A security guard stands in front of signs displaying the Chinese characters reading 'nuclear power' at the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group Co. atomic plant in Taishan | Photographer: Qilai Shen | Bloomberg
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Even as Indian media closely followed the disengagement process between China and India at Gogra Post in Eastern Ladakh and the outcome of talks between officials, a series of important developments was almost entirely missed. In July, The Washington Post reported that China was building 120 new missile silos in Gansu province, a vast desert area that also houses one of its top experimental air bases. Shortly thereafter, a second report from reputed analysts observed a second missile silo base at Hami, in Xinjiang, which could eventually hold some 110 silos. True, it is still too early to say whether these silos will be used in their entirety, or what range and types of missiles are to be deployed.

Third, imagery seems to indicate that China is expanding its nuclear testing site at Lop Nur. Such sites are also used for testing non-nuclear components, and may not necessarily mean an impending nuclear test. But one thing is becoming clear. The ‘minimum deterrence’ posture is going out of the window; Beijing might even be on the cusp of an arms race, something it once very sensibly deplored.

From a ‘minimum’ arsenal…

China began its nuclear journey with assistance from ‘brother’ country the Soviet Union. It managed well even after Soviet advisors moved out as relations began to deteriorate. The first nuclear test in 1964 set it on a very quick path towards a ‘credible minimum deterrence’, which, by 2006, included the capability to stand on all three legs of the nuclear triad – land, sea and air.

Even thereafter, Beijing seemed content to be seen as the country with the “smallest nuclear arsenal’ competing with the UK for this status. Its actual stockpile was estimated as being at about 200 warheads. Its missiles were almost entirely liquid fueled, which meant a long, cumbrous wait for fueling before they could be deployed. But small or not, Beijing still had enough to cover both the region (read India and Japan) or the US even then.

By 2020, this capability had increased mainly through modernisation, switching to solid fuels, road mobility, and possible MIRVs (Multiple independently targeted Reentry vehicles). But its total warheads were still estimated to be in the “low 200s’, according to US estimates of operational warheads. In other words, while China polished up its capability, its overall posture continued to be in the ‘minimum’ category. This means that, like India, China very sensibly understood that use of nuclear weapons was a weapon of last resort, at a time when the very existence of the state was in jeopardy. It also understood that any enemy would calculate that the threat of use of even one nuclear weapon on its territory in retaliation to war, was just not worth the fight. If such an enemy did persevere, however, ‘capability’ meant that China could ride out the first strike, and deliver a punishing second strike. That’s what complicated deterrence doctrines mean in the simplest terms. So, there it remained. In the words of a Chinese expert, China was “modernizing without destabilizing.” It seems all that has changed now.

Also read: China is building several new nuclear silos. India must watch closely, but not panic

…to a very large expansion? 

The reports note that in total, the silo construction could be in the order of 250, more than ten times what China is known to have at present, which is 20. These silos have so far been used for the liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Now it is speculated that this could be silos for the 13,000-15,000 km range DF-41, and in a simple count this means more than 145 warheads for these missiles only, quite apart from the road mobile versions. If the 3 -10 warheads per missile is taken into account, it would potentially be quite a break out into thousands of warheads, a huge jump from earlier estimates.

The Pentagon report, while opting for a conservative estimate, did however point out that Beijing has enough fissile material to more than double its arsenal, without opting for renewed fissile material production. That China has decided to increase its missile numbers is the most logical conclusion, given Chinese fears of a US missile defense that could undermine its small arsenal. However, there is also the possibility that the silos are being used as decoys, which, together with the move inwards, points towards heightened survivability rather than just increased numbers.

Also read: 3 reasons why India can’t ignore China constructing missile silos to counter US

The rationale and the end result 

Looking at the situation from Beijing’s point of view, the most obvious reasons for this shift would centre on the US posture, which identified China as the ‘only competitor’ capable of marshalling its power to take on the US. President Joe Biden continues the earlier administration’s tough stance on Taiwan,  recently sending an  unofficial delegation to Taipei. Biden also reaffirmed US nuclear umbrella of Japan, and commitment to the Quad. The US Navy is aggressively patrolling the South China Sea, and so on.

But tensions have climbed before, either after incidents like the 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which led to riots back in China and destruction of US property; or doctrinal shifts like the unusually tough stand by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in 2018 on China’s island building in the South China Sea. None of this riled China enough to take a drastic step towards increasing its arsenal. Yet it seems to have done so now.

One possible clue is that nuclear powers are reviving the importance of nuclear weapons. Data indicates that the number of operational warheads has increased to 3,825, from 3,720 last year. A large part of these, mostly in US and Russian hands, were kept in a state of high operational alert. Then the UK reversed its earlier pledge to reduce its stockpile, instead increasing the cap by more than 40 per cent. This arose from the UK’s recent Integrated Review, while the Biden administration is guided by the Nuclear Posture Review 2018 that seemed to expand possible use of weapons even in a non-nuclear scenario. Russia also came up with an unexpected public doctrine, which pointed to a ‘launch on warning’ scenario.

China could hardly miss such signals. The most important rationale is China’s own big power projections under President Xi Jinping and his coterie. His most recent directive in March 2021 is quite indicative: China’s armed forces not only required to focus on combat readiness – a statement which alarmed all concerned including India – but also demanded stepping up “high calibre strategic deterrence”. Unlike the past, China now has the money to scale up significantly, if it chooses to do so.

For India, the whole thing is a cause for serious uneasiness. India is already well within the targeting range of Beijing’s existing missiles, and an addition of ICBMs doesn’t seriously change the nuclear equation. But an arms race between the major powers is not good at all for New Delhi’s positioning in international relations, where nuclear weapons are, as K. Subrahmanyam famously put it, used as a ‘currency of power’. His vision of a minimum, credible deterrence still holds, however, and it is possible Beijing sees it that way too, realising that falling into the trap of an arms race is precisely what its opponents want.

But this seems unlikely. Far more dangerous than missile silos are silo-based thinking based on cold war histories. A significant build-up is the traditional path for powers that seek to challenge the world order, and China is slowly and surely treading on that path.

Meanwhile, the Hami missile base is uncomfortably close to Russian borders. And the number of silos being built are now far more than Russia’s silo-based missiles. Moscow is going to eye this with uneasiness too. There’s opportunity for the US to wean Russia away from China, if only it can be persuaded to get out of its ideological trap.

The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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