The U.S. Department of Defense considers China the pacing threat to the United States as its military buildup, economic coercion, and political warfare threaten the U.S.-led world order that serves the interests of Americans.
While the United States has devoted significant attention and resources to the Indo-Pacific, the nuclear element of competition with China has only begun to enter the public discourse. The United States has enjoyed nuclear superiority over China’s minimum nuclear deterrence posture since China first acquired nuclear weapons in 1964. But in 2021 it was revealed to the public that China is building up its nuclear forces as part of a strategic breakout to eventually achieve nuclear parity—if not superiority—to the United States.
China’s rapid nuclear expansion not only aligns with China’s conventional military aggression and economic coercion, but is also essential to the achievement of its regional and global ambitions. As China modernizes its nuclear triad, fields hundreds of new nuclear missiles, and improves its theater nuclear forces, it can backstop its aggressive military pursuits around the world. After explaining the extent of China’s nuclear buildup and the role that its strategic breakout plays in China’s aggressive ambitions, this paper will outline the grave challenges that China’s nuclear expansion presents for the United States. With a significantly expanded nuclear arsenal, China will be freer to coerce or constrain U.S. options in a crisis or use nuclear threats to compel the United States to back down in a conflict. The United States must prioritize this nuclear threat and devote greater attention and resources to determining how to deter or deny China these advantages.
China’s Nuclear Expansion: From Minimum Deterrence to Strategic Breakout
The United States has enjoyed a favorable nuclear balance of power over China since China acquired nuclear weapons in 1964. Historically, China’s leaders have believed that China needed to maintain a posture of minimum deterrence, which entails only enough nuclear weapons to target adversary cities in a second-strike attack. If Beijing’s goal was to prevent a nuclear strike on its soil, then this threat of countervalue targeting would suffice to deter a nuclear attack by its adversaries—namely, the United States and the Soviet Union after the Sino-Soviet split. Early on, China also used the term “lean and effective” to describe its nuclear deterrent as one that can deter a nuclear attack and prevent nuclear coercion. “Lean and effective” is consistent with China’s nuclear declaratory policy of “No First Use,” per which it allegedly commits to never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. In accordance with these policies, China in 2010 only had about 65 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) along with a small force of dual-capable intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles.
Over the last two decades, China has been pursuing a long-held goal of modernizing its nuclear forces. This process has included technical upgrades to its ICBM forces as well as the development of a sea-based deterrent with Jin-class nuclear submarines armed with JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles likely deployed around 2015. But even as China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has modernized its nuclear forces, the Pentagon reported as recently as 2020 that China still had fewer than 300 nuclear weapons, paling in comparison to the U.S. arsenal of close to 2,000 deployed nuclear weapons. Under U.S. nuclear deterrence requirements, China has been considered a “lesser included case” to the primary threat of Russia. That meant the United States maintained a force to deter Russia, the primary threat, but simultaneously had enough nuclear weapons in excess to deter China’s small force.
That is no longer the case. China has been rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal to move far beyond a “lean and effective” structure and closer to parity—if not superiority—to the United States and Russia. Though the Pentagon predicted in 2020 China would double its arsenal of about 200 nuclear weapons by the end of the decade, the true size and speed of China’s nuclear buildup has only truly been exposed in the last couple years. In summer 2021, public analysts revealed that China is building over 300 new missile silos in its Western Desert that would likely carry the Dong Feng-41 (DF-41), China’s most modern ICBM. China already deploys about 100 ICBMs, placing its ICBM force on track to exceed the U.S. arsenal of 400 deployed ICBMs. The DF-41 is estimated to carry multiple warheads (possibly up to ten), and since U.S. ICBMs currently carry only one warhead each, the number of China’s deployed land-based warheads could quickly surpass that of the United States. The Pentagon’s 2021 China Military Power Report confirmed that China would have at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by the end of the decade—roughly five times the size of its current stockpile. As a result of this buildup, Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in 2021 announced China’s “strategic breakout” of its nuclear forces. In February 2022, the Director of National Intelligence stated that “Beijing will continue the largest ever nuclear force expansion and arsenal diversification in its history.”
