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What Missile-driven Competition with China Will Look Like

An era of mutually discriminate wars and more competitive diplomacy beckons. Here’s how it will unfold and how to start dealing with it.

Henry Sokolski

It appears that Washington and Moscow may very well agree to a one-year freeze on the number of nuclear warheads in their arsenals and to keep New START in place for another twelve more months. If so, the question then would be what would come next.  The White House has made it clear that Washington needs to use this interregnum to draw China into the next strategic arms deal. But, assuming that was possible, what would that look like?

The short answer is unclear. The long answer is whatever diplomatic or strategic moves Washington might make with or against Beijing will reflect the long-term missile-driven military competition that has already begun with Beijing. This long-term rivalry involves not just the United States, but its East Asian allies, and, to a lesser extent, Russia. It will create ample opportunities for diplomacy as well as for increased military contests and miscalculation.

Fortunately, the United States and its allies are not without resources to create a more secure world. But this will not be easy. The missile-driven competition with China will take decades to unfold, and will come in stages, most likely along the following lines.

Phase I: 2020-2030

During the early years of the first phase of military missile-driven competition with China, from approximately 2020 to 2030, the United States will be able to strike China’s homeland with many more long-range missiles than China could use against the continental United States. Initially, all of these intercontinental-range missiles, on both sides, will be nuclear-armed. By 2030, however, some of the missiles will be nonnuclear.

From now through the mid-2020s, China will have far more nonnuclear short, medium, and intermediate range missiles and drones in East Asia than the United States or its allies will. By 2030, though, the United States and its East Asian allies are likely to have begun closing this  gap with some number of short, medium, and intermediate range nonnuclear missile systems based in South Korea, Japan, U.S. territories, and perhaps Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. In addition, by the mid-2020s, both China and the United States will have advanced bombers capable of delivering large numbers (“swarms”) of nonnuclear missiles and drones.

At the end of this first phase, the United States and its allies could seek to put China on the defensive by targeting assets essential to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) rule over provinces that would rather go their own way. One might hope that this type of targeting would encourage the CCP to invest much more in active and passive defenses on the mainland to protect targets that are currently undefended, and that these CCP defensive investments would come at the cost of China’s otherwise investing more in offensive strike systems.

U.S. and Chinese active defenses during this phase will continue to be less than perfect but effective enough to force both sides to increase the size of their offensive missile arsenals to be able to destroy any given target. The United States will continue to rely very heavily on space-based systems to meet its military command, communication, control, intelligence, and surveillance requirements. China and Russia will not rely so heavily on their space-based systems to achieve their military goals. For most of this period, U.S. and allied space-based systems will be vulnerable to Russian and Chinese ground-based lasers. These systems can dazzle and damage allied satellite optical sensors and by the mid to late 2020s will be able to disable the satellites themselves, destroying their metal skins. During this same period, rendezvous satellites, designed to refuel, repair, and reposition spacecraft into their desired orbits, could be used as anti-satellite weapons to de-fuel, damage, and disable them by pulling them out of position.

Phase II: 2025-2035

China will continue to develop accurate nonnuclear missiles that can target the continental United States with maneuverable re-entry vehicles and hypersonic technologies. China would also use intermediate, medium, and shorter-range versions of such missiles to threaten America’s regional friends and allies. This, in turn, will increase U.S. and allied interest in developing enhanced passive and active missile defenses, including ultra-performance concrete protected structures, high mobility missile launchers, and advanced decoys and camouflage. It would also increase American investments in low-vulnerability space-based command, control, communication and surveillance systems as well as missile defense and anti-satellite lasers. In general, a premium would be placed on developing a variety of high fire-rate, low cost-per-shot active defenses and using passive defenses to increase the number of missiles that the Chinese would have to fire destroy any given target.

Against such U.S. and allied efforts, Beijing might hedge its strategic bets by developing a large “peaceful” nuclear fissile material production base, one it could ramp-up relatively quickly to produce large numbers of nuclear weapons, if it chose, late this decade. In fact, China could build such an infrastructure largely by maintaining its current “civilian” nuclear plans.

Phase III: 2030-2040

Once both the United States and China have larger numbers of long and shorter range precise strike systems and much more robust active and passive missile and air defenses, the possibility of major missile exchanges would be less attractive to both sides than it might seem today. So, too, would the early use of nuclear weapons. By 2035, the United States should have much more resilient and survivable space-based systems to support its military. The precise targeting of stationary military targets, and mobile ones, to some extent, could still be accomplished, as would the targeting of political locations and facilities that China, the United States, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea view as necessary for their adversaries to maintain political control.

