The Game of Nuclear Catch-up
Michael Richardson (Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore)
In its recent annual report on China's military power, the US defence department said that several developments had surprised American analysts, including the pace and scope of the programme to modernise Chinese long-range nuclear forces.
But that can hardly be surprising. In fact, the surprise must be that this development has not been quicker - as the Pentagon frequently predicted in the past.
Consider the current imbalance. The United States and Russia each have about 6,000 nuclear weapons in their operational stockpiles, with several thousand more in reserve. China has fewer than 400.
The US and Russia can strike targets in any part of the world by using an impressive array of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, submarines and aircraft. China has approximately 85 nuclear-capable, land-based missiles. But no more than 20 can reach the continental US.
The Chinese bombers that carry nuclear weapons are based on 1950s designs, have limited range and speed, and would have difficulty penetrating modern air defence systems. China has just one operational submarine that can fire long-range nuclear weapons. Even after a four-year overhaul, it lacks real potency. It has never sailed beyond China's regional waters or conducted a real deterrent patrol.
However, the Pentagon report predicts that some significant enhancements of Chinese nuclear capability are imminent. If correct, these would enable Beijing to hit targets in the US with land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and similar nuclear-tipped missiles fired from submarines.
Starting next year, China is expected to deploy DF-31A missiles, which have a range of over 11,270km - enough to hit any part of the US. They can be moved around on truck-like vehicles and use solid, not liquid, fuel. That makes them more difficult to detect and quicker to launch than the older, liquid-fuel, silo-based missiles.
Moreover, a new class of nuclear-powered submarine is expected to be armed with an advanced, sea-based variant of the DF-31, known as the JL-2, between next year and 2010.
The new long-range missiles, based on submarines hidden at sea and mobile platforms moving from place to place on land, will give China what it has long lacked - the assurance of being able to strike back even if it is hit by nuclear weapons.
US readings of growing Chinese power and military modernisation in recent years have reportedly prompted a shift in US nuclear targeting priorities away from Russia and towards China. An increasing number of US nuclear-armed submarines have been shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific. China is acutely aware of this trend.
Paradoxically, having more and better nuclear-armed missiles may quieten the debate in Chinese military circles about whether to change the long-standing policy that China will never be the first to use its nuclear weapons. This debate about the "no-first-use" policy surfaced publicly last year when a senior Chinese general said in Hong Kong that Beijing might respond with nuclear arms if the US attacked China with its overwhelmingly superior conventional forces.
China is far from nuclear parity with the US. But maybe being a bit more equal will make Asia and the rest of the world safer.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This is a personal comment.
(Originally appeared in the June 2, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)