Beijing is also advancing its nuclear forces qualitatively. It completed its nuclear triad with the deployment of the Xian Hong-6 nuclear capable bomber (H-6N) around 2020. Beijing has hundreds of theater-range, dual-capable missiles like the Dong Feng-26 (DF-26) and the Dong Feng-21 (DF-21) that can strike out to the second island chain in the Indo-Pacific with precision. Significantly, the United States has no nuclear weapons in this category. China is testing and deploying nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons to include one that can orbit the globe on a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) before being released to glide to its target. This weapon system would avoid U.S. early warning radars and be useful for a first strike capability. The overall advancement of Chinese nuclear forces indicates that China’s “No First Use” policy is no longer credible. The PLA is also implementing a Launch on Warning (LOW) nuclear posture that would enable it to launch nuclear weapons upon early warning of a nuclear attack; currently only the United States and Russia have this capability. Finally, activity at China’s Lop Nur nuclear test site raises concern that China is not adhering to the zero-yield nuclear test standard by which the United States abides. Conducting even low yield nuclear tests could enable China to improve the quality of its nuclear warheads and develop precise, low-yield weapons for warfighting in a regional conflict.
The sheer quantitative expansion as well as qualitative upgrades have led U.S. senior leaders to conclude that China has become a nuclear peer to the United States and Russia and could eventually even surpass U.S. nuclear capabilities. According to Admiral Richard, China “possesses the capability to employ any coercive nuclear strategy today.” The United States for the first time now faces a three-party nuclear dynamic that requires it to deter two nuclear peers at once (Russia and China) and deter them differently.
China’s Nuclear Expansion Will Enable its Ambitions
China’s expansion can be explained by its great power ambitions, for which nuclear weapons play a significant role in enabling China to achieve its goals. President Xi has made clear his message “to realize the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation,” which echoes Chairman Mao Zedong’s effort to lead China out of its prior “century of humiliation” during which China was repeatedly subjugated by outside powers. Following Mao, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously stated that China would hide its capabilities and bide its time. Under Xi, the period of ‘hide and bide’ has ended and China is now “blunting and building efforts worldwide to displace the United States as the global leader,” according to China expert Rush Doshi. Xi has committed to transforming China’s military into a world-class force by 2049, the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. According to one senior PLA commander, a world class military entails the ability to quickly move to any part of the world to influence events, win a major war and protect national interests, quickly manage non-traditional threats, and improve and innovate. By 2027, Xi aims to achieve military parity with the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. He has made clear his intention to unify with Taiwan, not ruling out the use of military force to do so.
Beijing has made several investments into its military to achieve these goals. To achieve regional dominance, China deploys hundreds of ballistic and cruise missiles intended to deny the United States access to the Chinese coast, pursues a world-class shipbuilding program, and produces aircraft seemingly intended to strike U.S. and allied bases in the region as well as U.S. carrier strike groups. Beyond regional military capabilities, Beijing is rapidly building a blue water navy to enable power projection outside the Indo-Pacific region and potentially have a stake in crises all around the world. It is also establishing military bases in states like Djibouti that would further enable global power projection. China is the United States’ pacing threat in space, deploying both capabilities to enable its own military operations as well as offensive capabilities to deny the United States access to space in a conflict.
Developing a nuclear force on par with—or superior to—that of the United States is perhaps the most important investment required to pursue these ambitions and is therefore essential to Xi’s strategy to develop a world-class military and supplant the United States on the world stage. Nuclear weapons are considered a “backstop” to a nation’s conventional forces. In a conflict between nuclear-weapons states, an aggressor can only go so far without considering the consequences of escalation to the nuclear level. Such is why the United States and Russia have not been challenged in a meaningful way since they acquired significant nuclear forces. China’s previous posture of minimum deterrence enabled it to deter major attack on its homeland, but U.S. nuclear superiority had made it more difficult for the PLA to take significant military risks. Now, backed by a larger and more flexible nuclear force, China has the backing to take additional, aggressive risks and can also prevent subjugation to coercion from other powers. Especially if China’s nuclear buildup tips the nuclear balance of power in its favor, China will have more freedom to escalate conflicts if it calculates that the costs of nuclear disaster are smaller for itself than for the United States.