In this regard, the United States might enjoy some advantage: Unlike China, the United States should enjoy more popular support than the CCP would; and America should therefore be politically more resilient against such attacks. Also, China would still be far more urbanized than the United States, making it more difficult for China to target all of the political nodes in the United States that might matter.

Diplomatic Opportunities

Given China’s regional military advantages and the nuclear superiority of the United States over the next decade, Washington and its East Asian allies would likely have difficulty persuading China to make any arms control deals of the counting-numbers sort previously reached with the Russians. With this in mind, diplomatic proposals should initially focus on new ideas and rules that would be awkward for China to reject and would not turn on relative numbers per se.

It might be possible and useful, for example, to consider negotiations to establish a prohibition against using nuclear weapons against cities. This could make sense militarily and politically even if China did not agree.

First, China is more urbanized and so more vulnerable to attack than the United States and yet more likely than the United States to threaten to target cities. Also, it would be to the U.S. and allied advantage to put Beijing on the spot to agree not to target cities in Japan and South Korea (two countries that are even more urbanized and vulnerable than China). Finally, pushing such a diplomatic effort would alert China’s most urbanized irredentist provinces that in any war, the United States would spare them. To the extent that the Chinese Communist Party leadership would be reluctant to risk losing these provinces in war, this message would indirectly strengthen America’s hand in deterring the Chinese from launching major military operations that might prompt such counterstrikes.

A second diplomatic initiative that might help Washington maintain alliance cohesion with Tokyo and Seoul and reduce the prospect of any massive Chinese nuclear ramp-up would be to have the United States, Japan and South Korea approach Beijing about establishing a moratorium on expanding “peaceful” uranium enrichment capacities and commercial spent fuel recycling plants. The logic of such an understanding (which could be the basis of a political deal) would be to trade Japanese, U.S., and South Korean nuclear production restraint for similar Chinese caution.

This proposition should appeal to China, since Beijing is on record as criticizing Japan for Tokyo’s reprocessing plans (which include opening a massive plant at Rokkasho in 2022 capable of making 1,500 bombs’ worth of nuclear explosive plutonium a year). Beijing would also prefer that South Korea, which has expressed an interest in building and operating large reprocessing and enrichment plants of its own, not to do so.Keeping both Japan and South Korea from developing such options is also in America’s interest, as it would encourage both Asian allies to work more closely with Washington than they might otherwise.

Third, and related, Washington might take the lead on proposing measures to deter any further Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)withdrawals. Discussing this subject would be timely, given immediate concerns about Iran and other Middle Eastern nations, like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, leaving the NPT and mid-term concerns about South Korea and Japan possibly doing  the same. Washington should take this up at the NPT Review Conference, now likely to be held in early in 2021. Here, the United States might work with the United Kingdom and France—two permanent members of the UN Security Council—on a country-neutral UN resolution. (A good place to start would be these recommendations.) Once Washington reached agreement with Paris and the UK, it could bring up the matter with Russia in future arms control discussions; Beijing should also be consulted..

Pushing modest political understandings like these would further these goals:

  • Provide some substance to the aforementioned upcoming NPT Review Conference;
  • Test the arms control sincerity of Russia;
  • Give the U.S. leverage to open meaningful nonproliferation arms control talks with China, to gauge their willingness to deal indirectly with the pressing local nuclear worries Beijing has—namely, Japan and South Korea.

Fourth, the United States and its Asian and European allies could start now to promote rules of the road for rendezvous satellite operations and ground-based lasers. These rules should be designed to reduce the potential use these systems to launch surprise attacks against U.S. and allied space-based assets critical to conducting nuclear and conventional military operations. The United States and its key NATO and East Asian allies would all have an interest in backing such rules to help clarify what actions might constitute acts of war in space.

As China becomes more dependent on space-based command, control, communication, surveillance and targeting systems, clarifying these matters should be of greater interest to Beijing as well. China may also want to offer civil and commercial space programs for export. Therefore, rejecting such rules might be awkward, as the rules would be useful not just to maintain safe military satellite operations but to assure that commercial operations would meet accepted international safety and insurance standards for commercial satellite offerings.

Finally, it might make sense to propose limiting the numbers of hypersonic long-range missiles on both sides. Such limitations might be difficult for China to push aside and could give the United States more time to develop such offensive systems, since neither side is likely to deploy many until later in this decade. After 2030, with both sides more equally armed, the United States might be in a better military position to agree safely on additional missile limits on shorter range hypersonics as well. By then, one would hope that the United States would have built a larger and more advanced missile production base than China’s, one that gives America a margin of safety.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (2019). He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush Administration.