Xi’s nuclear frenzy aimed at shielding China’s expansionism

Weapons buildup casts doubt on whether U.S. can defend Taiwan

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Military vehicles carrying DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles drive past Tiananmen Square in October 2019: Beijing is relishing the international attention its nuclear-weapons buildup is getting.   © Reuters

Far from seeking to hide its frenzied nuclear-weapons buildup, China is flaunting it, as if to underline that its rapidly growing arsenal is driven more by political than military considerations. The unprecedented speed and scale of the buildup appears to be linked to President Xi Jinping’s international expansionism as China seeks global primacy by 2049, the centenary of communist rule.

China’s neighbors need to pay close attention to this buildup, even though it seems primarily aimed at dissuading Washington from challenging China’s actions at home and abroad.

Just as Xi’s muscular revisionism has largely centered on Asia, from the East and South China Seas to the Himalayas, the security-related impacts, as opposed to the geopolitical implications, of the fast-growing Chinese nuclear armory are likely to be felt principally by Asian states.

Neighboring countries, from Japan and the Philippines to India and Bhutan, are already bearing the brunt of Xi’s recidivist policies. But with a larger nuclear arsenal, Xi will be further emboldened to step up his conventional-military tactics and hybrid warfare from behind China’s highly protective nuclear shield.

In such a scenario, China’s annexation of Taiwan could become difficult to stop, even though such a development would fundamentally alter Asian and international geopolitics.

Questions are already being raised in America about the strategic wisdom of defending Taiwan against a potential Chinese invasion, with some analysts contending that any U.S. plan to come to Taiwan’s rescue is far too risky and that Taipei ought to do more for its self-defense. In simulated combat exercises for the Pentagon, a RAND Corporation study found that China’s firepower in the form of long-range missiles could already hold U.S. warships and aircraft at bay in a Taiwan war scenario.

A China armed to its teeth with nuclear weapons would cast further doubt on whether the U.S. could defend Taiwan, given the greater risks involved.

Xi’s regime has accelerated the production of nuclear warheads so rapidly that the Pentagon, in just one year, has revised up its estimate of the number of such weapons that China will deploy by 2030 from 400 to more than 1,000.

China has already fielded its first operational hypersonic-weapon system and “intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning posture with an expanded silo-based force,” according to the Pentagon’s recent report to Congress.

Far from seeking to conceal its hyperactive nuclearization, China has constructed two new nuclear missile fields in its remote northwest in ways easily visible to overhead satellites. It is expanding its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos from about 20 to as many as 250. One of these new missile fields is not far from the notorious Hami internment camp in Xinjiang that holds Uighur and other Muslims for “re-education.”Satellite imagery of suspected missile silos being constructed near Jilantai, pictured in November 2019.   © Maxar Technologies/Getty Images

Chinese state media may have dismissed the new ICBM silos as windmills, but Beijing is relishing the international attention its nuclear-weapons buildup is getting because such publicity implicitly underscores its message that it is emerging as a superpower whose plans cannot be stymied.

Xi himself took the lead in public messaging when the state media reported his directive to the military in March to “accelerate the construction of advanced strategic deterrent” systems, as if China’s moderately sized nuclear armory in comparison to America’s was constraining its ambitious international agenda.

It is well understood that nuclear weapons are for deterrence, not for warfighting. More nuclear warheads do not necessarily imply stronger deterrence, which is why India appears content with its small but diversified arsenal. Xi’s objectives, however, are essentially geopolitical, which explains his resolve to narrow the gap with the massive, “overkill” arsenals of the U.S. and Russia.

The objectives extend from having an arsenal befitting an emerging superpower to building leverage in future arms-control negotiations with Washington and Moscow. The principal objective, however, is to stop the U.S., as the leader of the largest alliance of countries the world has ever known, from challenging China’s “core interests.”

As a Beijing-based Chinese analyst has put it, “Beijing’s nuclear buildup is ultimately an attempt to force Washington to drop the perceived strategic assault and accept a mutual vulnerability relationship.” According to him, Beijing sees “growing U.S. pressure on China over human rights, the rule of law, Hong Kong and Taiwan as evidence that Washington is willing to take greater risks to stop China’s rise by delegitimizing the government, destabilizing the country and blocking national unification.”

Whether Xi’s nuclear frenzy can tame U.S. reaction or win greater respect for China is questionable. If anything, it is likely to accelerate the fundamental shift in America’s China policy set in motion by Xi’s scofflaw actions.

Regionally, however, the nuclear-weapons buildup is set to lengthen China’s shadow over Asia while heightening military tensions with its main Asian rivals — Japan and India.

The buildup’s security implications are starker for non-nuclear Japan than for nuclear-armed India, which has stood up to China’s aggression in the Himalayas by locking horns in tense military standoffs over the past nearly 20 months, despite the risk of a full-scale war.

Japan, already shaken out of its complacency by an expansionist China vying for regional hegemony, is likely in the coming years to rearm and become militarily more independent of the U.S., without jettisoning its security treaty with Washington.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”