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Worrying about China's military strength



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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February 9, 2011
Why the worry about China’s growing military power? It is still miniscule compared with the US which spends as much as all the other countries in the world combined. Look at a graph of expenditure and you will see the US still climbing and almost reaching the top of the page while China is at the bottom, hugging the lower axis, with a rather small turn up the last few years.
The worry over China’s homemade Stealth bomber, its building of two aircraft carriers and more destroyers, its deployment of more submarines have become in some quarters emotionally charged. Yet it’s peanuts compared with US power, just about good enough to give Taiwan some worry and not much more.
In October 1964, China exploded its first nuclear weapon. Then China went on to build a small, unsophisticated and highly vulnerable nuclear armoury. For more than three decades its modernization of the force was slow and gradual. China believed that even if it was subject to a massive attack at least one of its rockets would get off the ground and devastate Los Angeles or Moscow.
This is all that Mao Zedong wanted, and after him Deng Xiaoping. Both thought there were better things to do with China’s money. Both viewed nuclear weapons as tools for deterring an attack and countering coercion, nothing more.  Mao famously described America’s nuclear weapons as “paper tigers”. Even after the two died this remained China’s strategy.
Only in the mid 1990s did China seek a second strike ability which would make it able to withstand an attack and retaliate with all its force. It is building rockets that can be moved by lorry along the road or railway, making them very hard to detect. It is building a nuclear-powered submarine force armed with nuclear missiles.
Some scholars, senior military officers and congressmen are arguing that China is moving towards a war-fighting strategy. Others point to the challenge that these new forces may pose to crisis stability.
Much of this debate resolves around whether China is pursuing minimum deterrence (as before) or limited deterrence. Minimum deterrence means threatening the lowest level of damage to prevent an attack with as few nuclear weapons as possible. Limited deterrence demands a war-making machine able to inflict a high level of damage on the enemy at every rung on the ladder of escalation, thus denying the adversary victory in a nuclear war. Most experts believe China’s doctrine still remains minimum deterrence.
How many nuclear weapons are in China’s arsenal?  The best estimates suggest that a decade after China exploded its first nuclear bomb it had 75 nuclear warheads and tens of gravity bombs able to be loaded on its bombers. Another decade later, after its confrontation with the Soviet Union effectively ended, it had around 150 but with only 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Today it has less- perhaps 120. This is not much more than Pakistan has. And Pakistan appears to be still building up its arsenal. Pakistan’s possession is something to really worry about.

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Between 1964 and 1996 (the year it signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty- which the US has still not ratified) China conducted only 45 nuclear tests, less than 3% of the number of tests carried out by the Soviet Union and the US. It also says it adheres to the doctrine of “no-first-use” unlike the US. Moreover, the experts say that China does not have plans to significantly expand its nuclear arsenal. It prefers to update its ageing rockets which are based on missile technology developed in the 1960s and 70s. Gradually it is replacing its liquid-fuelled missiles with solid-fuel ones. Solid-fuel rockets increase reliability by eliminating the dangerous process of fuelling rockets and enhance survivability in case a fuel-storage is destroyed in an attack.
In more than two decades China has not substantially changed its nuclear strategy or its force structure. Chinese nuclear thinkers appear to concur that the tenets of Mao and Deng Xiaoping still guide traditional nuclear strategy and the primacy of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. (MAD as the acronym would have it.)
Chinese leaders have long believed that once mutual deterrence was achieved a larger arsenal would be costly, counterproductive and self-defeating. Besides that they believe they are unusable on the battlefield. Chinese leaders, unlike America’s and Russia’s, have never equated the size of their arsenals with China’s national power or prestige.
The worriers, the panickers, have not studied these facts. There is only a little smoke and no fire.


Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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