The implications of mutual assured vulnerability for the Indo-Pacific region
China’s nuclear modernisation might establish stability in the US-China nuclear dyad. However, it would have a cascading effect on the nuclear and conventional competition in the Indo-Pacific region
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has undertaken the qualitative and quantitative modernisation of its nuclear arsenal. In the past two years, China has constructed around 250-300 missile silos, tested a new hypersonic missile system, fielded at least two brigades of its road-mobile DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), handed over two Jin-class submarines to the People’s Liberation Army — one of which (Changzheng 18) was commissioned to enter service in April 2021, and continued deploying more road-mobile DF-31 AG launchers and dual-use DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs).
The 2021 department of defense’s (DoD) report on China’s military power highlights that China could quadruple its nuclear warheads by 2030. Furthermore, China is moving at least a part of its nuclear force to the launch-on-warning (LOW) nuclear posture, which it calls “early warning counterstrike.” The DoD report also claims that China could develop and conduct low-yield weapons tests. However, there is little evidence available supporting this last claim.
During an important national political meeting in March, general-secretary Xi Jinping directed his armed forces to “accelerate the construction of advance strategic deterrent” capabilities. This was perhaps the most direct public instruction from the highest Chinese leader in recent times.
China’s recent nuclear build-up could be to achieve the condition of mutual assured vulnerability with the United States (US). This is a state where both sides are vulnerable to each other’s nuclear forces, no matter who strikes first.
This also implies that China worries about the survivability of its nuclear arsenal from the US’s conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) weapons and the credibility of its capacity to retaliate — which could be undermined by the US’s improving missile defence systems. Thus, Chinese nuclear strategists argue that gradual nuclear modernisation would create the condition of credible nuclear deterrence in the US-China nuclear dyad. This upholds the deterrence logic of stability, as the rational incentive would be to avoid war to prevent mass devastation. However, the same logic doesn’t apply to the actors of the Indo-Pacific region, including India.
This is what scholars call the stability-instability complex, where adversaries worry more about conventional conflicts as their nuclear relations are stable. On achieving the condition of mutual assured vulnerability with the US, China would be encouraged to deploy more conventional capabilities against regional powers. This will be applicable for Taiwan, where China would try to limit the US’s involvement in case of a forceful reunification. But as scholars Abraham Denmark and Caitlin Talmadge argue, this would also be applicable for other regional powers within east and southeast Asia. Thus, by indulging in nuclear modernisation, the Chinese military may grow more confident of its ability to change the status quo despite US interference in east and southeast Asia.
The stability-instability paradox plays a key role in the India-China conflict, where nuclear stability encourages limited conventional conflicts and tensions. However, as scholars Toby Dalton and Tong Zhao highlight, China maintains a dismissive view about the relevance of nuclear weapons in India-China ties.
Such an attitude stems from India’s indigenous military technologies, which are still at the early stages of development and the widening gap between the two countries’ conventional and nuclear capabilities. However, as multiple reports have highlighted over the course of the ongoing military stand-offs, India has taken cognisance of China’s deployment of DF-26 and DF-21 weapons system in Tibet, its nuclear modernisation, silos and orbital hypersonic test.
India could be forced to chase China’s nuclear arsenal, which would threaten India and Pakistan’s fragile stability. As Dalton and Zhao argue, Chinese experts tend to underestimate Beijing’s role in shaping New Delhi’s threat perception and nuclear strategy.
Thus, China’s nuclear modernisation might establish stability in the US-China nuclear dyad. However, it would have a cascading effect on the nuclear and conventional competition in the Indo-Pacific region.
Suyash Desai is an associate fellow at the Takshashila Institution
The views expressed are personal