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Closing Arguments: China's New Nuclear Posture, Iran's Harder Line

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

China: Nuclear Posture Breaks From the Past Ever since China joined the nuclear weapons club back in 1964, it has emphasized that its strategic nuclear posture was defensive only. Not only did China fully commit to a “no-first-use” policy, but it also deliberately limited the size of its nuclear arsenal, fielding around 20-25 DF-5 single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) stored in silos. Recent construction activity inside China, however, suggests that China may be constructing over 200 new silos designed to carry the newer DF-41 ICBMs, each capable of carrying up to 10 nuclear warheads. If true, this would represent a massive expansion of China’s strategic nuclear posture -- namely, of its first-strike capability -- that cannot be ignored by the US. China’s long-time nuclear posture, set forth most recently in a 2006 white paper, centers on being able to mount a guaranteed retaliatory strike after absorbing a nuclear attack from an adversary. To demonstrate Chinese intent here, the DF-5 missiles were stored empty, meaning they would have to be refueled before being launched -- a process that could take hours. Moreover, the nuclear warheads were not mounted on the missiles: If China were going to launch a nuclear attack using the DF-5, these warheads would have to be removed from storage and mounted on their respective missiles. But as US capabilities improved, China’s DF-5 arsenal was deemed to be vulnerable to a decapitating first strike. To bolster its nuclear deterrent, China fielded a new generation of solid-fuel mobile ICBMs, the DF-31 and DF-41. When the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 2019, China assessed that any US deployment of INF-type weapons on China’s periphery would likewise threaten this mobile deterrent. The construction of over 200 silos capable of holding a DF-41 missile would increase the survivability of China’s strategic nuclear force. This could be done by fielding only some missiles in silos and leaving the rest empty, creating a “shell game” approach to targeting from any adversary. But China has also created additional uncertainty in that if it filled all, or even most, of the silos with the DF-41 missile, it would acquire a credible first-strike capability that requires a US response. China has long said it would not enter a nuclear arms race. The construction of 200-plus new silos appears to contradict this policy. In doing so, China has put the US in a position where it would need to spend billions of dollars revamping its own nuclear posture in response, or begin serious arms control talks about reducing the size of both nation’s nuclear arsenals. This last point, more than anything, best explains China’s new posture. Iran: New President, New Hard Line in Nuclear Talks

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