Trilateral Nuclear Complexities: Tunnels, Warheads and Other Challenges


7/5/12: by Richard Weitz

The Russians are increasingly concerned with Chinese nuclear forces and their growth.

The recent U.S. release of a paper by Russian General Viktor Yesin, a former chief of staff of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, on “China’s Nuclear Potential,” which calculates that China probably has between 1,600 and 1,800 nuclear warheads rather than the several hundred warheads regularly cited by some Western scholars, underscores growing Russian concerns about China’s nuclear weapons capacity.

YESIN China’s Nuclear Potential

Although some U.S. analysts have recently argued that China might be hiding hundreds of warheads in its massive network of deep underground tunnels. Yesin relies on an analysis of the probable quantities of fissionable materials (highly enriched uranium and reprocessed plutonium) produced by Chinese enterprises.

These materials are needed to manufacture modern nuclear weapons.

Russia helped launch China’s nuclear industry and continues to be an important supplier of uranium, reactors, and other nuclear technologies to China.

For these reasons, Russian analysts can have considerable insight on China’s nuclear program.

According to Yesin’s calculations, China’s nuclear plants might have manufactured as much as 40 tons of weapons-grade uranium and 10 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. These figures could allow China to make some 3,600 nuclear warheads, though Yesin assumes that China has stockpiled at least half of these fissionable materials rather than use them for immediate bomb production.

Citing these figures, Yesin joins other Russian officials in arguing that, “It is necessary to take into account the Chinese factor when considering any of the next -Russian-American agreements on the further reduction and limitation of nuclear weapons.”

China is undertaking the most comprehensive military modernization program in the world today, while Russia still has approximately as much nuclear weapons capacity as the United States. Although never mentioned officially, Russian strategic experts, like Yesin, have more openly expressed concerns about China’s rising military strength to explain their reluctance to negotiate further deep cuts in their nuclear forces. Credit:

Simply put, “It is time to bring China into multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament.”

Russia and China have a complex and intriguing relationship.

They have the world’s two most powerful militaries after that of the United States.

China is undertaking the most comprehensive military modernization program in the world today, while Russia still has approximately as much nuclear weapons capacity as the United States.

The importance of these two countries’ strategic forces to U.S. and global security explains why the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing last October focused on the implications of their nuclear modernization programs for the United States.

The relationship between the Russian and Chinese governments is perhaps the best it has ever been.

They have largely resolved their longstanding border disputes as well as contained their rivalries in Central Asia, the Korean Peninsula, and other regions. The 2001 Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship established a basis for extensive bilateral security and defense collaboration. Their leaders engage in numerous high-level exchanges, make many mutually supportive security statements, and cooperate in other ways in support of what both governments refer to as their developing strategic partnership. Moscow and Beijing share interests and objectives in many of the world’s WMD-critical regions such as the Middle East and East Asia.

A strategic fulcrum has developed between Russia and China that often excludes the United States.

Frequent encounters take place between senior Russian and Chinese military officials, including annual meetings of their defense ministers and the chiefs of staff of the armed forces. They also confer regularly at multinational gatherings, such as at meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which host regular sessions for defense ministers. Russian and Chinese experts also frequently participate in direct discussions related to WMD issues. Many bilateral declarations issued by the Chinese and Russian governments address nonproliferation issues.

For example they recently declared that the Iranian nuclear crisis can only be resolved by peaceful negotiations and dialogue, excluding the use of force as impermissible. Furthermore, both the Russian and Chinese governments have increasingly expressed their shared concern about U.S. strategic offensive and strategic defensive policies.

Despite their collaboration, Russia and China exhibit subtle differences on priorities and concerns relating to many nuclear issues.

In recent years, Russian and Chinese officials have led international opposition against imposing rigorous sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and other countries that have violated their nonproliferation commitments. The fact that both Russia and China—in particular, their government agencies and nominally independent private defense trading companies—have been sanctioned on numerous occasions by the United States and its allies has likely contributed to their distaste of such measures. Furthermore, Moscow and Beijing share interests and objectives in many of the world’s WMD-critical regions such as the Middle East and East Asia, though their policy priorities and implementation tactics often vary.

Russia and China do not always align on nuclear security issues.

For example, the two countries have differed in their assessment of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Whereas Russian government officials and analysts express concern that Islamist extremists might gain control of dangerous nuclear material from Pakistan or even seize political power themselves, China has strongly backed Pakistan diplomatically and provided its nuclear programs with assistance, helping to augment Pakistan’s potential to balance India, a country that has friendly relations with Russia but not China.

A more recent Russia-China divergence regarding Pakistan is demonstrated by how Russia has joined with the United States in strongly supporting a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. China has instead backed Islamabad’s otherwise lonely opposition in the Conference of Disarmament against launching formal FMCT negotiations, at least until Pakistan’s fissile material holdings clearly match or exceed those of India.

More generally, China’s experts identify “the root cause” of the proliferation problem — in the words of the Declaration on Nuclear Security that China submitted at the April 2012 nuclear security summit–as “that the United States and other nuclear powers implement … hegemonic policies,” including employing military force against weaker non-nuclear states, which leads some of them to seek nuclear weapons.

