Status: Open

U.S. Decision to Withdraw from the INF Treaty is more about China than Russia

November 27, 2018

Tong Zhao

On October 20, 2018, President Donald Trump announced that the United States is going to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). Many experts assumed that that Trump’s decision was caused not by the accusations that Russia violated the treaty but by concerns about China’s growing military power. In the interview to Andrey Baklitsky, PIR Center Consultant, for “Yaderny Konrol” (Nuclear Control) monthly bulletin Tong Zhao, Fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua, explains how Trump’s announcement was perceived in China and analyses the current state of strategic stability between the United States and China.

My first question concerns the U.S. decision to quit INF Treaty. How this perspective is seen from China? 

Based on the way the American officials talked about their reasons for withdrawing from the INF Treaty, the message that Chinese experts received is that this withdrawal is more about China than about Russia. It’s a clear message to China that the U.S. is now committed to a comprehensive military competition with China, even if this means the U.S. has to walk out of a treaty, or pay some diplomatic price, it’s is willing to do that. That shows how committed the U.S. is to this military competition. I think that really unnerves China.

The fact that the U.S. is willing to go that far is more unnerving than missiles themselves? 

Exactly. It’s about this broader message about the overall relationship. 

The U.S. does not currently have ground-launched cruise missiles. Do you expect them to be developed and then deployed in Asia, even though no country would probably want them? 

Firstly, I think China worries that the U.S. can quickly convert some of the air and sea-launched missiles to ground-launched versions and deploy them in massive numbers in Guam or somewhere in Alaska close to China. For the mid-term to long-term future, the U.S. has to have its allies or friendly countries in this region host these missiles in order to make them militarily effective. In that regard, the Chinese perception is—given that the U.S. needs these allied countries to deploy such missiles—the U.S. has an internal interest in selling the China threat to these countries; it would deliberately exaggerate the China threat in this region in order to persuade other countries to host these missiles. That further worries China, and it contributes to this existing Chinese concern that the U.S. has an internal interest to demonize China in this region and wants to build a broader alliance network to counter China. The message that’s received in Beijing is even more negative than it appears at the surface. 

All that you are describing comes against the backdrop of trying to find an equilibrium between strategic nuclear forces of China and U.S. Your recent report was on Chinese SSBNs and how they will play into these dynamics. Could you briefly describe what this report is about and what are its main findings?

The report is about the growing Chinese capability to deploy nuclear strategic submarines, or SSBNs, and how that affects the overall strategic stability between the U.S. and China, and how that affects regional security and stability. China has a very limited goal in deploying the SSBN fleet. The goal is simply to diversify Chinese nuclear forces. There is this perception that land-based nuclear forces are becoming increasingly vulnerable to a preemptive strike or missile defense systems. Therefore, it is increasingly necessary to deploy a sea-based deterrent capability. Additionally, China sees that reliance on nuclear SSBNs is a trend that is clearly embraced in all other major nuclear powers. Everyone increasingly attaches greater importance to nuclear strategic submarines as a reliable form of nuclear deterrence. China feels that this is the direction to go, so it has to have this capability. Although the goal is simply to reinforce the second-strike capability, it has much broader security implications. Given that Chinese current nuclear strategic submarines are relatively noisy, they need maritime forces to help create a safe zone for them to operate in in order for them to survive. 

Like bastions? 

Like submarine bastions in Chinese coastal water. That requires China to build a massive maritime force for the so-called pro-SSBN mission. It also requires China to shift its maritime military posture from sea-denial to sea-control. Sea-denial means you make a certain area of sea unsafe for enemy forces.

Like area access denial? 

Right. You make it unsafe for other military vessels to operate. Sea-control means you make that area of water safe only to your own military forces, which is a much higher level of control.  This can be seen as presenting a much higher threat level to other countries in this region, which creates a very negative image. It can easily influence threat perception in regional countries near China. If others believe that China is pursuing something more ambitious, like trying to expand its military sphere of influence, then they may work more closely with the United States to deploy countermeasures such as anti-submarine warfare capabilities. Those capabilities will then make China fear for the survivability and safety of its nuclear submarines. The confrontation can quickly escalate into a very negative action/reaction dynamic. 

Also, there is no clarity of U.S. intentions and policy towards Chinese strategic forces, including its submarines. Is U.S. planning to target them or not? What are the current strategic stability relations between China and the U.S.? 

I think there is a disconnect between U.S. political decisionmakers and operational-level actors, especially the U.S. Navy, when it comes to the issue of the growing Chinese SSBN capability. During the Obama administration, the U.S. had a policy of maintaining bilateral strategic stability relations with China. That is interpreted by China as a U.S. commitment to not deliberately threaten China’s nuclear second-strike capability. Even though that commitment was not mentioned in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, there is still a common understanding that the U.S. does not have a policy of deliberately threatening Chinese nuclear second-strike capability. At the political level it looks like the U.S. does not want to deliberately put Chinese SSBNs into risk during peacetime. 

But at the operational level, the U.S. Navy seems to want to develop the capability and policy of holding Chinese SSBNs at risk. During the Cold War the U.S. pursued this policy of deliberately threatening Soviet SSBNs and maybe that traditional policy affected how the Navy currently looks at Chinese SSBNs. Senior U.S. Navy officials have openly talked about the necessity to develop a capability to hold Chinese SSBNs at risk. There are new technologies that the United States can use to achieve this goal, for example, by deploying unmanned underwater vessels in large numbers, which can help detect, track, and trail Chinese SSBNs. If you look at these two practices, at both levels, the message from the U.S. is very vague and confusing. I think it’s useful for the U.S. to do its homework and figure out what its policy should be towards Chinese nuclear SSBNs. I think it would make sense for the U.S. to have an explicit declaratory policy, renouncing the policy of deliberately threatening Chinese SSBNs, because such a policy will be useful for reducing Chinese concern about the U.S. intentionally undermining or neutralizing the Chinese strategic nuclear deterrent. It wouldn’t fully reassure China, but it’s much better than not having an explicit policy. After the U.S. makes such a commitment at the political level, it would then open up opportunities for cooperative measures to maintain strategic stability and pursue nuclear risk reductions with China at the operational level.


Yaderny Kontrol, Issue 11 (505), November 2018