The impacts of China’s expanded nuclear forces would become evident in the case of a military effort to unify with Taiwan. Backed by nuclear missiles that can strike targets ranging from Taiwan out to the Second Island Chain (in addition to a strategic force capable of holding the U.S. homeland at risk), China can become more confident and secure in a conventional fight. If fighting over Taiwan escalates, China can rely on its nuclear forces to coerce Taiwan or the United States, should it become involved, to back down. Worse, it can employ nuclear weapons in an attempt to bring the conflict to an end on terms favorable to China. In this case, China’s expanded nuclear forces fit directly into its goal to unify with Taiwan and then expand its dominance into the Indo-Pacific. In fact, in such a scenario, China’s nuclear weapons could determine the outcome of the conflict. China’s expanded nuclear forces can be used similarly in other scenarios where China attempts to assert its power regionally or globally, posing risks to the United States as it engages in the competition.
Implications for U.S. Strategy and Security
China’s expanded nuclear forces and resulting ability to backstop its conventional aggression has profound implications for U.S. competition with China. First, the United States will no longer wield the unilateral ability to exercise nuclear coercion over China, nor will it be free from Chinese nuclear coercion. Should the United States face a military crisis or conflict with China, it will have to factor China’s nuclear capabilities into its decision-making processes. The U.S. military will then no longer have freedom of action without fear of nuclear escalation; instead, it will need to proceed with caution in any confrontation under the shadow of China’s equivalent, if not superior, nuclear arsenal.
Such a scenario is acute in a crisis in the Indo-Pacific, where China enjoys regional nuclear superiority. While China deploys hundreds of dual-capable medium- and intermediate-range missiles, the United States forward deploys no nuclear weapons to the Indo-Pacific and has a very limited non-strategic nuclear capability. In a conflict over Taiwan, China can use its nuclear forces to threaten the United States to back down or further escalate the conflict. Xi could take a page from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook and more credibly threaten “consequences you have never seen” should the United States come to Taiwan’s defense, as Putin threatened when his forces invaded Ukraine. Indeed, in the same way the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been reluctant to take escalatory action in Ukraine, China’s regional nuclear superiority could deter the United States and its allies from intervening in a fight for Taiwan over the fear of fighting a nuclear peer. The PLA’s 2020 Science of Military Strategy also discusses launching nuclear weapons as “demonstration strikes” to signal resolve or issue threats during a crisis. As Admiral Richard warned, “we will be the ones that are getting deterred if I don’t have the capability to similarly deter them.” China’s nuclear expansion of its strategic forces will also leave the U.S. homeland increasingly vulnerable to attack, adding to China’s abilities to coerce, threaten, and limit U.S. options.
Second, China may become more tempted to actually use nuclear weapons in a conflict should it perceive a favorable nuclear balance of power over the United States. For example, China could see utility in the limited employment of nuclear weapons if it perceives itself to be losing a conventional conflict. China may even deliberately pursue such a strategy, which would align with proposals by some PLA leaders to abandon its alleged policy of “No First Use.” So long as the United States lacks similar capabilities to deter nuclear use at the lower rungs of the escalation ladder in the region, China may perceive a U.S. response to limited nuclear use in the Indo-Pacific to be uncredible.
Regardless of whether China adopts a strategy of nuclear first use, the development of capabilities that might allow the mere contemplation of a first strike inserts risk into the competition. A first strike on the U.S. homeland would require an overwhelming amount of force to deplete the U.S. ICBM force of 450 silos spread across the Midwest. For this reason, the land-leg of the U.S. nuclear triad is critical for deterrence. China may not have the forces available now to disarm U.S. ICBM forces, but if China continues its nuclear buildup and arms its more than 300 new missile silos with ICBMs that can carry multiple warheads each, this option becomes less unattractive as it gains the ability to at least degrade U.S. ICBM forces. While the U.S. assured second strike capability makes such an attack highly unlikely, the United States should account for this added risk when nuclear war is at stake.
