The U.S.-China Strategic Security Relationship and the Nuclear Posture Review Report

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 9


At first glance, the Obama Administration’s long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) Report appears to have relatively little to say about China, at least in comparison to its emphasis on the threats of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation, reducing the role of U.S. nuclear weapons, and the “New START” arms control agreement between the United States and Russia. Yet a close reading of the NPR reveals major implications for the future of the U.S.-China strategic relationship. The review comes at a time when strategic security is becoming an increasingly important bilateral issue. Beijing is continuing to modernize its nuclear missile forces with the deployment of the DF-31 and DF-31A mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and development of the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) for the PLA Navy’s new Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs)—and Chinese scholars maintain reservations about U.S. missile defense and conventional global strike plans.  

Beijing’s reaction to the 2001 NPR was extremely negative because many Chinese scholars saw it as confirmation of their perception that the United States was determined to seek a strategic security posture that would allow for the unconstrained employment of U.S. military power. Since the 2010 NPR highlights the importance of enhancing strategic stability in the U.S.-China relationship through dialogue, however, it should help to ameliorate some of Beijing’s longstanding concerns about U.S. strategic intentions toward China. Indeed, the Chinese reaction has generally been more favorable this time than it was in response to the 2001 NPR.

At the same time, however, the comments of some Chinese analysts appear to reflect lingering suspicion about U.S. motives and intentions. For example, Teng Jianqun, an arms control expert at CICIR, praises the 2010 NPR as a “positive factor for the promotion of international nuclear security,” but cautions that America’s thinking about global hegemony has not changed (Xinhua News Agency, April 8). Similarly, some Chinese arms control experts have asserted that the U.S. nuclear posture remains largely the same despite the new NPR. Moreover, according to Li Hong, Secretary General of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, Beijing “still faces some threat from the U.S.” because “China is not among the countries the U.S. has said it will not attack” (NPR, April 9). Some Chinese arms control experts were also disappointed that the NPR did not adopt an unconditional no first use policy. In addition, the author of one recent article opines that the United States is pressing other countries for disarmament to ensure its nuclear superiority (Global Times, April 16).

China as “a Small Russia”

The 2010 NPR highlights the growing importance of the U.S.-China security relationship and the need for greater cooperation on global security issues like nuclear non-proliferation and terrorism. At the same time, however, the NPR also expresses concern about Chinese military modernization, especially aspects of the development of its nuclear forces. As the NPR puts it, “the United States and China’s Asian neighbors remain concerned about the pace and scope of China’s current military modernization efforts, including its quantitative and qualitative modernization of its nuclear capabilities.” Moreover, according to the NPR, “the lack of transparency surrounding its programs—their pace and scope as well as the strategy and doctrine guiding them—raises questions about China’s future strategic intentions” [1].

What is most important about the NPR, however, is how it proposes dealing with these concerns. Indeed, it appears to resolve a fundamental debate regarding the U.S.-China strategic relationship—whether to base it on recognition of the reality of mutual deterrence or a potentially destabilizing quest for strategic dominance. A 2009 Council on Foreign Relations task force report on U.S. nuclear weapons policy highlighted this dilemma, noting that the United States had not yet decided whether to treat China as a “small Russia to be deterred or a large North Korea to be defended against.” The NPR resolves this issue by placing China in the same category as Russia, and stating that the United States “must continue to maintain stable strategic relationships with Russia and China” [2]. The NPR also echoes the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report, which stated: “maintaining strategic stability in the U.S.-China relationship is as important to this Administration as maintaining strategic stability with other major powers” [3].

By placing China in the same category as Russia and highlighting the importance of enhancing strategic stability in the U.S.-China relationship, these important policy documents reflect the strategic reality that China is a reemerging great power with the resources and determination to deploy and maintain a secure second strike capability, not a larger version of North Korea or Iran that needs to be dealt with through the pursuit of strategic dominance. This is a critical starting point that should begin to allay some of Beijing’s longstanding strategic security concerns and thus enable the United States and China to address key nuclear weapons-related challenges such as enhancing strategic stability, cooperation on nonproliferation goals, and perhaps broader arms control initiatives in the longer-term.

