Commentary September 22, 2020

The United States Must Avoid a Nuclear Arms Race with China

Oriana Skylar Mastro explains why U.S. nuclear policy needs to minimize the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S.-China great power competition and pave the way for arms control.
A missile display in the Military Museum in Beijing, China.
A missile display in the Military Museum in Beijing, China. Guang Niu, Getty Images

This essay by Oriana Skylar Mastro originally appeared in Cato Unbound.



In his lead essay, Eric Gomez cites profound technological changes as the main reason why the United States should rethink its nuclear policy. However, there is one drastic change he does not adequately take into account: the rise of China. This response essay, therefore, focuses on the China factor in U.S. nuclear policy.

Chinese Nuclear Modernization

Since the turn of the century, China has been modernizing its nuclear forces in earnest. Currently, Beijing’s nuclear arsenal is estimated to number in the 200s. From 2017 to 2018, warheads increased by ten, and the Pentagon anticipates that the stockpile will double over the next ten years. These modernization efforts, such as moving from silo-based liquid-fueled ICBMs to mobile solid-fueled delivery vehicles, have focused mainly on improving force survivability. China also added a sea leg to its nuclear deterrent in 2016 with the introduction of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (JL-2) on its Jin-class ballistic missile submarine.

Additionally, China is producing ballistic missile systems with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) and maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) technologies that enhance missiles’ effectiveness. To this end, China has launched more ballistic missiles for testing and training in 2019 than the rest of the world combined. Meanwhile, the PLA’s new hypersonic cruise missiles supposedly are capable of piercing existing missile defense systems. Furthermore, structural reforms in China’s military reveal the critical role nuclear weapons play in Chinese strategy. In 2016, the branch in charge of China’s nuclear deterrent, the Second Artillery, was upgraded to a service, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. Its commander was added to China’s highest military body, the Central Military Commission.

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China’s drive to modernize, diversify, and expand its nuclear forces may cause some to argue with Gomez’s essential premise that new thinking is needed. This week, U.S. Strategic Commander Adm. Charles Richard remarked that China’s nuclear weapons buildup is “inconsistent” with their long-held no-first-use policy, emphasizing the need for the United States to pursue nuclear modernization. Indeed, there has been a resurgence in Cold War thinking about nuclear deterrence. For example, Former Senator Jon Kyl and Michael Morell argued for more low-yield nuclear warheads as part of an “escalate to deescalate” strategy. Similarly, Bret Stephens raised concerns that the U.S. arsenal is insufficient to prevent Chinese aggression.

However, I agree with Gomez that we need to rethink U.S. nuclear policy to ensure it can better meet contemporary challenges. Specifically, I argue that to best suit U.S. foreign policy interests, U.S. nuclear policy needs to minimize the role of nuclear weapons in U.S.-China great power competition and pave the way for arms control.

Continue reading Oriana Mastro's response essay in Cato Unbound >>

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