Senator Tom cotton (Moneymaker Anna/Pool/ABACA via Reuters Connect); nuclear bomb explosion (Shutterstock/ Romolo Tavani)
Hawks up the ante: China is now a nuclear threat, too

What’s clear from their overheated rhetoric is they desperately want there to be an arms race. To what end, we can only imagine.

As part of their campaign to agitate for intensified rivalry with the Chinese government, China hawks are feigning interest in arms control so that they can engage in reckless fearmongering about a mostly imaginary Chinese nuclear buildup. 

According to U.S. government estimates, China possesses fewer than 300 nuclear weapons, and there is no reason to think that they are looking to increase that number significantly. Hawks like Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) claim that China is intent on achieving parity with the United States, and that their government is working on a massive secret expansion of their nuclear arsenal, but they have no evidence to support their wild charges. These critics hope to frighten Americans about Chinese nukes in order to build support for a more aggressive anti-China policy and to justify huge, unnecessary expenditures on new nuclear weapons.

The Biden administration will need to tune them out and look for ways to engage China constructively on arms control to stop a future arms race before it starts.

The hawkish interest in arms control with China is disingenuous as always. In the last year of Trump’s presidency, the U.S. envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, was insistent that China be included as part of the discussions related to extending New START, the arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia that was set to expire in February 2021. Including China as part of these discussions never made any sense because of the much smaller size of the Chinese arsenal, and Beijing naturally wanted no part in the negotiations. 

It was obvious to many arms control experts at the time that the effort to include China was a way of delaying renewal of New START and providing an excuse for letting the treaty die. The Trump administration’s entreaties to China on this issue were clearly made in bad faith, and that is how China perceived them. New START survived thanks to Biden, but the hawks’ desire to stoke fear about a wildly exaggerated Chinese buildup hasn’t gone away.   

Sen. Cotton spoke for the China hawks in Congress when he floated an outlandish idea that China could soon surmount our strategic nuclear capabilities. Cotton asked Adm. Philip Davidson if China “could possibly have nuclear over-match against the United States before the end of this decade.” Davidson said that this might happen, but only if China quadruples the size of its arsenal in the near future. In fact, even if China quadrupled the number of nuclear weapons it has it would still have far fewer than the 1,550 warheads that the U.S. deploys under New START limits. 

Cotton’s attempted threat inflation mostly just exposed his own ignorance and opportunism. As David Axe pointed out after this exchange was reported, “Unless Davidson knows — and for some reason chose to reveal — something new about Beijing’s stockpile, he actually undersold America’s atomic advantage.”

It is doubtful that China is going to embark suddenly on a massive, expensive increase in the size of its arsenal. As David Logan explained last year in an excellent article debunking myths about China’s nuclear weapons, “China lacks the fissile material necessary to build a significantly larger nuclear arsenal.” 

The lack of evidence and fissile material haven’t stopped would-be Cold Warriors from treating a major buildup as if it were a fact. Hal Brands declared last year that it “wouldn’t be a new cold war without an accelerating nuclear arms race.” There is not yet any such arms race, but it is clear from this overheated rhetoric that China hawks desperately want there to be one. It is possible that China might double the size of its current arsenal over the next decade, but that is not cause for alarm. Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis has observed that China’s nuclear arsenal is quite restrained: “We ought to ask, why has Beijing’s nuclear arms program been so restrained and how do we keep it that way?” Inflating the threat from China’s arsenal is both misleading and dangerous because it could lead to provocative policies that turn the myth of a Chinese buildup into a reality.

If Washington were serious about engaging China in bilateral strategic stability talks, it would need to do something that is utterly anathema to the hawks: make concessions on missile defense. If the United States doesn’t want to encourage China to pursue a nuclear buildup, it should refrain from further building up missile defense systems in East Asia. Because China’s arsenal is relatively small, they are bound to see even unreliable missile defenses as a potential threat and respond accordingly. 

Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, issued this warning in a report last summer: “If left unaddressed, this issue would continue fueling China’s anxiety about its nuclear deterrent and seriously disrupting the stability of the bilateral nuclear relationship.” American supporters of missile defense have long refused to see why other nuclear-armed states consider it so destabilizing, but to the extent that other governments believe that the missile defense boondoggle represents an effective counter to their arsenals they are going to assume that it puts them at a greater disadvantage.

Four years ago, we saw how neuralgic the Chinese government is about this issue when they launched an economic war on South Korea over Seoul’s willingness to allow a THAAD ground-based missile defense system on their territory. While the THAAD system is officially intended to guard against North Korean missiles, China objects to the system because of the radar and the potential for intelligence gathering that go with it. If the United States were willing to remove these systems from the region as part of an agreement with China, that could introduce greater stability and predictability into the U.S.-Chinese relationship and remove an irritant in relations between China and South Korea. 

South Korea has already paid a heavy economic price for allowing the THAAD system in their country, and the U.S. has done nothing to support them or compensate them for the costs that China has imposed on them. Finding an arms control compromise on missile defense could serve the interests of all three countries and help make amends for our neglect of an ally.

While it still makes no sense to shoehorn China into the U.S.-Russian arms control agenda, it might be possible to reach an accommodation with China that addresses issues specific to the U.S.-Chinese relationship and East Asian regional security. There would undoubtedly be intense political opposition to any U.S.-Chinese arms control agreement, and it is unlikely that there will be favorable conditions for negotiations in the immediate future. Nonetheless, the U.S. should make a serious effort to engage on this issue to create greater transparency between our governments and to reduce overall tensions.

It will take some time before the after-effects wear off from the Trump administration’s cynical attempt to use China as a diversion last year, but Biden should be prepared to seize the opportunity once they do. If the U.S. and China are going to manage the tensions in their relationship successfully and steer clear of great power conflict, arms control is a good place to begin.

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