Page 2 of 2 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. 
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
Al-Jazeera: China's nuclear arsenal 'many times larger' 
Daily Mail: China 'has up to 3,000 nuclear weapons hidden in tunnels',
three-year study of secret documents reveals 
Digital Journal: U.S. study claims massive underground Chinese nuclear
stockpile  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:
(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
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. 
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
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. 
Kulacki contrasts the US-China impasse with the US-Russia situation, where both
sides are sitting on massive weapons stockpiles they wish to reduce:
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
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,
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