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China: Lines blur between nuclear and conventional warfighting

China: Lines blur between nuclear and conventional warfighting

China recently tested its WU-14 hypersonic device, marking its third flight test this year. These tests have elicited analysis for their impact on Beijing's military capabilities, including their potential to break through missile defences.

They merit even closer attention, however, for what they signal about possible shifts in Chinese views on deterrence, transparency and strategic stability. 

The WU-14 flights are just the latest installment of Chinese military systems revealed to the world through tests and roll-outs. Other examples in recent memory include China's anti-satellite test (ASAT) in 2007, its ballistic missile defence (BMD) tests in 2010, 2013 and 2014, as well as its unveiling of the J-20 stealth fighter in 2010. This is not to mention its flight of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in 2013, test of the intercontinental ballistic missile DF-31A in 2014 and recent revelations regarding the DF-41. 

The level of sophistication and deployment of many of these systems remains to be seen. Still, these roll-outs indicate that China is shifting from transparency based on intent to one rooted in capabilities.

At one level, these displays allow a more accurate assessment of the systems that constitute Beijing's deterrent. At another level, they indicate that China's decades-old postures of no-first-use, de-mating and even credible minimum deterrence must be re-evaluated in accordance with the dynamism of its growing capabilities.

At first glance, Beijing's approach towards conventional and nuclear deterrence may appear distinct and static. China's conventional deterrence is based on war-fighting, counter-force, asymmetry and pre-emption. This is contrasted with its nuclear deterrence posture, which has for decades been founded on non-war-fighting, counter-value, asymmetry and no-first-use. It is often taken for granted that these two deterrence postures are isolated, with their only real point of intersection being asymmetry. Yet, there are indications that China's conventional and nuclear deterrence are far less independent and fixed than its rhetoric suggests. [fold]

This stems from at least five factors:

  1. China's Second Artillery has been responsible for both its conventional and nuclear missiles since the early 1990s. The potential for crossover between these two domains has only grown since that time, particularly in light of its training of personnel and advances in missile technology in recent years.
  2. China's conventional and nuclear command and control centres are reportedly co-located. This means that an attack, whether through advanced conventional systems or cyber-attacks, while intending to negate conventional command and control centres, could also threaten China's nuclear command and control, thus leading to escalation. 
  3. China's system of tunnels leaves gaps in the understanding of its nuclear and conventional forces. While there has been debate about the potential trove of nuclear warheads within China's Great Wall Engineering project, the issue is less one of quantity than of overall inability to account for location, systems and practices that some Chinese experts maintain verify nuclear posture.
  4. With its pending deployment of a submarine-based arm of its nuclear deterrent, Beijing's policies of de-mating and low alert levels are likely to change, if not in rhetoric than in reality. Continued de-mating would demand uploading of nuclear warheads in a crisis, thereby negating their survivability. This posture is likely to change by sheer operational necessity.
  5. Advances in hypersonic, high-precision and boost-glide capabilities by the Second Artillery, which fields both conventional and strategic missiles, suggest that the line between the two may be blurring. The nuclear-capable nature of these systems, combined with robust discussions within China of their pre-emptive nature, cast questions on whether Beijing's posture of no-first-use will endure for systems intended not simply for conventional attack, but also as a means of penetrating missile defences. 

All of these issues merit greater analysis, but the last one in particular demonstrates the complications inherent in Chinese experts suggesting that Beijing's nuclear posture is static and can be verified using its capabilities. Beijing's suite of weapon systems is diversifying in the hands of organisations that are responsible for both conventional and nuclear deterrence. Furthermore, devotion of co-mingled personnel and systems to both conventional and nuclear training and scenarios demonstrates the inherent complexity of arguing for pre-emption and restraint at the same time. 

Much has been made of the centrality of no-first-use in Beijing's nuclear posture, with some Chinese experts arguing that China values transparency of intent over capabilities. Yet, with all of its recent weapons tests and omissions of intent, such as the absence of references to no-first-use in Chinese reports on Xi Jinping's visit to the Second Artillery and in China's official defence document The Diversified Employment of China's Armed Forces, Beijing's official posture may be undergoing a re-evaluation. 

More analysis is needed into the points of intersection and divergence between Chinese concepts of conventional and nuclear deterrence. Particular attention should be paid to how these arenas are being shaped by Beijing's advances in survivability with the Type 094 and Type 096 submarines, ASATs, missile defence, DF-31A, DF-41 and WU-14. 

Among these systems, the WU-14 that underwent tests in January, August and December is reportedly pursuing boost-glide, high-precision and hypersonic capabilities among its attributes. Such systems illustrate Beijing's steps towards enhancing its ability to break through missile defences and to reach new accuracy, speeds and distances. Enhanced precision, speed, range, maneuverability and multiple-targeting must be factored into evaluations of Beijing's nuclear posture. 

The time has come to begin formally expanding strategic dialogues with China to include exchanges and panels devoted to co-mingling of conventional and nuclear capabilities, whether in the domains of land, air, sea, space or cyberspace. Without such exchanges, the gap left from misalignment of Chinese capabilities and posture threatens to increase the risk of miscalculation and to exacerbate strategic mistrust. 

The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of APCSS, the US Pacific Command, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.

The Lowy Institute’s work on nuclear issues in Asia is partly supported through a partnership with the Nuclear Security Project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

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