China crept up unnoticed

Elena Chernenko

China began to actively build up its nuclear potential. This conclusion was reached by researchers from the authoritative Federation of American Scientists, who discovered in China using satellite imagery a second positional area for launching silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). By entering the nuclear arms race, according to experts, China reacts primarily to the escalating conflict with the United States. But China’s increased nuclear power will also affect Russia: by the end of this decade, it is likely to lose its exclusive status as the only power capable of opposing the United States on an equal footing in the nuclear sphere, and will find itself in a completely new geopolitical configuration.
Catch up with Russia and the USA
Researchers from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) Hans Christensen and Matt Korda reported an important discovery: using commercial satellite imagery, they discovered a new positioning area for ICBM silos in China. It is located in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in the desert south-west of the city of Hami and covers an area of ??about 800 square meters. km. According to experts, 110 launch shafts are planned to be erected here at a distance of 3 km from each other (temporary dome-type shelters have already been built over 14, engineering work is underway on another 19). The Chinese began to build the facility, presumably in March. Researchers believe that the mines are designed to deploy new Chinese DF-41 ICBMs.
This is the second large-scale positioning area discovered by American researchers in recent weeks. The first, located near the city of Yumen in Gansu province, became known from a report by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in late June. The facility in Yumen, according to them, is designed for 120 mines for ICBMs. It is in a more advanced stage of construction than the field at Hami. The contour and grid of both districts are similar to the site near Ylantai City in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where FAS previously had one silo training launcher and 16 more mines are under construction since the beginning of this year.
The discovery of new positioning areas allowed FAS experts to conclude that “the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal in history.” It was previously believed that China has only about 20 working mines for the DF-5 ICBM. “With 120 mines under construction in Yumeng, another 110 mines in Hami, a dozen mines in Yilantai, and the possible construction of additional mines in the existing DF-5 deployment areas, China’s People’s Liberation Army missile forces appear to be building about 250 mines, then there are more than ten times more than they have now, ”the scientists said in their report. When the new site areas are completed, China will overtake Russia in the number of mines.
China’s missile silo program is the largest such facility since the construction of US and Soviet missile silos during the Cold War, ”the researchers said.
The Chinese authorities do not publish data on their nuclear capabilities. The Pentagon said last year that China has just over 200 nuclear warheads, but could at least double its arsenal over the next decade. According to FAS, China already has about 350 nuclear warheads, of which about 185 are installed on ICBMs (mostly on mobile). If all new silos are loaded with DF-41s capable of carrying multiple warheads, the number of warheads on Chinese ICBMs could increase to 875.
It is worth noting that even in this scenario, the Chinese nuclear potential will be several times less than the Russian and American ones, estimated by experts at about 4 thousand deployed and non-deployed warheads. But such a significant build-up of arsenal will allow China to leave far behind the other two official nuclear powers – France (290) Great Britain (225). And most importantly, the jump in the potential of Chinese strategic weapons will become a serious threat to the United States (DF-41 are capable of hitting targets at a distance of more than 14 thousand km).
Scientists from FAS believe that by investing in strengthening its nuclear power, China takes into account several factors at once, including the improvement of nuclear and conventional forces, as well as the capabilities of anti-missile defense from many other players, especially the United States. The growing conflict with the United States and vulnerability to the American military machine are, according to the report, one of the main reasons for China’s inclusion in the nuclear arms race.
According to American experts, considerations of national prestige also influence Beijing’s actions: “China is becoming richer and more powerful. Major powers have many missiles, so China also needs more missiles to maintain its status as a great power. ” Whatever China is guided by, it, according to scientists from the FAS, no longer adheres to its former nuclear doctrine of “minimum deterrence”.
Three did not figure it out
The news about the construction of another ICBM mine site area came literally a day after the visit to China by First US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and on the eve of the Russian-American consultations on strategic stability, which were starting in Geneva on Wednesday. A year ago, when Moscow and Washington, at the very end of the Donald Trump administration, began similar negotiations, the American side stubbornly insisted on involving the Chinese in this process. The US authorities sent a corresponding invitation to China, but Beijing refused, recalling that its nuclear arsenal is incomparable with that of Russia and America.
Then the United States began to demand from Russia to convince China to join the negotiations, but Moscow did not put pressure on Beijing. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov then explained to Kommersant that Russia is interested in the future arms control regime being multilateral, but stressed that the US allies – France and Great Britain (which so far, like China , do not show such a desire). The American negotiators on arms control so wanted to make the consultations trilateral that even in the absence of a delegation from the PRC they placed Chinese flags on the negotiating tables – along with their own and Russian ones. But that didn’t help either.
The new US administration, judging by the public statements of its representatives, is more sober in its assessment of the prospects for China’s involvement in the arms control process at this stage.
Nevertheless, the Deputy Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie Jenkins, recently approved in her post, promised in her first post on Twitter to seek “limiting the nuclear arsenal of Russia and China.”
Russian experts interviewed by Kommersant suggest that some of the new mines are being created for camouflage purposes. “A significant part of the missile silos under construction are probably false positions. The Chinese have repeatedly resorted to this technique to protect their strategic forces. About half of the number of their missile forces are construction units that are engaged in engineering equipment of positions and the creation of false positions, “Vasily Kashin, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics, explained to Kommersant. According to his forecast, 16–20 silos in each positional area will actually be filled with missiles. “It is important for the Chinese to save missiles from the first strike. If the camouflage works and the enemy does not know in which mine the real missile is, he will spend a significant part of the warheads to destroy the empty mines, – says the source of Kommersant.
Dmitry Stefanovich, a researcher at the Center for International Security of the IMEMO RAS, co-founder of the Vatfor project, does not exclude the possibility that other products may eventually be loaded into the mines: defense”. Be that as it may, both Kommersant’s interlocutors and FAS researchers suggest that in addition to a quantitative leap forward, China is preparing to change the nature of its service with its nuclear forces.
“Until recently, the Chinese strategic nuclear forces did not carry a full-fledged combat alert in peacetime. That is, their warheads were stored separately from missiles and were to be installed on carriers only in the pre-war period, explains Vasily Kashin. “
According to the expert, this is a new and very important factor that will affect the entire global security. “For generations, Americans and I have lived in a state of pointing guns at each other, constantly experiencing the fear that something will work out wrong. Soon we will be joined by a third player, with much less experience of existence in such a regime, – says the source of Kommersant. – Along with the quantitative leap in China, this will change the foundations of everything. A third great nuclear power is being born before our eyes. ” According to Vasily Kashin’s forecast, this process will take about ten years. “For Russia, this process will have tangible geopolitical consequences – now it is the only power who in the nuclear sphere can talk on an equal footing with the United States. But soon she will lose this exclusive status. This is, of course, unpleasant, ”he sums up.
In turn, Dmitry Stefanovich notes that while the US military faces understandable tasks in this situation, Russia is faced with another dilemma. “Formally, we are not in a state of mutual nuclear deterrence with China, but it is necessary to include in military planning, including the most negative scenarios for the medium and long term,” the expert says. According to his forecast, the “nuclear five”, which has pledged to reduce its arsenals under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, will face a very difficult conversation, especially at the upcoming review conference on the implementation of this key international agreement.