Deviations in China’s Nuclear Strategy: Perceptions of US-Sourced Threats and the Search for Assured Retaliation

Sarı İ.

INSAN & TOPLUM-THE JOURNAL OF HUMANITY & SOCIETY, vol.14, no.2, pp.1-25, 2024 (ESCI)

  • Publication Type: Article / Article
  • Volume: 14 Issue: 2
  • Publication Date: 2024
  • Doi Number: 10.12658/m0728
  • Journal Indexes: Emerging Sources Citation Index (ESCI), TR DİZİN (ULAKBİM)
  • Page Numbers: pp.1-25
  • Ankara Haci Bayram Veli University Affiliated: Yes


The discovery of China’s construction of three new missile silo sites in mid-2021 raised questions about whether China had changed its traditional minimum nuclear

deterrence strategy. This study argues that China has deviated from its long-standing nuclear strategy. Instead of the concept of change, which implies certainty and

direction, this article prefers the concept of deviation, which does not determine direction and entails uncertainty. The unfavorable changes in the conventional

balance between the USA and China have encouraged China to expand its nuclear capabilities for a guaranteed retaliation and to improve its conventional capabilities

in order to increase the survivability of its nuclear forces. Today, the interaction between conventional and nuclear forces creates a complex dynamic that significantly

affects states’ threat perceptions and behaviors. A state may respond by bolstering its nuclear deterrent when it believes that an adversary’s conventional capabilities

could weaken its nuclear forces. It can also strengthen its conventional capabilities to make its nuclear forces more resilient. Chinese experts believe that the United States’ ability to launch conventional precision strikes poses a serious danger to China’s ability to respond in kind. In their opinion, China’s nuclear arsenal now faces a wider variety of conventional threats than in the past. The development of capabilities like the dual-capable, highly accurate DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile can be considered a deviation from China’s minimum deterrence strategy, even though insufficient evidence is found to suggest that China’s nuclear strategy has changed (Andrew, 2022). This suggests that China has demonstrated a strategic flexibility that can evolve and change, one that can adapt in order to deal with potential threats to its nuclear deterrent (Hiim et al. 2023, p. 150). The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile system crisis, which occupied the international agenda very intensely in 2016, and China’s perception of some other threats originating from the US, has also had a significant impact on China’s deviation from its normal strategy. China’s strategic community has watched with growing worry two significant adjustments in the US military’s posture over the last few years. First, many analysts in Beijing equate the shift in US nuclear doctrine to emphasize the limited use of nuclear weapons with concerns about China’s expanding conventional military capabilities. This shift is considered a watershed moment in US security strategy, with the emphasis on limited nuclear use seen as a response to China’s expanding military capability. The United States’ development of a variety of conventional counterforce capabilities, such as missile defense and conventional precision attack platforms, represents the second shift. These capabilities would scale back or even completely destroy China’s guaranteed capacity for retaliation. The end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea, the successful test of the SM-3 interceptor missile against ICBMs, and the conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) program are some of the developments that have China worried. China is therefore building sophisticated

conventional capabilities in addition to increasing and modernizing its nuclear forces in order to bolster deterrence against conventional threats (Tellis, 2022). Chinese

experts argue that, in order to overcome the US missile defense system and increase the effectiveness of China’s nuclear weapons, China should rely on capabilities such as anti-satellite weapons and satellite and ground radar, as well as missiles using conventional weapons (Warren & Bartley, 2021, p. 177). The advanced long-range THAAD X-band radar system, which covers two-thirds of Chinese airspace, is of most concern to China. China has vehemently protested the THAAD system’s installation in South Korea. According to Chinese officials, the THAAD system is primarily intended to weaken China’s strategic deterrence and contribute to a global anti-missile system that threatens both Beijing and Moscow, despite being able to offer South Korea limited defense against North Korean ballistic missiles (Maick & Salidjanova, 2017). This is due to the radar system the US built, which causes China to lose its capacity to launch a surprise attack in roughly two thirds of the nation. Deterrence is negatively impacted by this condition, as this makes responding to any attacks more difficult. The growing US emphasis on creating novel capabilities, including hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) for long-range precision attack missions, is another factor that has raised China’s fears. China’s military observers view hypersonic weapons and other vehicles as possible game changers. This is due to the fact that such weapons can defeat any air defense or missile defense systems that are already in place and provide very little warning period. These observers have also emphasized how the development of hypersonic weapons will almost certainly result in a new arms race. A comprehensive analysis by Kristensen and Korda (2021) identified several factors that contribute to China’s nuclear missile silo expansion: i) Enhanced Retaliation Capability: China seeks to safeguard its current Conventional Armed Ballistic Missile Force (CABF) silos from potential attacks by bolstering its missile stockpile. The notion is that additional silos could theoretically withstand an attack and facilitate a retaliatory response. ii) Mitigating the Impact of the US Missile Defense: Concerns have long persisted that missile defense systems could undermine China’s retaliatory capacity. To counter this, China aims to enhance the effectiveness of its missile defense by expanding its solid-fuel missile inventory and warhead stockpile. iii) Transition to Solid-Fuel Silo Missiles: China’s transition from liquid-fueled to solid-fueled missile silos is motivated by the vulnerability of the former, which require lengthy preparation times before launch. This shift is expected to improve the operational procedures and security of the CABF. iv) Transition to Peacetime Missile Alert Posture: Historically, Chinese missiles have been deployed without nuclear warheads during peacetime, while US and Russian counterparts have maintained a launch-ready status. China now intends to arm its missiles with nuclear warheads to bolster the credibility of its deterrence, given rising military competition with the US. v) Balancing the CABF: An increasing percentage (80%) of China’s CABFs are mobile, necessitating the strengthening of the silo-based component to maintain a legitimate role in the country’s overall CABF capabilities. vi) Augmenting China’s Nuclear Attack Capability: Departing from its minimum deterrence stance, China’s leadership appears to recognize the need for more missiles with multiple warheads to maintain the threat against a broader range of enemy facilities. vii) Enhancing Conventional Fast Strike Capability: While the silos at Jilantai are ostensibly designed for nuclear missiles, they could also accommodate conventional ballistic missiles, enabling rapid strikes on medium-range or strategic targets. viii) Pursuing National Prestige: As China ascends as a global power with increased power and wealth, it perceives the need for a more substantial missile inventory to substantiate its claim to great power status. The US State Department in early July 2021 deemed China’s nuclear buildup worrying and stated that Beijing appeared to be departing from its long-standing nuclear strategy focused on minimum deterrence. China’s rise and new geopolitical tensions have disrupted decades of strategic stability around nuclear weapons. In the coming years, the capacity and capability of China’s nuclear forces are likely to outpace the potential advances of any adversary (e.g., the United States and Russia). This study aims to analyze in depth the reasons behind China’s deviations from the traditional strategy of minimum nuclear deterrence by expanding its nuclear missile silos. This paper also examines the role of nuclear weapons in China’s military doctrine and the recent modernization efforts of the Chinese military in order to understand China’s nuclear power capabilities. The focal point of this study is to understand China’s evolving nuclear capabilities based on its threat perceptions and their impact on global security dynamics.