Revisiting U.S.- China Strategic Competition: Insights from 2018 NPR

Following the end of the Cold War, the global security situation has drastically become more complex and demanding to levels of almost unprecedented nature. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) 2018 indicates that since 1991, US has been undergoing significant reductions in its nuclear arsenal. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) has been put forward as an example, which set an upper limit of 6,000 nuclear warheads whereas shorter-range of nuclear weapons were almost eliminated during this time period. Furthermore, the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) and the 2010 New START Treaty, lowered the strategic force levels to 1,550 warheads, reducing US nuclear stockpiles to more than 85 percent from its Cold War high. National Security Strategy (NSS) 2017, another state document setting the vision of President Donald J. Trump, indicates conditions thought as ideal for the “unprecedented aspirations” of the Obama administration for a “nuclear zero” were seen as indications of “American weakness and decline”. International events in the form of alleged Russian resurgence in Ukraine and the Middle East, along with increasing Chinese boldness in the Asia-Pacific are stated to be evidence of a multi-polar world order where US is required to safeguard its interests. The return to the great power competition has brought China to modernizing and expanding its nuclear forces stresses the 2018 NPR. It is pursuing entirely new nuclear capabilities tailored to achieve particular national security objectives while also modernizing its conventional military that is allegedly challenging the traditional US military superiority in the Western Pacific. Elsewhere, the strategic picture brings similar concerns, NPR mentions North Korea’s nuclear provocations that are considered a threat to regional and global peace.

China carried out a relatively slow build-up of its nuclear weapons stockpile and delivery systems once it finished developing thermonuclear weapons, ICBM, and SLBM capabilities. Open-source estimates put China’s total stockpile at 150-160 weapons in 1984 but did not indicate how many weapons were actually deployed. A US National Security Council study put China’s nuclear-armed missile stockpile at 60-70 weapons in 1993, but this estimate included all missiles and not ICBMs. The head of US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) put China’s total stockpile at the “range of several hundred weapons” in 2012, and the Federation of American Scientists indicated that the nominal total was 240.The Department of Defense document China Military Power credited China with 50-75 ICBMs and SLBMs in 2013, and approximately 1,100 shorter-range missiles, but did not estimate China’s nuclear stockpile.

Some open-source estimates rose to 250 weapons by 2015, and 260 weapons by 2017.Reports that China has obtained significant amounts of US nuclear weapons design data are at least considered moderately credible in the US intelligence community where as elsewhere it amounts to disinformation campaign on the part of the Cold War victor to reassert its dominance.

Finally, in order to conclude it must be added that US and China need to deal with the fact that they have never been part of any significant arms control agreement such as START or even Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT).From a Chinese perspective, the pre-requisites requires a creation of larger and less vulnerable nuclear forces. The strategic thought emerging in China concludes that nuclear modernization, for China is not only a vital strategic interest but it is an existential necessity in a transitioning international power structure. Even in a far more cordial environment where arms control dominates the agenda, each power would still be ensuring that advances in technology does not give the others a critical advantage, such as first strike orcounter-force advantage. The latter environment clearly no longer exists, it would take lots of efforts on their part to rebuilt global stability and security that at present is dominated by more contemporary issues in the cyber and outer-space.

Considering that the Chinese political system that is concealed by notions of secrecy, it remains a challenge to predict how China will compete in nuclear delivery systems, their numbers and performance with those of the other leading powers such as US and Russia. According to the intellectual estimates by the pundits, the literature provides that China may or may not be seeking closer to parity with the US and Russia in strategic delivery systems and warheads. However, a more holistic approach for this purpose would be to judge the Chinese intentions from a cost-benefit approach of its past and current national objectives rather than judging the same from American and Russian numbers on size, war fighting capabilities and levels of nuclear deterrence. The fact is that modernizing and expanding nuclear forces does not signifies matching the nuclear forces of the other “nuclear powers”. Furthermore, comparisons of nuclear forces and their capability to deter is not primarily a numbers game whereby, a side having the most in number and quality would remain supreme. Such comparison must be based on the utility to nuclear weapons in dominating a crisis and in war fighting from the tactical to the strategic level. In reality, it is also probably that the side that successfully deters with the least expensive nuclear forces would “win”. Regardless of China’s declared nuclear posture and strategy, the modernization in the next couple of decades are likely to change the “every aspect of its war planning and reaction to a crisis” that involve the potential use of nuclear weapons.

The 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) recognizes the interaction between changes in number and capability of US and Chinese nuclear forces. It shows that the US recognizes that future nuclear planning and arms control efforts must recognize China’s emergence as a third major nuclear power, and that the past focus on US and Russian Strategic nuclear forces and arms control, must change. The NPR also makes it clear that there already is a major arms race in nuclear capability, and may well pave way for a new major arms race in numbers.

Zaeem Hassan Mehmood
Zaeem Hassan Mehmood
Zaeem Hassan Mehmood is PhD scholar International Relations & Political Science at Greenwich University. He has a Masters of Philosophy in Strategic Studies from National Defence University Islamabad. He was associated in the capacity of Research Analyst with the National Institute of Maritime Affairs (NIMA), a center of excellence established by Government of Pakistan to provide policy guidelines to address various challenges in the maritime industry. During this time, he was an Associate Editor for Maritime Watch, Pakistan’s first monthly news digest on maritime affairs. His writings have appeared on reputed national and international policy platforms including Austral: Brazilian Journal of Strategy & International Relations, Malaysian Journal of International Relations and Andalas Journal of International Studies. Zaeem serves as a reviewer for International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences. He can be reached at zhmehmood42[at]