On October 17, Financial Times reported that China had conducted a test of a hypersonic glide vehicle that circled the earth in low-orbit space before cruising onto its target. Earlier in the summer, through multiple media reports, we learnt that China is constructing at least 250 long-range missile silos at three different locations. In addition, we know from the 2020 United States (US) department of defense report that China intends to move to a launch-on-warning posture for its missile forces. To this end, Beijing is reportedly working on a space-based early warning system. Moreover, experts such as Austin Long and officers such as US Navy Admiral Charles Richard have pointed towards potential shifts in Chinese no-first-use policy.
The big question that arises is: Why are we seeing such a flurry of activity in nuclear China? Of course, the most prominent reason is that the leadership in China is feeling the pressure of the overwhelming nuclear superiority of the US and is working to correct the balance. In addition to the number and quality of warheads, the US has an extraordinary suite of capabilities in precision-targeting, satellite imagery, and anti-submarine warfare that make it a threat for the second-strike forces of its rivals.
Using its satellites, the US can track the land-based nuclear arsenal of its adversaries, and then use its accurate missiles to eliminate them. It can also use its passive sonar systems, extraordinarily stealthy nuclear attack submarines, and proficient maritime patrol air assets to hunt hostile SSBNs. If the US is unable to clean up all the long-range nuclear weapons of its rival in a counterforce strike, it has a chance to intercept the remaining ones through its missile defence systems.
If China has to escape this counterforce noose of America, it has to ensure that a) it has enough long-range nuclear weapons left after a counterforce strike by the US, and b) those remaining weapons can penetrate American missile defences. Through hundreds of silos, China is hoping to build a sink for American missiles.
If Beijing gets its shell game (shuffling the missiles among silos randomly) right — America’s radar satellites make the job difficult — the US will have to expend a large number of its missiles to be certain that it has eliminated all of China’s long-range systems. The sheer scale of the task might deter the US from contemplating a counterforce strike.
In case the US is not deterred, Beijing’s newly tested weapon has two components — the hypersonic glider and the low-earth orbiting space system, also known as Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), both independently designed to defeat American missile defence systems.
China’s need for silos, hypersonic glider, and FOBS is not entirely a surprise. However, what is puzzling is the acceleration on all these fronts around the same time. The US has been working on, and improving, its counterforce and missile defence capabilities for long. China is only responding now. One can understand that developing technology takes time, and hence China could not have tested hypersonic gliders decades ago. However, building missile fields was within China’s reach and yet we see them in such numbers only now.
The most likely explanation is that the possibility of a US-China conflict is much higher now, or at least the leadership in Beijing thinks so. If there is a conventional conflict between the US and China, over, let’s say, Taiwan, it can always escalate to nuclear levels. If the US believes that it possesses significant nuclear superiority, it might be tempted to undertake a massive counterforce strike. The latest Chinese investments are meant to deter such temptations.
However, why have the risks of a US-China conventional conflict grown? There are broadly two reasons.
The first has to do with structural factors and misperceptions leading to conflict. A rising power and a declining power, James Fearon argues, can go to war because they may not be able to settle over a bargained outcome. The rising State (China) will want a bargain based on its future power but the declining State (the US) will not agree to it because it stands to benefit from a bargain based on the current distribution of power. In such a scenario, a preventive war can be started by the declining power. The rising power, too, may start a war if it believes its power is peaking or if it is dissatisfied with its status. Similarly, both sides might slide into a war as a result of security dilemma. One side may take steps which are entirely defensive in nature, but the other may see them as offensive. In a resulting spiral, both may end up amassing offensive weapons and then either may start a war perceiving a window of opportunity or a first-mover advantage.
The second reason why China thinks a conventional conflict is likely is because it is going to start one. Here, structural factors such as power transition between rising and declining States or security dilemmas are not important. Instead, China’s “greed” — for example, to exercise complete sovereignty over Taiwan — is contributing to the risk of conflict. Rather than being worried about structural factors and misperceptions that can start a war, China might simply be preparing for a conflict it knows it will start. Therefore, even if China has non-aggressive motivations to invest in its nuclear forces, the timing of these developments suggest that Beijing’s aggressive intentions might still be a factor.
Kunal Singh is a PhD candidate in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The views expressed are personal
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