Having negotiated and discussed strategic stability issues for decades, U.S. and Russian experts have a good sense of one another’s strategic perspectives even when they disagree. But the recent meetings of the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council (the P-5) and other engagements make evident that the Chinese often conceive of strategic stability differently than Russians and Americans.

For example, Chinese analysts frequently cite their no-first-use doctrine when explaining their opposition to various U.S. nuclear policies. Possibilities exist to address some Russian concerns about U.S. nuclear programs through mutually agreed transparency and confidence-building initiatives, but extending such arrangements to include China would prove much more difficult given the PRC’s aversion to defense transparency, especially in the strategic realm. Collaborating with Beijing to strengthen strategic arms control and nonproliferation export controls has also proven more difficult since PRC delegations at international nonproliferation meetings often side with developing countries favoring minimal restrictions on the transfer of WMD-related technologies.

U.S. officials have expressed interest in making one more round of bilateral reductions with Russia following the entry into force of the New START agreement in early 2011, but Russian government representatives have indicated they want to break with tradition and include constraints on other nuclear weapons states in the next strategic arms control treaty.  Whereas U.S. officials want the next major nuclear arms reduction agreement to include only Russia and the United States, Russian negotiators want China and other nuclear weapons states to participate. In particular, Russian representatives insist they cannot reduce their major holdings of non-strategic (“tactical”) nuclear weapons without considering China’s growing military potential.

Although never mentioned officially, Russian strategic experts, like Yesin, have more openly expressed concerns about China’s rising military strength to explain their reluctance to negotiate further deep cuts in their nuclear forces.

Russia still has a more powerful military than the PRC, but the disparity in population and economic growth rates is closing the gap. Putin and other Russian policymakers insist that future nuclear arms reductions occur on a multilateral basis, though without specifying whether this process must involve formal negotiations with all countries having nuclear weapons or if it could proceed through a smaller group of participants with reductions occurring  through unilateral action.

Chinese officials have suggested they might join nuclear arms control talks after Russian and U.S. nuclear forces decline to Beijing’s levels, but they have declined to make an explicit pledge to do so. Thus far, PRC representatives have downplayed the significance of the reductions Russia and the United States have accepted in New START. As in past cases, the signing of the New START Treaty in 2010, which requires further cuts in the size of the Russian and U.S. stockpiles of nuclear warheads and their delivery vehicles, has failed to entice Beijing into joining international strategic arms control negotiations. Yet, China could contribute to realizing deeper cuts in Russian and U.S. nuclear forces if Beijing more directly supported the reductions process.

Chinese government representatives deny that they would exploit the opportunity provided by further reductions in the size of the Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals to “sprint to parity.” Even so, they have never formally affirmed a readiness to join the strategic nuclear arms negotiations once the Russian and American arsenals reached China’s lower level. Chinese writers, such as retired Major General Xu Guangyu, are increasingly explicit as stating their goal of possessing only a limited nuclear force capable of surviving and retaliating against a first strike by any adversary. These statements confirm other indications, such as the deliberate and slow pace of China’s nuclear modernization, that China has adopted a “second-strike” nuclear policy based on a minimal deterrent as its nuclear weapons declaratory policy.

Beijing has traditionally resisted participating in formal nuclear arms control agreements. During the Cold War, Chinese leaders saw (correctly) superpower nonproliferation initiatives partly as an attempt to prevent Beijing from developing its own nuclear deterrent. Since then, Chinese officials have stayed aloof from bilateral Russian-American strategic-arms talks, arguing that their nuclear arsenals dwarf those of China. The United States and Russia still possess around ten times as many deployed strategic nuclear warheads as China—whose totals approximate those of Britain or France, the other nuclear weapons states officially recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Yet the substantial decrease in Russian and U.S. nuclear forces is narrowing this gap.

China’s continued absence from strategic nuclear arms control negotiations is already impeding U.S.-Russian progress in this area.

U.S. and Russian apprehensions about reducing their nuclear forces much further will persist until they see greater indication that China will join the nuclear disarmament process. Unlike the United States and Russia, the PRC government has yet to adopt legally binding limits on its nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. Although the PRC does not appear to be designing new types of nuclear weapons, China is improving the means it uses to carry them to their intended targets. The PRC has thus far focused its resources on developing shorter-range nuclear forces capable of attacking targets in Japan, Taiwan, India, and eastern Russia, rather than intercontinental-range missiles and bombers. But this could change.

Securing a more binding commitment from the Chinese government rather than simple declarations of intent to restrain the PRC’s nuclear forces is essential for reassuring Washington and Moscow that further reducing their nuclear arsenals will not risk undermining global and regional stability.

The United States as well as Russia will find it hard to reduce their strategic nuclear weapons further without some indication that China will constrain its own nuclear potential.

The Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review explicitly cites U.S. and allied concerns about the PRC’s “quantitative and qualitative modernization of its nuclear capabilities.” Members of Congress, from both parties, have also called for China to participate in global nuclear arms control processes.

Editor’s Note: And the emergence of clear indications that China has built, maintains and operates an underground tunneling system to support their nuclear program introduces a whole new dimension to any considerations of how to deal with the Chinese military and the threat which they pose to global stability.  Strange behavior for a country understand by many to be simply the world’s bankers.