National Post (Latest Edition)
‘ Watershed moment’
Faced with dual nuclear threats from China and Russia, what should the U. S. do?
U.S.- China relations are reaching new levels of acrimony and concern.
On the campaign circuit, President Donald Trump blames China exclusively and persistently for the dire economic fallout from what he calls the “China virus.” China’s UN ambassador fired back on the latest salvos, saying “Enough is enough. You have created enough troubles for the world already.”
The rancorous public exchanges between the two governments are troubling and reveal deep strains in the relationship that extend well beyond the pandemic. In fact, the most deep-seated threat today is on the military front.
China is rapidly expanding the scope and scale of its land, maritime and air power. Artificial islands being constructed illegally in the South China Sea are intended to ensure China’s air and surface dominance and to undermine America’s role as a regional security partner.
Even more ominous is China’s increasing nuclear weapons capability. Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of the U. S. Strategic Command and responsible for the U. S.’s nuclear arsenal, reported to Congress earlier this month that, while China’s nuclear capability is modest with a little more than 200 nuclear warheads, it is expected to double this decade. He added pointedly that “China now has the capability to directly threaten our homeland from a ballistic missile submarine. That’s a pretty watershed moment.”
The direst warning from Admiral Richard was that “China is on a trajectory to be a strategic peer to us by the end of the decade. So, for the first time ever the U. S. is going to face two, peer capable nuclear competitors (Russia and China) who are different, who you have to deter differently. We have never faced that before.”
He emphasized that there was no margin of error for the U. S. to modernize its massive nuclear arsenal ( 3,800+ warheads) to respond to China’s moves.
China’s next generation of nuclear missile submarines, the Type 096, and an advanced new missile they are expected to carry would be able to target the U. S. from China’s shores, thereby reducing the risk that they might be spotted in advance.
A recent Pentagon report indicated China has built silos south of Mongolia that may be intended for the development of new, solid- fuelled intercontinental ballistic missiles ( ICBMS) and may also be constructing new silos in Henan province for its liquid-fuelled missiles.
During the Cold War, the U.S. faced a sole nuclear challenge from the Soviet Union — a threat that was managed strategically by a combination of arms- control agreements and diplomatic tactics of detente until president Ronald Reagan forced the issue with a massive military expansion and direct challenges to the lack of liberty and freedom in the U. S. S. R. The sclerotic leadership in Moscow and the stagnating
Soviet economy ultimately collapsed. Even with an economy less than that of Canada — US$ 1.66 trillion GDP versus US$1.71 trillion in 2018 — Russia under Vladimir Putin still poses a nuclear threat, especially if it could strike a modus vivendi with China.
U. S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has signalled that the U. S. is pursuing a new arms- control approach trying to establish a broad “framework” agreement with Russia while endeavouring to bring China on board later.
China has shown no inclination to negotiate. Unlike Russia ( or the Soviet Union), China’s economy is expanding. While its leaders are as authoritarian as those in Moscow, they are determined and confident that their economy will soon surpass that of the United States. They have the wind at their back.
Some analysts suggest the failure of arms control — the Russians cancelled the IRNF ( Intermediate- Range Nuclear Forces) treaty, long before Trump was elected — necessitates an incremental step of “arms racing.”
One option would be to put nuclear warheads on hypersonic missiles. The U.S. is already trying to counter a Russian force that has retained, modernized and produced so many low-yield nuclear weapons that they reportedly outnumber the U. S. by a margin of eight to one. Russia has repeatedly rejected any attempt to negotiate arms controls for lowyield nuclear weapons. China is almost certain to follow a similar path.
Shifting ground and maritime hypersonic missiles to a dual- use design could arguably give the U. S. leverage and flexibility for future arms- control efforts. As Alan Cummings noted in the Texas National Security Review, “Statecraft remains the preferred solution but the U.S. should back its diplomats with the right military tools so that they can navigate today’s competitive environment and shape the future of European and Pacific deterrence.”
Arms- control negotiations may, of course, succeed. Some contend that the huge interdependence of economic links between the U.S. and China is a compelling reason to avoid nuclear confrontation.
But, faced with what is an unprecedented and growing dual threat, the U. S. should intensify relations and counterweights, nurturing in select cases a nuclear capability with regional allies like Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and possibly India, which is already a nuclear power. Each of them is vulnerable to the expanding nuclear threat from China and Russia.
Given Trump’s instinctive allergy to alliance leadership or cohesion, this option may be more appealing to
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Alternatively, the U. S. could try to drive a wedge between China and Russia on the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” — a tactic used effectively by president Richard Nixon when he opened high- level contact with Beijing. However, when dealing with authoritarian dictatorships, this option has more inherent risk than advantage. A necessary degree of trust could prove elusive.
Because our military is bloated and top- heavy with personnel and grossly mismanaged on equipment purchases, Canada does not factor into any serious calibration of global security threats. Besides, our relations with both China and Russia are in the deep freeze, lacking avenues for any constructive dialogue. We are obliged to nestle under the U. S. nuclear umbrella whether we like it or not and whether or not it ultimately proves tenable. One initiative Canada should consider urgently is the negotiation of a partnership in the U. S. anti-ballistic missile system. That would at least give us a say on our own defence.
The resurgence of great power rivalry is a geopolitical reality, although some dimensions are not clear cut. It is already a mindset Russia and China have embraced, one that is guiding their approach to nuclear modernization. For Russia, it is a craving for lost respect. For China, it is a matter of destiny. They share a mutual desire to unseat the U.S. from its position as the world’s sole superpower.
Given the ebb and flow of economic and military strengths evolving among the major global powers, the prospect for global stability is fraught with complexity. ( Nuisance, mini- nuclear states like North Korea and Iran present additional question marks.) Maintaining a sensible equilibrium in these precarious circumstances will be the top challenge confronting whoever wins the U.S presidency in November.
CHINA IS ON A TRAJECTORY TO BE A STRATEGIC PEER TO (U.S.) BY THE END OF THE DECADE.