-3A intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) with solid-fuel, road-mobile DF-21 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM). The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) was also expected to conduct its first patrol by the end of 2014 while armed with the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile. The PLA Navy is estimated to have three Jin-class boats, which could increase to four to five SSBNs by 2020. China is also reportedly developing a next-generation SSBN, called the Type 096. It is therefore gradually making progress toward a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.3 [End Page 14]

Therefore, as one scholar wrote in the pages of this journal, “after decades of reliance on a small and potentially strategic deterrent, China is finally achieving the ‘lean and effective’ nuclear force” that its leaders believe to be essential to protect the nation’s security interests.4 The PRC’s incremental development of this more secure second-strike nuclear capability began more than two decades ago. The rapid advances in U.S. conventional precision-strike capabilities observed in military operations during the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s was a key driver behind those efforts.

However, while Beijing’s reasons for wanting to enhance mutual nuclear vulnerability with the United States are clear, the implications for China’s strategic behavior, U.S.-Sino crisis stability, and Asian security in general are less certain. Optimists argue that China’s development of a more secure second-strike capability that enhances mutual vulnerability will strengthen U.S.-Sino crisis stability. One proponent of this view is Robert Ross, who argues that such a capability would minimize the risk of the United States launching a disarming first strike, while leaving intact Washington’s ability to respond with its dominant conventional forces to any attempt by Beijing to alter the regional status quo.5 Yet given the changing strategic context underlying the U.S.-Sino relationship, there are reasons to caution against such a positive reading.

The Changing Strategic Context and U.S.-China Strategic Stability

China’s nuclear modernization occurs in the midst of Asia-Pacific power shifts. Beijing is increasingly willing to contest U.S. leadership in the region, which has long been based on the United States’ unrivaled military power. To do so, China is not only modernizing its nuclear forces but also significantly upgrading its conventional capabilities. By investing in anti-access/area-denial capabilities, China is raising the costs for a third-party intervention (for example, by the United States) in a dispute in its “near seas”—that is, the Yellow Sea, the Philippine Sea, and the South China Sea. The goal of this strategy seems to be to displace the United States as the dominant power in the western Pacific.6 [End Page 15]

In this context, the assumption that the United States’ conventional superiority will guarantee U.S.-Sino strategic stability in contemporary Asia could be problematic. To be sure, in absolute terms U.S. conventional forces will still outweigh China’s by a wide margin for years to come. However, as China is...


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