The FOBS that released a hypersonic weapon that China tested in August 2021 would also be suitable for a first-strike weapon because it can avoid U.S. early warning systems. Orbiting a nuclear weapon through space could enable China to release the weapon from anywhere around the globe, exploiting gaps in U.S. early warning systems. Once released, the hypersonic nuclear vehicle can fly at low altitudes at hypersonic speeds and maneuver through the atmosphere, avoiding U.S. space- and land-based radars, further reducing warning time. Systems able to avoid early-warning satellites and radars would prohibit the United States from organizing a retaliatory strike before incoming warheads reach their targets, a concept fundamental to deterrence. This capability raises the prospect of a disarming surprise attack on the United States that cripples the nation’s ability to respond. Though one test does not mean China is necessarily embracing a doctrine of nuclear pre-emption, the development of capabilities that might allow the mere contemplation of such an approach adds risk.
Third, China’s growing nuclear forces could hinder the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence commitments. As the U.S. homeland becomes increasingly vulnerable to a Chinese nuclear strike, it is feasible that China could perceive the United States to be less willing to come to the defense of an ally in the region—to trade Los Angeles for Taipei, Seoul, or Tokyo. In other words, China can decouple the United States from its allies by holding the U.S. homeland at risk with China’s strategic forces, like its growing ICBM force. Or conversely, China could decouple the United States from its allies by using its intermediate-range nuclear forces to exclusively threaten U.S. allies while sparing the U.S. homeland, disincentivizing the United States to intervene on behalf of its allies. This strategy would mimic the Soviet strategy of deploying SS-20 Pioneer missiles in Europe in the 1970s in an attempt to exclude the United States from the conflict. China’s nuclear force growth combined with the lack of any U.S. nuclear forces in the Indo-Pacific could also make allies question the U.S. nuclear umbrella. If Japan, Tokyo, or Taiwan believe the United States will not come to their defense, they have the ability to develop nuclear capabilities of their own, risking U.S. nonproliferation efforts.
Finally, China’s nuclear forces could increase the risk of unintentional escalation to the nuclear level due to miscalculation. Once conventional conflict breaks out, the risks of miscalculations or mistakes that can provoke a Chinese nuclear strike increase. In particular, China deploys dual-capable missile systems in the Indo-Pacific where conventional and nuclear warheads for some missiles are co-located. If the United States attacks China’s dual-capable systems, there is risk that China interprets the attacks as threatening to its retaliatory capability and resorts to nuclear first-use to preserve its deterrent. Additionally, China’s potential shift of some of its forces to a LOW posture can increase the chances of miscalculation. Under a LOW posture, China can launch a retaliatory attack before any incoming nuclear weapons detonate on Chinese targets. This capability relies on correct information from Chinese early warning assets. But given what Admiral Richard described as “the immature nature of Chinese strategic forces and compressed timelines needed to assess and frame a response,” this posture could increase the risk for miscalculation and error. According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “[T]he difficulties associated with learning to operate such a system could generate false alarms about nonexistent incoming nuclear attacks, potentially triggering a nuclear exchange between China and the United States.” China’s refusal to enter any nuclear negotiations and its opacity regarding its nuclear strategy and intentions only exacerbate the risk of error.
The Need to Prioritize Strong Nuclear Deterrence in the Competition with China
As the United States rebalances its military forces toward the Indo-Pacific and prepares for long-term competition with China, it must assign greater priority to nuclear deterrence given the severity of the consequences of China’s nuclear expansion. Unfortunately, the United States is currently ill-prepared to face China as a nuclear peer in addition to Russia. The basic design of U.S. nuclear posture dates to around 2010, when the overall nuclear threat environment was expected to lessen over time and a Chinese strategic breakout was not considered. At the time decisions were made about the size and structure of U.S. nuclear forces for the next several decades, China still maintained its historic minimum deterrence posture and was expected to continue maintaining the forces only necessary for a credible second-strike capability and in line with its No First Use policy. According to General C. Robert Kehler, then-STRATCOM Commander, “At this time, China doesn’t appear to seek to expand their nuclear arsenal beyond what they perceive as a credible deterrent and is unlikely to attempt to match numbers of nuclear weapons or warheads with either the U.S. or Russia.”
