The Nuclear Threat From China

By Mark Helprin
Sunday, March 4, 2007

Before rejoicing over detente with Kim Jong Il, it might be useful to remember that although agreements were reached in the past, his countrymen later built a number of nuclear weapons and carried out a test. Also, North Korea, with a rich chemical and biological arsenal having long ago neutralized American tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, has embarked solely on a program of survival by extortion and will gladly forfeit a power it does not need in exchange for recognition and some essential commodities. The Asian nuclear power of which we must take account is not North Korea but China.

The forerunners of China's government were able to defeat Chiang Kai-shek, fight the United States to a draw in Korea and, merely by means of their country's looming potential, help defeat America in Vietnam. This they did in chaos, poverty and without modern arms, but with strategy bred in the bone. Since 1978, using their extraordinary and sustained economic and technical growth to build military capacity, the Chinese have deliberately modeled themselves on the Meiji (who rapidly transformed feudal Japan into an industrial state able to vanquish the Russian fleet at Tsushima).

In altering their position relative to that of the United States, the Chinese have received generous assistance from the past two American presidents, who have accomplished first a carefree diminution of our orders of battle and then the incompetent deployment of what was left, in a campaign analogous to losing a protracted struggle with Portugal. China advances and we decline because, among other things, its vision is disciplined and clear, while ours is burdened by fear, decadence and officials who understand neither Chinese grand strategy nor its nuclear component.

This has led the United States unwittingly to encourage China to move toward nuclear parity. In the next five years, as we reduce our arsenal from 10,000 strategic warheads to 1,700, China's MIRV'd silo-based missiles and imminent generations of MIRV'd mobile and sea-based ICBMs will easily allow a breakout from warhead numbers now variously estimated to range from 80 to 1,800.

Once, the vast imbalance (in 1987, 500:1) might have discouraged China from such augmentation, but no longer. Our reductions and their growth provide fewer targets for more missiles and will create the possibility and therefore the temptation, however remote, of a first strike. As we have cut the stable sea-based leg of our nuclear deterrent from 37 ballistic missile submarines to 14, China works to build its own and a fleet that can provide protected bastions at sea as well as hunt down the small number of American boats on station.

Nuclear competition between mature and newly emerging powers is neither unprecedented nor unexpected, but the rule has always been that if nuclear potential exists it must be countered. Although we may no longer subscribe to this, China does. Aware that the United States planned to use nuclear weapons had China violated the Korean armistice, China would understandably seek nuclear balance, if not preponderance.

The danger lies not solely in quantitative instabilities but in potential nuclear strategies that technical evolution has elevated above Cold War paradigms. It is one thing for a few experts to foresee these strategies but quite another to obtain from a people no longer confident of its right to self-defense the political consensus, appropriations and authority to counter them. Consider just one scenario, highlighted by the recent successful test of China's anti-satellite weapon, part of a strategy to exploit technological asymmetries.

Given China's appetites and our alliances and interests, a war is not inconceivable in Taiwan, or in Korea. To remove American nuclear escalation from the equation, China would need not parity but only a deterrent such as it has long possessed. The Chinese, however, whose nuclear thresholds are dissimilar to ours, would have other options.

They know that every facet of America's economy, military and society depends on individual and networked electronic devices. Were these to fail all at once and irreparably, the nation would seize up, perhaps for years.

Faced with victory, or with loss, they might choose to -- and who would venture to guarantee that they would not? -- detonate half a dozen high-megatonnage nuclear charges in the mesosphere, in an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) strike perhaps not even in American airspace, cooking almost every circuit and semiconductor, rendering the American government blind, deaf and dumber than it is already and the country unable to resist the inroads that would surely follow.

Though we would undoubtedly respond in kind, China is not as technically dependent as are we. Nor, given China's sufficiency for a counterstrike, could we deter an EMP attack with the prospect of massive retaliation, especially because an EMP strike, with no immediate casualties, would seem as peaceful as snow in still air.

The trick in nuclear strategy is to maintain stability by balancing potentials and thus to discourage events from converting the hypothetical to the actual. Required in this case -- only one of many -- is the electronic hardening, redundancy and redesign of essential systems and networks; and missile defense, which would not only close the first-strike window by shielding our second-strike capacity from destruction but protect against an EMP strike directly and dissuade China in the first place by making its deterrent less certain.

Were we to proceed along these lines, we could diminish the chances that China might in the not-so-distant future be tempted to win a nuclear war without fighting a nuclear war. But given that we have ignored explicit warnings of the congressionally chartered EMP commission, what are the chances that we will act on an opinion we dare not even form? In regard to war and the sometimes counterintuitive actions for avoiding it, we are no longer either confident or clearsighted. What a pity to have come so far to find that our rivals and enemies all over the world can run rings around us because half of our politicians have lost their intelligence and the other half have lost their nerve.

Mark Helprin, a novelist, is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and a distinguished visiting fellow at Hillsdale College. This article will also appear in the Claremont Review of Books.

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