There are certain reasons for China wanting to go Big Bang. One is American success in constructing an effective anti-ballistic missile shield.
By Tom Arms
China is building underground silos capable of housing nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. In doing so, they are potentially quadrupling their nuclear arsenal overnight; abandoning an established strategic policy of minimum deterrence and threatening to start a domino-like arms race.
The Chinese have had nuclear weapons since 1964. Exactly how many warheads they have is a state secret, but analysts estimate that the number has been stuck at 250 for a number of years. They wanted just enough to deter an attack but not enough to seriously threaten and thus invite a first strike attack from either the US or Russia. The medium-sized arsenal also fitted in with Beijing’s self-image of a regional rather than global player and, the money could be better spent on climbing out of the economic doldrums.
But times change – China is now a global power. It has the second largest economy in the world and a blue water navy to protect its growing Belt/Road trade links. 120 nations now name China as their major trading partner. China is a super power and demands to be treated as such. A well-stocked nuclear arsenal is the essential super power accessory.
There are other reasons for China wanting to go Big Bang. One is American success in constructing an effective anti-ballistic missile shield. The 1972 ABM Treaty was the foundation stone on which subsequent Cold War strategic arms talks were based. It enshrined the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) by limiting the Soviet and American missile defences so that either side could retaliate.
The ABM Treaty was scrapped in 2002 by the second Bush Administration and since then the US has spent billions building a first-class missile defence system. It is now so good that there is virtually no chance that 250 Chinese warheads—delivered mainly by land-based missiles and long-range bombers—would have a snowball’s chance in a nuclear Hell of breaking through to their targets. A thousand-plus would, however, be a serious threat.
The growing Chinese threat prompted both the Trump and Biden Administrations to press the Chinese to join them and Russia in the current round of Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (New START). Absolutely not, has been the response from Beijing. This is possibly because they don’t want to come to the negotiating table as junior partners. If they are going to negotiate they need for it be from a position of strength, which means they have to first build up their nuclear stockpile.
But apart from that, trilateral nuclear talks make no sense to Beijing. The current strategic arms treaties are based on a Euro-centric Cold War construct with a strategic American nuclear umbrella protecting Western Europe with support from a minimal British and French deterrent and a Soviet/Russian force aimed at Europe and its protector across the Atlantic.
China does not fit into that equation. It is an Asian, not European country. It wants to use its nuclear arsenal primarily to increase its political position in Asia. Its main opponent is the US but from the opposite direction. And then there is Russia. At the moment, it has good relations with Moscow, but history indicates that could quickly change.
There is also the problem of India. The world’s largest democracy and China are vying for position of top Asian dog, and the two countries regularly clash along the disputed Sino-Indian border. India—with 160 nuclear weapons– developed its arsenal to deter Pakistan, which in turn has acquired/built 180 nuclear weapons to counter the Indian threat. Delhi is believed to have plans to increase its stockpile for protection against the Chinese. If this proves to be the case, then Pakistan will want more mushroom cloud creators. This then increases the pressure on Iran and Israel. The Israelis (75 to 400 warheads, exact number a closely-guarded secret) have long regarded the Pakistani weapons as being as much an “Islamic bomb” as Pakistan’s deterrent against India. An increase in either the Israeli or Pakistan stockpile weakens Iran’s claim to be a Middle East power and strengthens their desire for a nuclear capability, which is a serious cause for concern.
Then there is Russia. It is an Asian as well as European country. To date its nuclear strategy has been focused largely on Europe and its American protector. If Asian countries significantly increase their nuclear capability then Russia will want to match them. An increase in Russia’s arsenal will inevitably put pressure on Britain, France and the US….
The Chinese have hinted (and it is no more than a hint at this stage) that the solution could be a series of bilateral talks between the Washington and Beijing, Moscow and Beijing, Moscow and Washington and possibly Delhi and Beijing. That, of course, could be even more confusing than the previous sentence is to read. But the diplomats have to start somewhere soon to deal with the emerging new Chinese-driven nuclear order.
