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     Dec 10, 2011


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China tunnel and nuclear warhead follies
By Peter Lee

down to his conviction that 3,000 miles is just "too much tunnel" for China's stated warhead inventory:
"It doesn't make any sense to build ten miles of tunnels to hide one nuclear weapon," Karber told the Daily News. [8]
Despite its shaky evidentiary and analytic underpinnings, news of the Georgetown study flew around the world, creating the damning image of a massive, secret, sneaky Chinese nuclear surge.
Seattle Times: US students dig up China's nuclear secrets: Arsenal could be huge [9]

Al-Jazeera: China's nuclear arsenal 'many times larger' [10]

 
Daily Mail: China 'has up to 3,000 nuclear weapons hidden in tunnels', three-year study of secret documents reveals [11]

Digital Journal: U.S. study claims massive underground Chinese nuclear stockpile [12]
If the Karber furor was merely a matter of an ambitious national security entrepreneur throwing out an irresponsible estimate in order to generate some career heat for himself; or a case of the media happily seizing on an irresistible China-bashing story without letting facts or serious reporting get in the way; or the old, familiar spectacle of the national security establishment hyping a new threat in order to pad and protect its budget, then perhaps the arms control fraternity would have let the matter go with a cynical shrug.

Instead, arms control professionals have engaged in serious, aggressive pushback. The Wall Street Journal, Agence France-Presse, and, to be fair, the Washington Post's William Wan all reported on the vehement skepticism of specialists in the field.

It appears to have had some effect.

On December 6, Kulacki noted on his blog:
Tomorrow (Dec 7), Prof Karber will apparently present a different graph on the size of China's nuclear arsenal in his talk at the Elliot School of International Affairs. [13]
Karber has apparently abandoned the 3,000-warhead extrapolation, and substituted a graphic illustrating the annual rate of warhead production, without giving totals.

However, the claims of production rates apparently rely on the same questionable, bloggy data used to generate the notorious curve.

Kulacki, who appears to have made a journey to Hong Kong expressly to research and debunk Karber's claims, revealed that there are significant policy issues at stake concerning the Barack Obama administration's nuclear negotiation posture with the PRC:
Chinese declaratory policy ... states ... that China's nuclear weapons are to be used only in retaliation after China suffers a nuclear attack.

US participants in the dialogues are trying to force their Chinese counterparts to stop talking about China's no first use assurance, and to stop pressing the United States to offer a similar assurance to China. The US military and diplomatic establishment does not find such an assurance credible, or believe it contributes to stability. But the Chinese disagree. As a result, the talks have been deadlocked for over a decade, leaving the public discussion open for the wild and unfounded speculations of people like Karber. [14]
It looks like the fundamental problem is this: China wants its expeditionary force to cross the Taiwan Strait free of the threat of a US tactical nuclear first strike that negates China's advantages in conventional manpower and materiel. In order to stay America's hand, the PLA has a doctrine of no first use and strategic retaliation. If the United States accepted a no-first-use doctrine, then Chinese military planning would be considerably simplified.

The US military, on the other hand, wants the option of incinerating the PLA's expeditionary force with tactical nuclear weapons, absent the distraction of realizing that defense of Taiwanese freedom may involve the destruction of [insert your favorite US city here]. If only the Chinese would acknowledge it shares a doctrine of first use, then arms control negotiations could be targeted toward reducing the size of arsenals and taking strategic nuclear strikes off the table (while presumably leaving tactical ones on the table).

Nothing doing, as far as the Chinese are concerned. The Chinese leadership apparently likes its plain vanilla retaliatory doctrine just the way it is.

Apparently, for the US security establishment's response to this conundrum is a policy of "I reject your reality and substitute my own."

