Russia, Iraq — the list of countries that the United States has threatened with a nuclear attack is short. Some may know that China was in our sites when we used to lump it in with the Soviet Union. But Americans today are aware that we threatened China with a nuclear attack during the Korean War. China, however, hasn’t forgotten.
In a January 2016 paper for the Union of Concerned Scientists titled China’s Military Calls for Putting Its Nuclear Forces on Alert, Gregory Kulacki explains. Along with that nuclear threat, “the nuclear weapon policies of the United States,” which include “accurate U.S. nuclear weapons, the development of high-precision conventional weapons, and missile defenses. … are the most prominent external factor influencing chinese advocates for raising the alert level of China’s nuclear forces.”
Currently China’s nuclear weapon arsenal, much smaller than that of the United States, is off alert, which means that the warheads are not mounted on missiles like those of the United States (and Russia) that are counted as deployed in the New START treaty. But, Kulacki writes, China’s strict deterrence-only, no-first-use policy has come under attack from Chinese military leaders who, unlike in the United States and Russia, traditionally haven’t.
… military writings show that a domestic conversation about raising the alert level of China’s nuclear forces is taking place. China is both fiscally and technologically capable of developing and deploying an early warning system and preparing its nuclear forces for launch on warning. Moreover, China’s nascent ballistic missile defense program would require some of the same sensor technologies as a warning system, should China decide to push forward with that capability.
At some point in the near future, quite possibly during the current process of drafting the next five-year plan, advocates, like the authors of the 2013 AMS book, may ask President Xi Jinping and China’s new generation of leaders to revisit old questions about the alert level of China’s nuclear forces.
The United States has only itself to blame. Kulacki again:
More generally, Chinese scholars point out that the United States does not acknowledge that it is in a mutually vulnerable relationship with China. That implies to them the United States believes it can prevent nuclear retaliation by China—an idea reinforced by U.S. pursuit of accurate nuclear weapons, high-precision conventional weapons, and missile defense.
Kulacki offers five solutions, foremost among them:
Reject rapid-launch options. Announcing that the United States is eliminating options to launch on warning or launch under attack and is taking its missiles off high alert would put international pressure on China to refrain from putting its weapons on alert.