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Peter Huessy speaks about “The Role of Nuclear Weapons in Chinese Strategy”

On Wednesday, May 13, The Institute of World Politics hosted a webinar on the role of nuclear weapons in Chinese strategy. The Institute welcomed Mr. Peter Huessy to speak on the subject.

Mr. Huessy is an expert on nuclear deterrence, missile defense, and strategic threats to the U.S. and its allies, having lectured on these topics around the world. He is currently the President of his own defense consultancy, GeoStrategic Analysis, which was founded in 1981. He is also the Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute on Aerospace Studies. Previously, he was a defense consultant at the National Defense University Foundation, a National Security Fellow at the AFPC, and a Senior Defense Consultant at the Air Force Association.

Mr. Huessy opened the webinar by telling an anecdote. His mentor, a once-Secretary of Defense, told him that analysts focus too often on nuclear “beans,” countable nuclear tangibles like warheads and missiles. Instead, his mentor said, analysts should look at how nations develop their nuclear capabilities and how they are likely to employ their nuclear capabilities into their wider strategies.

In the 21st century, nuclear strategy is deeply different from what it was during the Cold War. Whereas the Cold War traditional nuclear strategy was one of deterrence, Russian President Vladimir Putin has developed a strategy of “escalate to win.” This strategy involves threatening the use of nuclear weapons in a coercive manner to intimidate the opponent into backing down early in a confrontation. An example of this strategy is how Russia has threatened the U.S. with nuclear attacks should it try to deploy nuclear missiles in Europe.

Mr. Huessy then outlined the conventional wisdom on China’s nuclear capabilities, what he called the “can’t, won’t, wouldn’t, and aren’t” of Chinese nuclear weapons. These mean that:

  1. China can’t develop more nuclear weapons because they lack the uranium and plutonium to build more.
  2. China won’t develop more advanced nuclear warheads. Beijing claims it is content with its arsenal of single warheads and will not pursue maneuverable or multiple warheads.
  3. China wouldn’t ever use its nuclear weapons first.
  4. China isn’t interested in further nuclear development. This is because they have the minimal deterrent capability which would allow China to launch nuclear strikes on American cities in retaliation to any nuclear attack but would not have the capability to target U.S. military bases.
  5. China claims its nuclear deterrent is employed to prevent what it views as American hostile actions in the Asia-Pacific.

Mr. Huessy responded to each of these points:

  1. China said they couldn’t develop more nuclear weapons when they had 20 warheads. Now they may have as many as 300. Why should we believe them this time?
  2. China is allegedly developing more advanced nuclear weapons through its “peaceful” space programs.
  3. Huessy quoted the head of STRATCOM, Admiral Charles Richard, who said there were loopholes so big in China’s “no first use policy” that “you could drive a truck through them.”
  4. The Director of National Intelligence actually suggests that China is indeed expanding its nuclear force.
  5. Finally, Mr. Huessy claimed that China was the hostile party in the Asia-Pacific and not the U.S., suggesting Beijing is being disingenuous about the motivations for its nuclear deterrent.

China has claimed, in the past, that it has no intention of proliferating nuclear weapons. However, according to Mr. Huessy, China then went on to help Chinese partners, like Pakistan, attain nuclear weapons. This means that the U.S. should be cautious about Chinese pronouncements on nuclear weapons.

Mr. Huessy then outlined what he calls the Chinese “nuclear breadcrumbs,” which allow us to get an idea of what China is up to in terms of its nuclear capabilities. Even though China claims it keeps its nuclear warheads and conventional weapons separate, suggesting a “no first use policy,” Mr. Huessy believes that China’s actions – for example, sending out Chinese nuclear submarines on patrol and the “Underground Great Wall,” a tunnel system built below China for the covert transportation of nuclear weapons – hints at a strategy beyond “no first use.” Mr. Huessy has also seen evidence to suggest that China targets U.S. military installations with its nuclear warheads, which implies a Chinese strategy beyond minimal deterrent.

Mr. Huessy also asserts that China, despite denials, is indeed building a nuclear triad (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers), which is another stark shift away from minimal deterrence.

China seems to be moving towards a Putin-like strategy of “escalate to win” by threatening to use its nuclear capabilities on a regional level. An example of this is the mention of nuclear force against Taiwan in Chinese strategy. China, Mr. Huessy argues, is not only trying to remove U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific but is trying to cut off American regional allies like Japan and South Korea, a strategy China calls “deterrence,” which should not be confused with Western conceptions of nuclear deterrence.

Increased anti-U.S. rhetoric, such as claims that the U.S. is unfit to lead the world, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and China’s acceleration of its hegemonic strategy, which would originally have seen China declaring itself the leader of the world in 2048, will cause worries for the U.S. In these changing circumstances, Mr. Huessy says it is only natural to see a more aggressive Chinese nuclear posture, such as the “escalate to win” strategy. This should be causing alarm bells to ring in Washington, D.C.

Questions from the audience followed, ranging on topics such as whether the New START treaty should be pursued even without China, the potential for a Chinese electromagnetic pulse attack on the U.S., and whether Russia and China are cooperating over their nuclear capabilities.

Watch the webinar here

Learn more about IWP’s Nuclear Deterrence and Arms Control class