The new US nuclear policy report, known as the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), was released by the US Department of Defense early in February. According to the report, the United States plans to upgrade its entire strategic nuclear triad, which consists of submarines armed with submarine-launched ballistic missiles, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles; and strategic bombers carrying gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles.
The report attributed the latest more aggressive US nuclear policy to the rapid deterioration of the threat environment, highlighting nuclear capabilities buildup of Russia, China and North Korea, since the previous NPR was released in 2010.
Chinese authorities rebuffed US allegations against China’s military expansion and urged the United States to drop its "Cold War Mentality." China’s Ministry of Defense stressed in a statement that "Peace and development are irreversible global trends" and "the United States, as the nation with the largest nuclear arsenal, needs to follow this trend instead of going against it."
China's Military Strategy Unchanged
Facing the US plan to upgrade and boost the capabilities of its nuclear arsenal, China is unlikely to follow a similar path to engage in a nuclear arms race against the United States, Taiwan-based security experts suggested.
"I don’t think China will seek to boost its competitiveness against the United States in terms of nuclear capabilities, after the new US nuclear policy was released. That’s because China’s fundamental strategy did not change. China continues to follow the path of prioritizing defense and it maintains the same policy on promising not to use nuclear weapons first. All of these fundamental principles did not change," Andrew Yang, secretary general of Chinese Council for Advanced Policy Studies (CAPS), a Taipei-based think tank, and a former defense minister of Taiwan, told Sputnik.
The former Taiwan military official pointed out that the Trump administration’s latest nuclear ambition is not very different from previous US administrations.
"The Trump administration released three important documents, namely the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review. It’s all part of the overall US [military] strategic thinking and options. This is not anything new. If you look back at the policies during the Reagan administration, no matter it’s the Star Wars policy or the nuclear policy, there is not so much difference," Yang said.
Beijing's Growing Military Ambition
After taking over as China’s top military commander in late 2012, President Xi Jinping started to introduce sweeping reforms in the Chinese military, including overhauling structural reforms by establishing a designated strategic and tactical missile force, known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force, in 2016.
The PLA Rocket Force used to be part of the Chinese military’s army division, known as the Second Artillery Corps, which was founded in 1966 to build China’s independent nuclear capabilities as deterrence to external security threats.
Observers of China’s military strategy argued that separating the PLA Rocket Force as an independent branch in the military demonstrated the Chinese president’s strong ambitions.
"I believe Xi’s reform of the Chinese military is unprecedented in the PLA’s history. By renaming the Second Artillery Corps as the PLA Rocket Force, it has become an independent force within the PLA, as opposed to being part of a PLA army division. It remains to be seen whether this will help boost its capabilities by carrying out combat missions independently. Most countries keep their missiles and nuclear arsenal for deterrence purposes. We need to continue to monitor whether the role of China’s PLA Rocket Force will be different," Arthur Ding, director of the Institute of International Relations under the National Chengchi University in Taipei, told Sputnik.
The Taipei-based scholar suggested the new US nuclear policy could help the PLA Rocket Force secure more funding in China’s military budget.
"The new US nuclear policy could give the PLA Rocket Force and other domestic enterprises that involved in China’s nuclear program a good excuse to demand more funding from the Central Military Commission [China’s top military command], to counter possible threats from the United States," he said.
China announced plans in March 2017 to increase its annual military budget by 7 percent to $151.4 billion, about a quarter of proposed US defense spending for the year.
Unconventional Military Capabilities
In addition to upgrading its strategic nuclear capabilities, the United States also plans to modify a small number of existing submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads to provide a low-yield option and pursue modern nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles, to provide "additional diversity in platforms, range, and survivability, and a valuable hedge against future nuclear ‘break out’ scenarios," the new US nuclear policy report said.
Professor Ding from the National Chengchi University in Taipei believes China is also trying to develop similar low-yield nuclear weapons.
"Since the 1990s, the PLA has already started discussions on developing nuclear capabilities in real combat situations. That’s because if your enemy drops a low-yield nuclear bomb on you that caused limited scale of damage, it’s disproportionate for you to retaliate with a highly destructive nuclear weapon. Facing such a situation, China needs to be equipped with nuclear weapons that fit into each destructive category. China’s technology capabilities have improved significantly since the 1990s. I think China is also working toward the same direction," he said.
However, the expert suggested it makes more sense for China to develop unconventional military capabilities, such as space weapons, that could disable the command and control system of the US nuclear arsenal.
"China has always focused on developing satellite related technologies, such as guidance satellites and anti-missile systems. That’s because if China can paralyze the US satellite system, a lot of the US command and control systems would fail. That’s why developing space capabilities may be more important than developing nuclear capabilities," Ding said.
The expert added that the lack of transparency of the Chinese military makes it difficult for adversaries to truly understand how the command and control system of China’s nuclear arsenal operates.