Seek Arms Control, Not an Arms Race: Responding to China’s Possible Nuclear Build-Up

Satellite images have revealed evidence that China may be increasing the number of nuclear weapons it possesses. Any increase in these massively lethal weapons is cause for concern for peace activists. However, the proper response to such an increase is diplomacy and arms control. We must resist any efforts by foreign policy hawks in the United States to respond with further build-ups of American nuclear weapons.

Researchers from various organizations who have studied commercial satellite imagery and other information have reported multiple signs of expanded Chinese nuclear capabilities. In February, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) reported construction of a relatively small number (less than 20) of what appeared to be ballistic missile silos. The construction site is near Jilantai, a city in Inner Mongolia.[1]

In June came the news that researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies had identified many more missile silos under construction. They found 119 silo construction sites in Gansu Province, west of Inner Mongolia.[2] Then FAS researchers reported in July that they had found evidence of 110 silos under construction in Xinjiang, west of the silos discovered by the Martin Center.[3] Together, the different researchers’ discoveries point to a network of hundreds of missile silos being built across China’s northernmost provinces.

A different kind of discovery came at the end of July. Satellite images reviewed by AllSource Analysis, a private geospatial analysis firm, suggested construction at Lop Nur, also in Xinjiang.[4] Lop Nur has historically been the site of Chinese nuclear testing, although China hasn’t tested nuclear weapons there since the 1990s.[5]

Precisely what all this construction means is unclear. While the Chinese government has not provided an official count of how many nuclear weapons it possesses, outside experts have generally thought China has had a relatively small nuclear arsenal of perhaps 300-350 weapons.[6] New silos suggest that Chinese policymakers may have decided to increase China’s nuclear weapons beyond current levels. Some form of renewed testing at Lop Nur may be part of this effort.

If the Chinese government is building more nuclear weapons, such a build-up might be an attempt to acquire a nuclear arsenal that matches China’s increasingly powerful role in the world. A nuclear build-up might also be an attempt to deter perceived threats from the United States or Russia, each of which has thousands of nuclear weapons.[7]

Despite this uncertainty, what is clear is that recent Chinese activity provides no justification for the United States to respond to an alleged threat from China with its own nuclear build-up. Even if China builds hundreds more nuclear weapons, the United States will still have an overwhelming advantage in numbers of these weapons.

More important, the extraordinary destructive power of even a very small number of nuclear weapons means that seeking an “advantage” by building more weapons than another nation is absurd. To use an analogy invoked by the late Carl Sagan, it is like two men standing in a room full of gasoline being concerned about who has more matches.[8]

What is needed is not more competition in building more nuclear weapons, but renewed efforts to control such weapons. The anti-nuclear group Global Zero responded to the signs of a possible Chinese nuclear build-up by sensibly calling for the “United States and China to initiate high-level talks to enhance stability and avert a nuclear arms race that will undermine national and global security.”[9] Such talks are urgently needed and must be linked to a larger effort by the various nuclear powers to radically reduce their arsenals. Arms control, not an arms race, is the path to true security.  

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Rehumanize International blog.

Notes

[1] William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “A 2nd New Nuclear Missile Base for China, and Many Questions about Strategy,” New York Times, July 26, 2021, https://nyti.ms/37uYdMx.

[2] Joby Warrick, “China Is Building More Than 100 New Missile Silos in Its Western Desert, Analysts Say,” Washington Post, June 30, 2021, https://wapo.st/3yzvcv2.

[3] Broad and Sanger, “A 2nd New Nuclear Missile Base for China”; Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen, “China Is Building a Second Nuclear Missile Silo Field,” Federation of American Scientists, July 26, 2021, https://bit.ly/3xz4TUv.

[4] Geoff Brumfiel, “A New Tunnel Is Spotted at a Chinese Nuclear Test Site,” NPR, July 30, 2021, https://n.pr/3fOWwOv.

[5] “Lop Nor Nuclear Weapons Test Base,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, accessed August 9, 2021, https://bit.ly/3xze9bj.

[6] Broad and Sanger, “A 2nd New Nuclear Missile Base for China”; “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists, accessed August 9, 2021, https://bit.ly/2VJBolX.

[7] Broad and Sanger, “A 2nd New Nuclear Missile Base for China”; Fred Kaplan, “Let’s Not Get into a Nuclear Arms Race with China,” Slate, July 13, 2021, https://bit.ly/3Atj8fr; “Status of World Nuclear Forces.”

[8] See “Carl Sagan on the Nuclear Arms Race (1983),” YouTube, accessed September 12, 2021, https://bit.ly/3k4d0Fb (Sagan uses the analogy at 5:11).

[9] “Global Zero Calls for Strategic Talks between Beijing and Washington,” Global Zero, accessed August 10, 2021, https://bit.ly/3xLn0H7.

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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