U.S.-China Strategic Stability

From Beijing’s perspective, Chinese strategists have argued that U.S. missile defense systems and proposed conventional global strike programs would have a negative impact on strategic stability by compromising China’s assured second strike capability. Specifically, Chinese scholars have suggested that such capabilities would make it easier for the United States to contemplate a first strike against China. Indeed, Chinese analysts view U.S. pursuit of a missile-defense system as a serious threat to the viability of China’s nuclear deterrent. According to Senior Colonel Wang Zhongchun, a professor at the PLA’s National Defense University, “Once the system is completed, the United States will obtain a strategic deterrent force with both offensive and defensive capabilities, which could pose serious challenges to the limited nuclear deterrent capabilities of medium-sized nuclear countries” [4]. Some Chinese analysts state that ballistic-missile defense (BMD) will make it easier for the United States to consider the first use of nuclear weapons. According to Rong Yu and Peng Guangqian:

Should the United States possess the strategic defense capabilities, its first strike would leave only a few nuclear weapons available for the adversary to launch a retaliatory counterattack, which would be within the capacity of its missile defense system to intercept; a second strike would then eliminate the remainder of the adversary’s nuclear force. It is apparent that, with the BMD system, U.S. decision-makers would be greatly emboldened when facing the choice of launching a pre-emptive or even preventative nuclear attack [5].

U.S. proposals to deploy prompt conventional global strike capabilities, which have been mentioned in several recent policy documents including the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review and the NPR, have also raised concerns among Chinese analysts. The NPR supports development of “non-nuclear prompt global strike capabilities,” but it attempts to address Chinese and Russian concerns by stating that Washington is “examining the appropriate mix of such capabilities needed to improve our ability to address such regional threats, while not negatively affecting the stability of our nuclear relationships with Russia or China” [6]. Nonetheless, Chinese observers are clearly concerned that such capabilities could undermine strategic stability. Indeed, Washington will need to proceed carefully to avoid precipitating counter responses that are contrary to U.S. interests, such as a larger than otherwise planned Chinese nuclear force buildup, further development of counter-space capabilities, or potentially destabilizing higher alert levels.

Recently, some Chinese scholars have expressed concerns that even if U.S. missile defense and conventional global strike systems have little or no real impact on China’s assured second strike capability, they may still give U.S. planners and decision-makers a false sense of superiority, potentially leading to U.S. attempts to coerce China with nuclear threats in a crisis. For example, according to Li Bin and Nie Hongyi, “even though the missile defense system cannot be relied upon in actual warfare it may lead American decision-makers to misjudge by causing them to imagine they already have a more powerful strategic advantage, thus leading them to blindly adopt a nuclear coercion policy” [7]. Similarly, they raise the possibility that even the illusion of “nuclear primacy” could lead to more aggressive behavior on the part of the United States: “some American scholars believe the United States can already rely on a preemptive nuclear strike to completely destroy China’s long-range nuclear weapons, and therefore they maintain that the United States already has the capital to carry out nuclear coercion against China” [8]. The 2010 NPR should help to alleviate some of these concerns.

The NPR also identifies China as an important partner in pursuit of nonproliferation and arms control goals in the short- and long-term, stating that strategic stability will facilitate pursuit of these broader policy objectives [9]. Nonproliferation and preventing nuclear terrorism were high on the agenda when Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington last week, but the time is not yet ripe for arms control talks with China, especially given Beijing’s unwillingness to engage in the process at least until U.S. and Russian forces reach lower levels.

According to Hui Zhang, “Given the huge qualitative and quantitative gap between the Chinese arsenal and those of the United States and Russia, however, Beijing cannot be expected to involve itself directly in the reduction of its nuclear weapons until the United States and Russia have made deeper cuts in their arsenals” [10]. Yet China’s integration into the global nuclear reduction process that President Obama outlined in his 2009 Prague speech will eventually be required to move toward the long-term goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. The NPR reflects this challenge, stating, “over time” the United States “will also engage with other nuclear weapon states, including China, on ways to expand the nuclear reduction process in the future” [11]. It is unclear at what point China would be prepared to engage in this process. As Hui notes, “Beijing does not yet appear to have worked out a detailed set of preconditions, including a specific number that the United States and Russia must cut, before it joins the process” [12]. All of these challenges underscore the importance of strategic dialogue between the United States and China to enhance strategic stability and promote cooperation on non-proliferation and arms control issues.