- The Jury is out on whether the Republicans have either shot themselves in the foot or dealt a political master stroke with their refusal to participate in the congressional inquiry into the Capitol Hill Riots. To understand why we are where we are we need to go back to 6 January and its immediate aftermath. At that time there was bipartisan condemnation from the leadership of both parties with fingers pointed directly at Donald Trump. The move at that point was for an elder statesmen-type Commission of Inquiry similar to the one that investigated 9/11. But gradually Trump and his congressional acolytes pecked away at the Republican leadership and when the vote for a commission reached the Senate floor it was defeated. So, the next move was for a bi-partisan congressional committee. This required Kevin McCarthy, leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, to appoint selected party members to the investigating body. Nancy Pelosi, would appoint the Democrats, and, as House Speaker, had veto power over McCarthy’s appointments. Those nominations turned out to be eminently veto-able (if that is a word). They were almost all far-right, pro-Trump, Stop the Steal, Republicans. When Pelosi asked for alternatives, McCarthy responded by refusing to participate in the inquiry. Pelosi then went out and found two anti-Trump Republicans—Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney—to sit on the committee. This, of course, has led to Republican accusations of bias before the committee called its first witnesses. If the charge is shown to stick in the committee’s deliberations then it will hurt the Democrats in next year’s mid-term elections. If, on the other hand, the electorate is angered by the Republicans’ refusal to allow a non-partisan commission or congressional committee, then it is a win for the Democrats. It could go either way. Most likely the Congressional deadlock will mean that no one’s view will be substantially changed.
- US troops are pulling out of Afghanistan, and now, this week, they also started boarding planes heading away from Iraq. This is a big win for Iran, especially as regards Iraq. The US has been in Iraq for 18 years, only two years short of its Afghan sojourn. There are currently about 2,500 US combat troops in the country and an unknown number of special ops units. Biden says that all but a handful will be home by Christmas. At its height there were 160,000 American soldiers in Iraq; first to topple Saddam, then to support various unstable governments, then to combat Isis and finally to oppose the expansion of Iranian influence. All but the last objective has been at least partially achieved. Tehran has been very good at painting the presence of US forces as armed neo-colonialism and a foreign occupation force. They have managed to find backers for this view in both the Iraqi parliament and the military, especially among Shias who comprise a third of the population. The departure of the Americans will allow them more opportunities to improve links and strengthen the corridor in Southern Iraq linking the political vacuums in Syria and Lebanon; thus allowing Tehran to expand its influence and move up to the border with Israel. Successive US Administrations are determined to shed themselves of responsibility of never-ending Middle East wars so that they can focus on the increasing threats in Asia-Pacific. But doing so may come at a heavy price.
- It is time for the Israeli ice cream wars. The producer of mouth-watering concoctions such as Cherry Garcia is crossing spoons with the Israeli government over its decision to stop sales of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem for ethical reasons. The Israeli government has responded in typical disproportionate style. President Issac Herzog condemned the move as “economic terrorism.” Israel’s man in Washington, Gilad Erdad, has written to 35 US states urging them to boycott the makers of phish food, caramel chew chew, etc. And finally, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has attacked the company as “anti-Semitic.” The last action is ironic given that the founders of Vermont-based Ben and Jerry are two Jewish lads, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. This raises the sticky issue of whether or not you can oppose or criticize Israeli government policy without being branded as anti-Semitic. Certainly a number of Jews in Israel and the diaspora have come out in support of Ben and Jerry. Does that mean they oppose their own race and religion? Can a Jew be anti-Semitic? As for calling on the individual states to order a boycott of the ice cream and/or its parent company Unilever; well that’s a non-starter because according to the constitution the states have no say in US foreign policy. The ambassador’s letters are a PR exercise in line with what is now a long-standing Israeli tactic of meeting every attack—military, diplomatic or economic—with a disproportionate counter offensive. This time, it looks as if they may get ice cream on their faces.
- This week a Taliban delegation visited Beijing for talks. They were invited by the Chinese who saw the writing on the wall and wanted to add a few words before the sentence was finished. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this “could be a positive thing.” Blinken may be a touch naïve because the Chinese agenda in Afghanistan is different from the American. Blinken made his statement in the stated hope that Beijing would push the Taliban towards peace talks with the Afghan government. However, Beijing made it clear that it is sticking to its policy of non-interference in other in countries’ domestic affairs. Their main interest in a likely future Taliban government is two-fold: Xinjiang Province and the Belt/Road Initiative. The Taliban—and before them other Muslim groups—have a long history of supplying the co-religionist Uighurs in Xinjiang with weapons, money and political support. China is worried that a Taliban government in Kabul will increase the flow exponentially. Balanced against that is the historic fact that Afghanistan was a key link in the old Silk Road. The Belt/Road Initiative is the 21st century version and the Chinese would like to revive medieval trade routes as well as build new ones.