3 nuclear Superpowers, rather than 2, usher in a New Strategic Era

11:32 04.05.2023 •

China is on track to massively expand its nuclear arsenal, just as Russia suspends the last major arms control treaty. It augurs a new world in which Beijing, Moscow and Washington will likely be atomic peers, writes ‘The New York Times’.

On the Chinese coast, just 135 miles from Taiwan, Beijing is preparing to start a new reactor the Pentagon sees as delivering fuel for a vast expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal, potentially making it an atomic peer of the United States and Russia. The reactor, known as a ‘fast breeder’, excels at making plutonium, a top fuel of atom bombs.

The nuclear material for the reactor is being supplied by Russia, whose Rosatom nuclear giant has in the past few months completed the delivery of 25 tons of highly enriched uranium to get production started. That deal means that Russia and China are now cooperating on a project that will aid their own nuclear modernizations and, by the Pentagon’s estimates, produce arsenals whose combined size could dwarf that of the United States.

China insists the breeder reactors on the coast will be purely for civilian purposes, and there is no evidence that China and Russia are working together on the weapons themselves, or a coordinated nuclear strategy to confront their common adversary.

It may only be the beginning. In a little-noticed announcement when President Xi Jinping of China met President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow last month, Rosatom and the China Atomic Energy Authority signed an agreement to extend their cooperation for years, if not decades.

“By the 2030s the United States will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries,” the Pentagon said last fall in a policy document. “This will create new stresses on stability and new challenges for deterrence, assurance, arms control, and risk reduction.”

In recent weeks, American officials have sounded almost fatalistic about the possibility of limiting China’s buildup.

“We are probably not going to be able to do anything to stop, slow down, disrupt, interdict, or destroy the Chinese nuclear development program that they have projected out over the next 10 to 20 years,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress late last month.

China’s leader is making no secret of his expansion plans. China now has about 410 nuclear warheads, according to an annual survey from the Federation of American Scientists. The Pentagon’s latest report on the Chinese military, issued in November, 2022, said that warhead count could grow to 1,000 by the end of the decade, and 1,500 by around 2035, if the current pace were maintained.

Underscoring the urgency of the problem, the State Department convened an expert panel in recent weeks and gave it 180 days to come up with recommendations, saying “the United States is entering one of the most complex and challenging periods for the global nuclear order, potentially more so than during the Cold War.”

The dynamic is, indeed, more complicated now — the Cold War involved only two major players, the United States and the Soviet Union; China was an afterthought. Its force of 200 or so nuclear weapons was so small that it barely figured into the discussion, and Beijing never participated in the major arms control treaties.

On Capitol Hill, there is discussion of whether the coming expansion of China’s arsenal requires an entirely new approach. Some Republicans have begun talking about expanding the nuclear arsenal after New START expires, so that it could match a combined Russian-Chinese force, used in a coordinated way against the United States. Others call that an overreaction.

“I think it is insane to think that we will be fighting two nuclear wars at the same time,’’ said Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor who tracks nuclear weapons.

Deepening tensions between Beijing and Washington appear to have hardened Mr. Xi’s judgment that China must counter “all-around containment,” including with a more robust nuclear deterrent.

“The Chinese leadership has become even more determined to focus on the long-term China-U.S. competition and, if necessary, confrontation,” said Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. China’s nuclear expansion, he said, is “mostly to shape the American assessment of the international balance of power, and make it accept the reality that China is set to become a similarly powerful country.”

The biggest advertisement of China’s ambitions has been three vast fields of missile silos under construction in its arid northern expanses. In total, the silo fields could hold up to an estimated 350 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each potentially armed with multiple warheads.

For its part, the Biden administration has announced plans to make the first new warhead for the nation’s nuclear arsenal since the Cold War — an update that the White House says is ‘long overdue for safety reasons.’ The weapon, for submarine missiles, is a small part of a gargantuan overhaul of the nation’s complex of atomic bases, plants, bombers, submarines and land-based missiles. Its 30-year cost could reach $2 trillion.

The United States has about 40 tons of plutonium left over from the Cold War that is available for weapons and needs no more. It is, however, building two new plants that can fashion the old plutonium into triggers for refurbished and new thermonuclear arms, such as the W93. Recently, the agency that does investigations for Congress estimated the new plants could cost up to $24 billion.

Many arms controllers decry the new facilities. They say that Washington has in storage at least 20,000 plutonium triggers from retired hydrogen bombs and that some of them, if needed, could be recycled.

Jennifer M. Granholm, the energy secretary, has declared the new plants essential for “a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent.” Modernizing an aging nuclear force, as Ms. Granholm suggests, is one of the few areas of bipartisan accord. But it does not address the larger strategic challenge.

“We don’t know what to do,” said Henry D. Sokolski, a former Pentagon official who now leads the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “What’s the response to this — do we just build more, and are we going to be able to build many more than they are?”


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