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US and China prepare to tackle dangerous scenarios over the Taiwan issue

The Chinese authorities have decided to expand its nuclear arsenal after reassessing the threats coming from the US. The Wall Street Journal quotes sources as saying that the Chinese leadership sees a strong nuclear arsenal as the only way to “deter the US from getting directly involved in a potential conflict over Taiwan.”

 The newspaper refers to the analysis of satellite data purportedly showing that China has accelerated work on at least 120 suspected missile silos located in the remote western region of the country, near Yumen. 

Experts say the sites could be used to deploy nuclear-capable weapons that could reach US territory. Satellite images taken in January 2022 indicate that the expansion process has already ended at 50 of the suspected missile silos.

Analysts close to the Western intelligence community openly attribute Beijing’s efforts to the increasingly confrontational nature of relations with the United States. They fear that increased capabilities could mean that Chinese authorities are prepared to launch a pre-emptive strike in the event of a potential escalation.  

‘High degree of trust’

Equipping its armed forces with modern weapons, including nuclear ones, has been central to China’s nation-building. The first national atomic program, approved in 1951, was exclusively for peaceful purposes, but by the mid-1950s, China had discreetly built nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. In the spring of 1953, Beijing appealed to Soviet authorities for assistance.

Moscow managed to share some of the technology. Even after the cooling of Soviet-Chinese relations in the 1960s, Beijing was forced to develop strategic nuclear weapons without the neighbour’s participation. The Russian side still uses the fact of cooperation in this area as an element of its mainstream anti-Western discourse. 

In 2020, Sergey Naryshkin, Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, noted that China’s familiarity with the domestic experience implied high trust between the countries.

Now China’s army is armed with Dongfeng intercontinental ballistic missiles of various types: the liquid-propellant silo-based DF-5 missile developed in the 1970s, with a range of 10,000 to 14,000 kilometers, the mobile solid-fuel propellant DF-31 missile developed in the 1980s, with a range of about 11,000 kilometers, and the relatively new solid-fuel DF-41 missile, which has a range of over 15,000 kilometers. At the same time, China is spending a lot of money developing its submarine-launched missile fleet.

Estimates of the total arsenal of nuclear warheads available in Beijing are very rough since the country has not disclosed details of its strategic development capabilities.

But according to independent estimates, the corresponding stockpile reaches several hundred warheads. In November 2021, the US Defense Department released a report predicting that by 2030 the number of nuclear warheads in service with the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) could exceed 1,000.

Taiwan testing ground 

At the end of March, the Joe Biden administration handed Congress a classified version of the US National Defense Strategy. Administration officials told Arms Control Today that the document included the Nuclear Posture Review and the Missile Defense Review as appendices. In them, they said, the US president broke a campaign promise by endorsing a policy option that leaves open the possibility of using weapons of mass destruction in response not only to nuclear attacks but also to non-nuclear threats.

Chinese officials suspect that the arena where Washington would risk testing this course of action could be the conflict between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan.

Washington remains the main arms exporter to the island nation but has tried to maintain a policy of strategic ambiguity, keeping Beijing guessing what would happen in the event of its attempted invasion and annexation. Last year, Taipei stepped up its reservists’ training program and ramped up its purchases of defence equipment. The island’s authorities have also raised the question of extending mandatory military service to 12 months.

Experts at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in Washington believe that China’s appetite may have been whetted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Chinese military and political leadership have probably adjusted their methodology and even tightened their previously approved strategy. The CSBA believes the changes may involve Beijing using the nuclear threat at the outset of the conflict to put the US at a disadvantage and curb the enthusiasm of regional players such as Japan.

Professor Lyle Goldstein, a professor at the US Naval War College, cites the researchers familiar with the content of the US-China dispute over the Taiwan dossier who claim that the scenario of a potential armed crisis on the island getting out of control is “far more dangerous than the current Russia-Ukraine conflict.” US leaders should act now, not wait for a crisis, Goldstein argues.

Another danger with China’s nuclear build-up is that the country is virtually unrestricted by international arms control regimes, apart from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). 

“The mix of Beijing’s intensive efforts to modernise its strategic forces with a gap in its commitments to limiting and reducing relevant weapons raises the fluttering question of the need for the PRC to become involved in the relevant treaties. But Beijing avoids raising the issue in this way.

According to Vasily Kashin, director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University of Higher School of Economics, during this decade, the Chinese will be inferior to the Russian side in the number of warheads. However, the Asian player certainly has more opportunities to increase the figures in the long-term perspective.

The expert does not rule out a breakthrough to get a thousand warheads. However, it is not only their number that matters in such a situation, but also how they are managed and disposed of, the researcher concludes.

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