For many years, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) acted as a security guarantee for China: Beijing successfully made use of the mutual limitations imposed by the treaty on Russia and the United States to minimize the military threat to itself.

The open confrontation between Washington and Beijing that has begun under U.S. President Donald Trump has changed all that. The United States needed to free itself of restrictions to its military potential, and this was one of the factors in the collapse of the INF treaty. Washington’s focus on containment of China was not unexpected for Beijing, but the new military dimensions of that policy compel China to take measures in response.

The INF treaty prohibited the United States from deploying ground-based intermediate-range missiles in Asia. This restriction on Washington’s actions helped Beijing to maintain a nuclear deterrence strategy based on a relatively small number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). 

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the reaction of the Chinese to the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty in 2019 was strongly negative. Beijing accused Washington of “ignoring its international obligations,” and said the likely deployment of U.S. missiles in Asia would be “a provocative, destabilizing act.” Beijing perceives the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty and possible deployment of ground-based missiles to Asia as part of Washington’s broader campaign to contain China.

Washington’s Asian allies are also actively opposed to the deployment of U.S. missiles on their territory. Expert assessments show that in order to have a strategic impact in a conflict with China, existing and most prospective U.S. ground-based intermediate-range systems would have to be stationed no further away than Japan or South Korea.

These two countries are unlikely to welcome U.S. missiles. Seoul already has bitter experience with hosting the U.S. THAAD missile defense system, to which China responded with economic restrictions against South Korea. The displeasure that Japanese society feels about having U.S. troops stationed on its territory is also well documented. Combined with a lack of clear U.S. strategy with regard to China, these factors cause the United States’ allies to perceive the possible deployment of missiles as a significant escalation with no exit strategy, and therefore regard the idea with caution. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in August that he would like to start rolling out U.S. missiles in Asia in the next few months, but in reality, it could take years. 

Aside from all of this, Washington does not yet even have the necessary ground-based missiles. Tests of the Tomahawk cruise missile from a mobile launcher in August were more of a political gesture than a demonstration of a working system. The first test of an unnamed intermediate-range ballistic missile was planned for November this year, but so far there is no news. 

The United States has a notable advantage in terms of its nuclear forces and means of carrying out a counterforce strike. The Chinese leadership took this into account when developing its nuclear forces strategy and limiting itself to the bare minimum necessary to carry out a retaliatory strike.

The United States already has air- and sea-launched cruise missiles in the region, so if it adds ground-based missiles, it will be more of a quantitative than a qualitative change, especially since any U.S. systems placed in South Korea and Japan will be in the crosshairs of those same thousands of Chinese missiles to which the United States plans to respond. 

At the same time, China has long been concerned by its growing global confrontation with the United States, and has already reacted to the changing strategic situation. Beijing is watching U.S. progress in increasing weapons precision, reconnaissance, and developing its global missile defense system. 

Beijing is responding by investing in the survivability of its nuclear forces: moving over to new types of mobile ICBMs, using multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles for its missiles, paying closer attention to the development of strategic submarines, successfully experimenting with hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, building a radar network, and consulting with Russia over the creation of China’s early warning system.

China will be less worried by quantitative changes in the U.S. arsenal (an increase in the number of cruise missiles) and more so by the qualitative changes (the appearance of intermediate-range ballistic missiles) or changes in doctrine (if the United States shows that it is ready to put under threat Chinese strategic nuclear forces, including its submarines).

The response to new challenges will also likely be primarily qualitative. In addition to the steps already mentioned, it’s not impossible that Beijing might increase the operational readiness of its nuclear forces, or even adopt the doctrine of a retaliatory strike. 

It’s also possible that China will increase its nuclear arsenal. There’s no point, however, in expecting Beijing to double its nuclear stockpile in the next ten years, or to strive for parity with the two existing nuclear superpowers. For the moment, these scenarios do not appear to be supported by the evidence. A departure from the principle of a “lean and effective” nuclear force would be too noticeable a change in Chinese military planning for it to pass unobserved.

The issue of the probable deployment of U.S. missiles in Asia and China’s reaction to this will develop gradually. Washington will have to spend considerable time on the development and production of new types of missiles, as well as on talks with its allies. Beijing will observe and react to concrete steps taken by the United States. 

Overall, China can view its chances in a potential intermediate-range missile race in Asia fairly confidently, thanks to its head start in the form of its existing arsenal, manufacturing capacity, convenient geographic location, and its chances of influencing Washington’s allies.

At the same time, Beijing would have preferred to avoid all this. Apart from the financial costs, which are becoming increasingly undesirable amid an economic slowdown, China must take into account the overall strategic balance with the United States, which is still weighted in favor of the latter. Beijing still doesn’t have a full-fledged nuclear triad, and in the event of an armed conflict, its ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) will most likely find themselves confined inside the first island chain, from which they will not be able to threaten the continental United States.  

Under these conditions, China could be interested in talks with the United States on arms control, even though Beijing has previously said repeatedly that it is not. But the asymmetry in the risks and interests, and the lack of an obvious subject for limitation and of enthusiasm on the U.S. side for talks on a truly equal footing mean that such talks are very unlikely. In this sense, replication of the 1979 NATO double-track decision that followed the Euromissile Crisis would be impossible, both because the U.S. allies are not on board, and because Washington is not going after a specific Chinese system or even range of systems, but rather is trying to reverse the shift in the overall military balance in Asia-Pacific.

Nor is Washington showing any interest in another diplomatic initiative: Russia’s proposal to the United States that the two countries agree to a moratorium on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles following the termination of the INF treaty. Despite the U.S. lack of interest, Moscow still does not intend to roll out new types of missiles (including, it seems, in Asia) until the United States does so.

The Russian proposal of a moratorium opens up new opportunities for Moscow and Beijing to consult with each other and coordinate their response to the probable deployment of U.S. missiles in the Asia-Pacific region. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, took part in talks in Beijing devoted to arms control on November 27. The task facing Russian diplomats is to avoid turning a response to U.S. actions (including possible mutual non-deployment in Europe) into an irritant in Russia-China relations. 

This publication is part of the Sino-Russian Entente project carried out with the support of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

By:
  • Andrey Baklitskiy