As a result, the United States is currently pursuing a force modernization program that is only meant to deter one nuclear peer: Russia. While the United States plans to replace its outdated nuclear forces with modern equipment, it currently does not have any plans to adjust its nuclear force posture to account for the change in Chinese threat. But there is a direct relationship between adversary capabilities and U.S. deterrence requirements. Fundamental to the concept of deterrence is the ability to hold at risk those assets our adversaries value most, including their nuclear forces and accompanying infrastructure. For deterrence to be credible, the United States maintains the amount and types of nuclear weapons required to convince our adversaries that the U.S. can strike these targets if necessary.
Currently, U.S. nuclear forces provide the capabilities necessary to execute a nuclear strategy to defeat Russia as the primary nuclear threat, with capabilities to spare to deter China’s minimum deterrent posture. Now that China’s nuclear forces are on par with those of the United States and Russia, leaving U.S. nuclear posture the same would exacerbate the risks of Chinese nuclear coercion or even attack. Moreover, the United States cannot deter Russia and China separately; when it comes to the most dangerous weapons in the world, the United States must deter all threats at all times.
To decrease the chances of Chinese nuclear employment, improve freedom of U.S. military action in the Indo-Pacific, and to preserve U.S. extended deterrence commitments, the United States will need to prepare a nuclear posture that can address China as a nuclear peer. To do so, the Department of Defense should begin by considering increases to the capacity of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to ensure it can hold all necessary targets at risk. As an example, the United States could upload additional warheads currently held in reserve to the current nuclear arsenal, or it could procure additional strategic submarines or ICBMs. The United States does not need to match both Chinese and Russian nuclear forces on a one-to-one basis in order for deterrence to hold, but the United States’ current nuclear force posture, meant to deter only one nuclear peer, will not be enough for two major nuclear threats.
The United States will also need to focus on fielding capabilities tailored to deter China’s nuclear advantage in the Indo-Pacific. Given the change in threat, the United States needs more options than those designed for the more benign threat environment of the past. For example, U.S. Congress should continue funding the sea-launched cruise missile-nuclear that the Trump Administration, in addition to several senior military leaders, have identified as necessary to deter a gap in nuclear weapons that can be deployed directly to Indo-Pacific waters. The United States should consider bolstering missile defense both in the Indo-Pacific and in the U.S. homeland to remove some of China’s ability to hold U.S. forces and population centers at risk.
In addition to adjusting its force posture, the United States should pursue arms control as a tool to limit nuclear forces in a way that benefits the security of the United States and its allies and reduce the chances of miscalculation and error. However, so long as China continues refusing to participate in arms control discussions, the United States must prioritize developing the forces necessary to deter Chinese coercion and nuclear attack.
In the competition with China, nuclear war can no longer be considered a relic of the past, and instead must become a top priority. China’s nuclear buildup will become a game changer for its aggressive pursuits. As China improves its ability to existentially threaten the United States, it gains both the freedom from U.S. nuclear coercion and the freedom to pursue aggressive ambitions around the world. The greater a nation’s nuclear force relative to its competitors, the more risks it can take as it becomes increasingly free to escalate conflict with the backing of a superior nuclear force. The use of nuclear weapons may appear less likely compared to China’s other tools, like conventional forces or economic statecraft, but its nuclear weapons will significantly impact crisis escalation, insert risk into U.S. action, and compose China’s only existential threat to the United States. While strong U.S. competition in the economic, political, and conventional military arenas will remain important, maintaining a strong nuclear force capable of minimizing Chinese nuclear coercion, deterring nuclear use, and maintaining credible extended deterrence will be required for succeeding in any serious conflict with China. Therefore, as the United States shifts its national security strategy to great power competition with a focus on China, it must pay greater attention to the nuclear element and ensure its own nuclear forces can deter China’s growing nuclear forces both now and in the future.
Patty-Jane Geller is the Senior Policy Analyst for Nuclear Deterrence and Missile Defense at the Heritage Foundation where she researches, writes, and engages audiences on a variety of topics related to strategic forces. Her background is working on Capitol Hill, most recently for the Senate Armed Services Committee. She was a 2020-2021 Security and Strategy Seminar Russia fellow, a 2021-2022 China fellow, and is a 2022-2023 Iran fellow.
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