Writing in Arms Control Today, Kulacki asserted that the Obama administration is forum-shopping, trying to locate first-strike enthusiasts inside the Second Artillery Corps:
The US participants in these talks do not appear to respect anyone, from either country, who takes a no-first-use pledge seriously. To them, the pledge is an expression of na๏vet้ or mendacity. They suspect, therefore, that the Chinese individuals participating in bilateral talks either cannot or will not speak truthfully about China's "actual" nuclear weapons policy. ...
The US response to this impasse is to search for a different set of Chinese interlocutors. US security analysts and military planners scour Chinese military literature to look for kindred Chinese authors who view China's commitment to a no-first-use policy as they do. Some US analysts believe they located strong candidates in authors from the Second Artillery, the branch of the Chinese military that operates China's land-based nuclear missile forces. Obama administration officials responsible for the US-Chinese nuclear dialogue are pressing to talk directly with the leadership of the Second Artillery in the belief that they will speak with a different and more authoritative voice than the officials sent previously by the Chinese government. [15]
Kulacki contrasts the US-China impasse with the US-Russia situation, where both sides are sitting on massive weapons stockpiles they wish to reduce:
Russian and US arms control experts are birds of a feather who can talk for hours and with great enthusiasm about nuclear arms control. The recent negotiations over the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty showed that although it still is very difficult for them to reach a binding agreement, discussions, at least, proceed with a high degree of mutual appreciation and respect. This is largely because the two sides have a common language, common assumptions, and a common objective that emerged from their shared experience as nuclear rivals during the Cold War.

US-Soviet arms control talks proceeded from the assumption that left unimpeded by negotiated limitations, both sides would continue to be highly motivated to seek the ability to launch a disarming first strike against the other. The two sides also shared the belief that the nuclear arms race created by these motivations continually generated new and intolerable uncertainties that could precipitate a large-scale nuclear exchange. The purpose of bilateral arms control negotiations was to establish an assurance that neither side could obtain a decisive first-strike capability.
One can almost smell the booze and hear the jovial teasing: We will bury you! No, we will bury you! More vodka! Na zdarovya!

Discussions with China, on the other hand, are less happy and founder on a fundamental contradiction.

The Chinese, by virtue of their small arsenal, are vulnerable to a US first strike. The leadership has apparently decided not to build up to nuclear parity, modify US nuclear behavior with the threat of a credible Chinese first strike, and then negotiate stockpiles down in a Sovietized, transparent, inspection-intensive program.

For Chinese military planners, nuclear arms control in the current context looks a lot like unilateral disarmament. The PRC has no interest in allowing US inspectors to rummage through its strategic missile infrastructure in pursuit of this goal and determine the vulnerabilities of its strategic nuclear forces. As Kulacki put it:
According to this logic, providing more detailed information about its nuclear arsenal would only leave less to chance and thereby increase the US incentive to launch a pre-emptive first strike in a moment of crisis. China's nuclear forces are small enough to make such a strike a tempting choice.
It simply wants the US to wonder, and worry, about a small but significant number of Chinese nuclear weapons - and decide it is better to abandon the first-strike option.

This, perhaps, accounts for the uproar over the Karber report.

If the 3,000-warhead figure is not rebutted, then the United States can cite the Karber study as evidence of a Chinese build-up toward a first-use capability, even though the actual Chinese policy may be diametrically opposite.

From this perspective, vigorously fact-checking Karber and his Georgetown team can be seen as a step along the path of clear-eyed nuclear realism ... and away from delusional and dangerous atomic bombast. Notes
1. Georgetown students shed light on China's tunnel system for nuclear weapons, Washington Post, Nov 16, 2011.
2. Click here for the Xinhua report (in Chinese).
3. Ibid.
4. China's Stockpile of Military Plutonium: a New Estimate, Harvard.
5. The Sources of Karber's Sources, All Things Nuclear, Dec 7, 2011.
6. Click here for text.
7. Collected Thoughts on Phil Karber, Arms Control Wonk, Dec 7, 2011.
8. Is China hiding weapons in underground tunnels? NY Daily News, Dec 1, 2011.
9. US students dig up China's nuclear secrets: Arsenal could be huge, Seattle Times, Nov 30, 2011.
10. China's nuclear arsenal 'many times larger', YouTube, Dec 1, 2011.
11. China 'has up to 3,000 nuclear weapons hidden in tunnels', three-year study of secret documents reveals, Daily Mail, Dec 1, 2011.
12. US study claims massive underground Chinese nuclear stockpile, Digital Journal, Dec 1, 2011.
13. Prof Karber Adjusts His Report on China's Nuclear ArsenalAll Things Nuclear, Dec 6, 2011.
14. Nuclear Quacks and Clucks All Things Nuclear, Oct 14, 2011.
15. Chickens Talking With Ducks: The U.S.-Chinese Nuclear Dialogue, Arms Control Association, October, 2011.


Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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