Assessing the Impact of China’s MIRVs on South Asia

Stimson Spotlight

Assessing the Impact of China’s MIRVs on South Asia

Editor's note: The Stimson Center recently released The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, an edited volume that takes a retrospective look at the U.S.-Soviet experience with MIRVs and explores the second coming of MIRVs in contemporary Asia. In this SAV review series, SAV contributors Sitakanta Mishra, Amina Afzal, Rabia Akhtar, Sadia Tasleem, and Debak Das review each chapter with special attention to the implications for South Asia and future research. Read the entire series here.

By Rabia Akhtar: 

Review of “China’s Belated Embrace of MIRVs” by Jeffrey G. Lewis in The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age

Chapter Summary

The essay on “China’s Belated Embrace of MIRVs” by Jeffrey G. Lewis is part of the new book The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age published by the Stimson Center earlier this year. The title of the book lets us in on the dilemma confronting China after its 2015 decision to deploy multiple independently targetable re-entry-vehicles (MIRVs). In Lewis’ opinion, Beijing sees MIRVs as attractive delivery systems in so far as they facilitate greater warhead accuracy and maintain a certain ‘qualitative equivalence’ in technological capabilities vis-à-vis Washington. MIRVs might also give China the technical edge it requires to counter nascent U.S. missile defenses. Yet, multiple-warhead missiles are not without drawbacks. One danger is that MIRVs could draw the People’s Republic into a costly quantitative arms race with the United States. Other possibilities that Lewis explores in great detail are whether China’s deployment of MIRVs could lead to “classic forms of deterrence instability” and “operational entanglement” (p. 113) involving sea- and space-based forces, scenarios that could increase the likelihood of a nuclear exchange during a Sino-American conflict. Lewis concludes his chapter with a call for Washington to engage Beijing diplomatically if only to force the Chinese bureaucracy to confront these dilemmas before a crisis emerges.

Convincing Arguments

There are several things that stand out about the Chinese nuclear modernization after reading this essay:

First, China’s attempts to modernize its nuclear arsenal – through embracing MIRVs or building missile defenses – are a reaction to U.S. conventional and nuclear modernization programs. In effect, China is engaged in a technological competition with the United States that it cannot escape despite its efforts to maintain a restrained nuclear posture. No arms control arrangement appears to be on the horizon given prevalent U.S.-Chinese strategic dynamics, a concern for South Asia because China’s evolving nuclear posture motivates Indian modernization, and, in turn, Pakistan’s nuclear stockpiling. This underscores that the nuclear spiral in which India and Pakistan are engaged is driven by strategic competition between Beijing and Washington in addition to the subcontinental rivalry.

Second, Chinese nuclear forces are vulnerable to a U.S. first strike, particularly since China has a no first use (NFU) policy, but the United States does not. It is anybody’s guess whether the United States would be tempted to conduct a pre-emptive strike in the event of a crisis given its massive and precise conventional and nuclear capabilities. This vulnerability has pushed the Chinese to modernize their nuclear arsenal, which is neither as sophisticated nor as modern as the U.S. or Russian variants. This is where MIRVing becomes important. China is already putting multiple warheads on its largest missiles (the DF-5 and, perhaps, the DF-41) and may develop smaller warheads in the future. According to Lewis, silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) remain vulnerable to attack, but Chinese MIRVed DF-5s that survived a U.S. first strike would pose “the greatest challenge possible to U.S. missile defenses.” (p. 110) But the debate has moved beyond mere survivability and the lack of credible nuclear retaliatory counterweight to supporting launch-on-warning status, a readiness posture that the United States currently maintains (with a variation of launch-on-attack). This shift to high-alert status, if made by China as a move to strengthen its fragile deterrence vis-à-vis the United States, would add to the already precarious strategic stability in the region, pulling India and Pakistan towards reconsidering their readiness postures.

Reasoned Critique

Lewis’ assessment of China’s case lends useful lessons for new nuclear states.

First, Lewis’s analysis seems to suggest that China has generated specific technological disadvantages for itself by signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Even though the United States is also a signatory to the CTBT, the technological sophistication of U.S. R&D allows for testing of new weapons designs through computer simulations, a feat that China may not be able to match. This is not to say that the international community should have given China a free pass to conduct additional nuclear tests in the 1990s. The point is that the advantages of staying outside the treaty framework and retaining the right to test in the name of national security – or even maintaining the ambiguity about testing – may be more apparent to other countries as China struggles to surmount CTBT-imposed limitations. The rationale of India and Pakistan remaining outside the CTBT framework – despite their unilateral moratoriums on nuclear testing – can perhaps be understood through this prism.

Second, the NFU posture that China has adopted restricts its strike options vis-à-vis the United States, which does not adhere to an NFU. According to Lewis, Chinese ICBMs in silos – MIRVed or not – are vulnerable to a U.S. first strike. This might incentivize China to deploy submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) as a counter-measure. In that situation, whether China has an NFU would not really matter. Once the Chinese SLBMs are in the Pacific, the Sino-U.S. equation becomes mutually vulnerable. This would also make the whole region more crisis prone given the fact that no matter what China can accomplish, its development and capabilities will remain asymmetric to those of the United States. Any increase in Chinese conventional or nuclear capabilities will create incentives for India to modernize, which in turn will justify Pakistan’s development of new doctrines and postures. There is no end in sight to the operational entanglement Lewis writes of in his essay as China and the United States are not the only strategically entangled players. Lewis’s lack of allusion to this complexity in the Asia-Pacific region weakens his analysis overall.

Future Research

If the recipe for peace is U.S. diplomatic engagement with China in “the form of arms control accords – formal or tacit” as Lewis suggests, then it can only happen if the United States: a) scales back its conventional and nuclear modernization drive, b) refreshes its pledge for nuclear disarmament, and c) reduces the space for further operational entanglement by staying towards its side of the Atlantic and the Pacific. Future research in this regard can look at how the drive to technological determinism be moderated. Should there be a cut-off on modernization of nuclear capabilities? Should there be a standard for all nuclear weapons states to maintain their nuclear stockpiles and not modernize or invent new capabilities? If maneuverable hypersonic weapons may be outfitted with nuclear warheads in the future, then shouldn’t they be banned now while countries like the United States, Russia, China, and India are in the process of developing them?

Achieving universal ratification and entry into force (EIF) of the CTBT is perhaps the single most important step through which technological determinism prevalent in the strategic competition in Asia can be checked and moderated. However, to generate the momentum for the closure and EIF of the CTBT, the United States and China would need to jointly lead the way by simultaneously ratifying the treaty and then inviting India and Pakistan to simultaneously sign and ratify the CTBT. It might sound like an idealistic solution to a complex problem, but this is the one with real potential for preventing not one but multiple nuclear holocausts.

Photo credit:  Mark爱生活 via Flickr