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CHINESE EXPANDING NUCLEAR CAPABILITIES

Updated: Aug 20

Tiberius Hernandez, Matthew Dean, Lindsay Hendershott, Muhammad Md Rosli, PACOM Team

Week of Monday, July 19, 2021


The Hami region of the Xinjiang Province[1]


Summary

The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) PACOM Team has assessed that there is a high risk of Chinese nuclear expansion based on new satellite imagery released by the Federation of American Scientists, as it is highly likely China has begun construction of new nuclear silos in the Hami region of the Xinjiang province in China’s mainland[2] because this information comes in the context of what is believed to be a large military nuclear operation in the Hami area, indicating it is likely a strategic nuclear site.[3] The empirical reliability of information released by the FAS as well as the quantity, validity, and cross-verification of the data used to come to this assessment leads to a high degree of confidence in our assessment. The two main assessed motives behind the event are as follows:

  • Firstly, China is embarking on a large-scale buildup of the nuclear infrastructure necessary to engage in either defensive or offensive nuclear strikes.

  • Secondly, China is building this infrastructure at the same time as diplomatic tensions with the United States (US) and other regional actors (such as Taiwan) are at a less than ideal level, likely signaling a commitment to building capabilities that have an effect of deterrence and intimidation.

Alternatively, it is possible the nuclear construction projects are simply attempting to modernize and replace existing nuclear infrastructure as opposed to being meant to expand strategic capabilities. This is unlikely, however, as the secretive nature of the site as well as the fact that no other Chinese strategic nuclear sites have been decommissioned most likely indicates an expansion project as opposed to replacement. If the construction of the silos in Hami is completed, China would have heightened ability to deter other actors from impeding Chinese attempts at seizing land, and could even be able to impose an immediate surrender in the low probability scenario that conflict might occur given that China has expressed it does not want a hot conflict, although the deterrent effect alone poses a threat due to its presence having a potential chilling effect on relations.


Assessments


In light of this new development in China’s nuclear missile capabilities, it is highly likely that China is preparing to expand its nuclear abilities. This recent construction represents the largest missile silo construction since the Cold War and China’s largest nuclear expansion in history.[4] Although these new nuclear silos do not give China an equivalent force as is currently held by the US, it will almost certainly provide China with heightened deterrence should the two great powers find themselves in strife.


In July 2021, the US and China engaged in tense talks in Tianjin focused on topics such as sanctions and visa restrictions. Before the talks had concluded, Chinese officials stated that the relationship between the two powers “is now in a stalemate and faces serious difficulties.”[5] This strained relationship has been building and could result in physical conflict, something that China may have foreseen. Therefore, if China desires to be seen as a competitive adversary in wartime, heightened nuclear capabilities are necessary. This new project increasing China’s nuclear capacity makes the possibility of physical conflict between China and the US less likely.


In addition, China’s relationship with India has also recently been filled with conflict as in 2020 and 2021 both countries have been involved in border clashes and standoffs, which has resulted in dozens of deaths.[6] This recent situation makes further clashes very likely between the two countries. This new apparent project expanding China’s nuclear capabilities means that a limited arms race is likely to occur between the two nations. Although both countries increased and diversified their arsenals in 2020, this significant increase in capability from China is extremely concerning for India.[7] In addition, China could look to collude with Pakistan, another nuclear power, leading to a dangerous security situation for India. This means that the turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir could very likely result in both China and Pakistan using their nuclear leverage to overpower India. India would need greater nuclear abilities, meaning greater arms procurement for India is very likely.


Increased nuclear capabilities from China resulted in the likely probability that China would succeed if it attempted to forcefully reunify Taiwan, a prospect that China’s President Xi Jinping has already threatened in 2019.[8] However, China’s chances of victory largely depend on America’s resolve to protect Taiwan, which in turn makes forceful reunification an unlikely scenario. The importance of US support of Taiwan is even more important in the nuclear realm, as Taiwan does not currently possess any nuclear weapons.[9] The increased nuclear power of China gives the country a massive advantage over its neighboring adversaries. This means that Taiwan’s allies, such as the US and Japan, would need to come to its aid to prevent forced reunification.