Strategic Dialogue

These emerging dynamics within the U.S.-China strategic relationship thus underscore the need for further enhancement of U.S.-China dialogue and engagement on strategic stability and nuclear weapons issues. This is especially important as the United States continues to draw down its nuclear forces. According to the NPR: “It is also clear that maintaining strategic stability at reduced force levels will be an enduring and evolving challenge for the United States in the years ahead. Ongoing nuclear and other military modernization efforts by Russia and China compound this challenge, making the need for strategic stability dialogues all the more critical” [13]. The United States thus plans to pursue bilateral dialogues on strategic stability to promote “stable, resilient and transparent strategic relationships” [14]. According to the NPR: “With China, the purpose of a dialogue on strategic stability is to provide a venue and mechanism for each side to communicate its views about the other’s strategies, policies, and programs on nuclear weapons and other strategic capabilities. The goal of such a dialogue is to enhance confidence, improve transparency, and reduce mistrust” [15].

Chinese scholars and military personnel also recognize the potential value of expanding and enhancing dialogue on strategic security issues. As Li and Nie acknowledge, for example, “The establishment of China-U.S. mutual confidence in the area of nuclear weapons can eliminate suspicion and reduce negative interactive side effects of both sides.” At the same time, however, China’s persistent concerns about what it sees as the potential risks of greater transparency may limit its willingness to engage with the United States. China has long worried that revealing too much would expose its vulnerabilities in ways that could undermine the credibility of its strategic deterrent.

Although China has been reluctant to increase transparency in part because of the relative weakness of its position, the modernization of the Second Artillery’s nuclear missile force appears to be fostering greater confidence in China’s assured second strike capability. For example, according to a professor from the Second Artillery Command Academy, because of its range and mobility, the DF-31A ICBM “basically can carry out effective nuclear counterattack operations” against a country that launches a nuclear strike against China (Global Times Network, January 27). This greater confidence in turn should eventually lead to greater willingness to increase strategic transparency. The United States, for its part, should concentrate on accelerating this process by persuading China that increasing transparency would not undermine Chinese interests, but would instead benefit both sides by helping to promote shared strategic stability and national security interests. Nonetheless, the United States may find it very difficult to overcome China’s longstanding concerns. Indeed, some Chinese scholars have cautioned that uncertainty about future technological developments may result in even greater anxiety about nuclear transparency [16].


1. Nuclear Posture Review Report, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, April 2010, p. 5.
2. Nuclear Posture Review Report, p. 6.
3. Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, February 2010, p. 34,
4. Wang Zhongchun, “Nuclear Challenges and China’s Choices,” China Security (Winter 2007), p. 62,
5. Rong Yu and Peng Guangqian, “Nuclear No-First-Use Revisited,” China Security (Winter 2009), p. 89,
6. Nuclear Posture Review Report, p. 34.
7. Li Bin and Nie Hongyi, “An Investigation of China-US Strategic Stability,” World Economics and Politics, No. 2, 2008, pp. 60-61.
8. Li Bin and Nie Hongyi, “An Investigation of China-US Strategic Stability,” p. 61.
9. Nuclear Posture Review Report, p. 7.
10. Hui Zhang, “China’s Perspective on a Nuclear Free World,” Washington Quarterly, April 2010, p. 143,
11. Nuclear Posture Review Report, p. 12.
12. Hui Zhang, “China’s Perspective on a Nuclear Free World,” p. 143.
13. Nuclear Posture Review Report, p. 19.
14. Nuclear Posture Review Report, p. 28.
15. Nuclear Posture Review Report, p. 29.
16. Li Bin and Nie Hongyi, “An Investigation of China-US Strategic Stability.”