What’s Down There? China’s Tunnels and Nuclear Capabilities

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Recent news reports have highlighted Chinese construction of a system of underground tunnels and raised serious questions about what they might imply regarding China’s nuclear capabilities. One story highlighted that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) may have some 3,000 miles of tunnels, sufficient to move systems underground across the breadth of the country. Much of this was apparently dug by the Second Artillery Force, which is responsible for China’s nuclear forces, so the assumption is that many of these tunnels are related to China’s nuclear deterrent.

The most commonly enunciated fear is that China has far more nuclear weapons than it is generally credited with. Among the initial group of nuclear powers (U.S., Russia, U.K., France, and the PRC), the Chinese are generally believed to have the smallest nuclear arsenal, with only a few hundred warheads. This is consistent with a strategy of “minimum deterrence”—fielding only enough warheads to severely damage other nations. The existence of these thousands of miles of tunnels raises the possibility that, in fact, China has much more than a “minimum” deterrent.

The larger points, however, are neither about the tunnels nor the number of warheads that might be hidden in them. Rather, this story should remind readers:

  • China is opaque. We have no good idea of the number of nuclear weapons that the PRC fields. Chinese officials have often stated that they are interested only in a minimal nuclear deterrent. But even if these statements are correct, it is still an assumption that China has developed a limited number of warheads and, just as importantly, that it is pursuing and will pursue only a minimal deterrent strategy. These assumptions, in turn, are grounded in one’s view of China more generally. The reality is that China’s nuclear forces, much less its nuclear strategy, are hidden from view.
  • China’s nuclear needs are different. The lack of understanding of the PRC is only partly due to Chinese obfuscation and silence. It is also rooted in the insistence of many analysts on applying Cold War superpower mental models to the PRC. Both the U.S. and the USSR needed large numbers of ICBMs, because their main opponent was on the other side of the globe. But for the PRC, deterring Russia need not entail ICBMs—only deterring the United States does. So, while China may only field a few dozen ICBMs, it is a flawed assumption that it does not also field a substantial regional nuclear force, holding at risk the range of targets from Tokyo to Moscow to Delhi.
  • Chinese views of what constitutes stability are radically different from our own. Many American analysts argue that nuclear states have never gone to war with each other in the belief that nuclear weapons are by their nature stabilizing. Such blithe statements are belied by the Sino–Soviet border clashes of 1969, when the Chinese precipitated a series of battles in Manchuria that soon spread along the border to Xinjiang. China was the weaker of the two, having only exploded its first atomic bomb in 1964 and its first H-bomb in 1967, which underscores that the Chinese do not necessarily see deterrence in the same way Western analysts (much less Western arms control advocates) do.
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None of this means that the tunnels necessarily conceal thousands or tens of thousands of warheads or missiles. Half of the tunnels were apparently dug during the Cold War, when Mao warned the nation to “dig deep holes, and store grain,” in preparation for a possible Soviet or American nuclear attack. But this should be cold comfort, for the reality is that it is not clear what those tunnels conceal.

In this context, it is irresponsible to be arguing for “global zero” when the actual number of nuclear weapons fielded by potential opponents is simply not known. President Obama’s push for yet another nuclear arms control treaty with Russia to further lower the number of nuclear forces, as well as his advocacy of global nuclear disarmament, presumes that only Russia can rival the U.S. in nuclear forces. The President appears totally unconcerned that the Chinese might have substantial numbers of nuclear weapons (including launchers) hidden away. The fact that the United States is also the only nuclear nation with no program of nuclear force modernization raises further questions about what “providing for the common defense” means for this Administration.

All of this should be food for thought for Congress and the Administration as defense budget cuts are debated.

Source material can be found at this site.

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