While it seems that China is building its nuclear capabilities to flex its regional power in Asia, there are some constraints to the silo approach. The fixed emplacement of silos offers no mobility, making them vulnerable targets for potential first strike operations via nuclear weapons or conventional surface-to-surface missile (SSM) or air-to-ground missile (AGM). The People's Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) has recently acquired the Dongfeng-41 (DF-41) transporter-erector launcher (TEL), an asset armed with mobile thermonuclear weapons. It is highly likely that China is prepared to utilize these strategic assets, which possess rapid relocation and deployment capabilities. This approach gives China the ability to mask its location from SIGINT, IMINT, and GEOINT analysis as well as operability from multiple potential launch sites.


Future Implications


The most critical tactical implication of the ongoing construction in Hami is that if completed, the site would provide China with an expanded ability to conduct nuclear strikes. Since this project is believed to be the most recent attempt to scale up nuclear capabilities, it is highly likely the site will be equipped with the most advanced missile and targeting technology China has, as well as the best missile defense systems at their disposal to block a hypothetical first strike. Moreover, the geography of the Hami region also elevates the degree of the threat posed by any nuclear silo located there, as the extremely remote location makes it difficult to collect HUMINT, forcing global actors to rely almost entirely on satellite imagery as well as SIGNIT, COMINT and MASINT to understand the threat. These two factors, technology, and location would be present at the complete Hami facility, creating a credible deterrent. The facility would only need to be operational in order to achieve its goal of deterring threats to China, as most countries would not risk any action that could spark China to strike first in a nuclear escalation. In the worst-case scenario that China embarked on a nuclear strike, preemptive or retaliatory, the Hami site would enable the country with more than sufficient capabilities to strike any nation posing a threat to China or Chinese interests.


Sources


China expanding its nuclear capabilities, scientists say, BBC, July 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-57995185


China is Building A Second Nuclear Missile Silo Field, Federation of American Scientists, July 2021, https://fas.org/blogs/security/2021/07/china-is-building-a-second-nuclear-missile-silo-field/


China’s Xi threatens Taiwan with force but also seeks peaceful ‘reunification,’ Reuters, January 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-taiwan-idUSKCN1OW04K


Hami, Xinjiang, China” by Google Maps


India-China dispute: THe Border row explained in 400 words, BBC, January 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53062484


India, China increased nuclear weapons since last year: SIPRI, The Economic Times, June 2020, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-increased-nuclear-arsenal-in-2019-but-has-fewer-weapons-than-china-pakistan-sipri-report/articleshow/76384026.cms?from=mdr


Taiwan: Overview, Nuclear Threat Initiative, May 2015, https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/taiwan/


Tense U.S.-China meeting ends, Beijing official says relations are in a ‘stalemate,’ CNBC, July 2021,

https://www.cnbc.com/2021/07/26/us-china-tianjin-meeting-wendy-sherman-xie-feng-wang-yi.html

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Hami, Xinjiang, China” via Google Maps

[2] China expanding its nuclear capabilities, scientists say, BBC, July 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-57995185

[3] Ibid.

[4] China is Building A Second Nuclear Missile Silo Field, Federation of American Scientists, July 2021, https://fas.org/blogs/security/2021/07/china-is-building-a-second-nuclear-missile-silo-field/

[5] Tense U.S.-China meeting ends, Beijing official says relations are in a ‘stalemate’, CNBC, July 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/07/26/us-china-tianjin-meeting-wendy-sherman-xie-feng-wang-yi.html

[6] India-China dispute: THe Border row explained in 400 words, BBC, January 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53062484

[7] India, China increased nuclear weapons since last year: SIPRI, The Economic Times, June 2020, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-increased-nuclear-arsenal-in-2019-but-has-fewer-weapons-than-china-pakistan-sipri-report/articleshow/76384026.cms?from=mdr

[8] China’s Xi threatens Taiwan with force but also seeks peaceful ‘reunification’, Reuters, January 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-taiwan-idUSKCN1OW04K

[9] Taiwan: Overview, Nuclear Threat Initiative, May 2015, https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/taiwan/

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