China, Nuclear Weapons, and Arms Control: A Preliminary Assessment

By Davis, Carmel | Parameters, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

China, Nuclear Weapons, and Arms Control: A Preliminary Assessment


Davis, Carmel, Parameters


By Robert A. Manning Ronald Montaperto, and Brad Roberts. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 2000. 106 pages. $10.00 (paper).

As co-chairs of a panel sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, National Defense University, and the Institute for Defense Analysis bringing together academics and government experts, the authors have written a short book aimed at the policy community. The authors contend that China's choices about nuclear weapons may be as important to the United States as Russia's over the next decade because China views itself as a rising power and is sensitive to its perceptions that the United States is attempting to contain it. China is pursuing a strategy of modernizing its forces and may be increasing their size. Chinese doctrine, however, is in flux, and China's interest in arms control is unclear. The authors also argue that these issues are poorly understood in the United States because current expertise on nuclear weapons issues is based on our experience with Russia, while most US experts on China are unfamiliar with nuclear weapons. Additionally, our current experience with nuclear weapons is drawn from the bipolar US-Soviet relationship; as US, Russian, and Chinese arsenals converge, we will be entering the unknown territory of a tripolar relationship. Finally, US national missile defense (NMD) initiatives are a complicating factor.

This is a preliminary assessment, and the authors point to several issues without fully developing them. First, they are generally troubled by Chinese modernization of its ICBM force. However, as they observe, force modernization may be benign. From an American perspective, Chinese forces today are sufficient for minimal deterrence. This is primarily because the United States is easily deterred: We do not want to lose Los Angeles, and we are unlikely to rely on NMD. The United States views itself as a status quo power, and nuclear weapons work well for maintaining the status quo and poorly for changing it. However, the Chinese leadership may have little confidence in China's forces because they lack a secure second-strike capability and quite possibly possess only a limited ability to manage any forces that survive a conventional or nuclear attack. Given these limitations, they may have even less confidence in their capability for intrawar deterrence and still less if the United States builds an NMD system. China's modest modernization for deterrence, particularly of intercontinental forces, may be a solution to Chinese perceptions of a problem rather than something requiring an American response.

Rather than the capability on which the authors focus, what may really be the problem is how China might use it. The ongoing debate about doctrine, especially with regard to the role of nuclear weapons, is a second underdeveloped theme. …

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