The discovery that China has begun building a large number of nuclear silos in the Gansu province has raised understandable concerns. India does indeed need to keep a close eye on this developing issue. Nevertheless, there is little cause for alarm: while New Delhi still needs to continue developing its nuclear arsenal to give it an adequate capacity to target all of China – which India currently lacks – further growth of its nuclear arsenal is unlikely to change the nuclear deterrence equation between India and China, or even between the US and China.
Why China is building more silos
The rationale behind China’s silo-building is unclear. As some nuclear experts have argued, it might simply be an effort to ensure the survivability of Chinese nuclear forces by creating far more aim-points for the US to target. There is a vast difference in the size of the nuclear arsenal between the two countries. Credible estimates suggest that the US currently has about 1,700 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, with another 2,000 in reserve. Against this, China is thought to have only about 130 deployed intercontinental-range, land-based missiles that can reach continental US, out of a total approximate stockpile of 350 warheads.
China’s nuclear strategy has always been based on the uncertainty that any potential attacker would face in successfully destroying all of China’s weapons in an attack. The attacker would face the certainty of nuclear retaliation if any escaped. The uncertainty of destroying all of China’s nuclear weapons and the certainty of retaliation combined to provide sufficient deterrence. China enhanced the dilemma any attacker would face by hiding its nuclear weapons, which meant that no attacker could be certain they could detect and destroy all of them.
Building more nuclear missile silos could be designed to increase the uncertainty that any attacker faces, forcing them to expand their list of targets, while still complicating their uncertainty about where Chinese nuclear weapons are based. If this is indeed the case, we should expect more such missile silos to pop up in other parts of China.
Another possibility is that China is attempting to expand its nuclear arsenal somewhat, especially the long-range missiles that can target continental US. A declassified, official US assessment last year stated that “(T)he number of warheads on land-based PRC ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years” and the overall number of nuclear warheads to “at least double in size” over the next decade. It is unclear if this is the likely consequence of putting multiple warheads on missiles or whether the numbers of missiles themselves may increase by such numbers, which matters because attackers are more likely to target missiles than warheads.
Such an expansion may also be the result of the same dynamic: China attempting to enhance its deterrence by building up its nuclear arsenal because a larger nuclear arsenal obviously increases the complications that attackers would face.
Show of power?
We cannot also rule out the possibility that China will massively expand its nuclear arsenal to sizes comparable to those of the US and Russia. Beijing could undertake such a build-up not because it gains any additional deterrence advantages but for status reasons – to be on an equal political footing with the US, in particular.
China under Xi Jinping seems to prioritise equality and status above else – as was witnessed at the contentious first bilateral meeting between Chinese and American senior officials after US President Joe Biden took office – described by a senior Chinese scholar as reflecting the Chinese belief “that its rise to great power status entitles it to a new role in world affairs—one that cannot be reconciled with unquestioned U.S. dominance”. If the political rather than the deterrence factor is driving China’s nuclear decision-making now, we should expect a much larger Chinese nuclear expansion.
Even if China were to embark on such a massive nuclear expansion – and the caveat that we do not yet know must be emphasised – it is unlikely to affect India’s nuclear deterrence.
India must watch closely
The Indian nuclear deterrence strategy is based on the same assumption that China’s traditionally has been, that of the uncertainty that any attacker would face in eliminating all of India’s retaliatory force, and the certainty that India would retaliate. Even if a few Indian nuclear weapons escape, the consequences of Indian retaliation would be so horrendous as to make even a relatively successful attack on India pointless.
One argument that has gained currency is the likelihood that the development of ballistic missile defences (BMDs) creates new calculations. If such BMD systems can successfully intercept the few missiles that survive an initial attack, then the attacker does not have to worry about not destroying all of the enemy’s missiles in the first strike. This could increase the incentives for launching a nuclear attack first.
Although seemingly straightforward, such arguments face a couple of problems. One, there are no nationwide BMD systems that any country has yet deployed. All of the key countries – China, US, and India – are territorially large ones. While it may be theoretically possible to fashion such systems for small countries, it is enormously difficult and expensive to scale up current BMD technology, which can at best defend one site or at most a city, for a whole country. It may be possible to defend a capital city or a couple of large cities, but defending a large country is simply not possible with currently available technologies. Without a nationwide defensive umbrella, such options are nothing more than interesting theoretical debates. Moreover, new technologies, such as hypersonic glide vehicles, make such missile defences even more difficult. It is not surprising therefore that many countries, including India, are working on various types of hypersonic missiles.
The second problem is that political leaders do tend to be extremely cautious when dealing with nuclear weapons. This is an appreciable quality that has been true across countries through the entire nuclear age. It is understandable, obviously, because the consequences of a miscalculation will be unimaginable. The idea that political leaders will make such fine calculations of their odds goes against everything we know about nuclear history. Academics can theorise as much as they want about such odds, but they do not have the political responsibility that leaders face, especially to their own political fortunes.
There is little question that India needs to closely watch these developments. India’s nuclear capabilities, especially vis-à-vis China, are not where they should be and definitely need enhancing. But that is not the consequence of the discovery of the new Chinese nuclear missile silos, which will not fundamentally alter deterrence relationships between India and China, or even China and the US.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)