This article is part 1 of a 2-part series on the potential of nuclear war with China.
In General Douglas MacArthur’s speech to the Michigan Legislature in Lansing on May 15, 1952, the Supreme Allied Commander gave a grim warning about the potential fate of our republic if it did not keep its penchant for war in check, stating, “It is part of the general pattern of misguided policy that our country is now geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear.”
And whether it was the police actions of Korea, the wholesale slaughter of Vietnam, or the bloodsoaked desserts of Afghanistan and Iraq, McCarthur seems prescient by any standard. Unfortunately, we seem determined to ignore the general’s proscription once more, this time with annihilation as a possible end result. The incessant drumbeat for nuclear conflict has started in D.C.: Rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat.
As reported by Reuters, “The Pentagon and Republican congressmen on Tuesday aired fresh concerns about China’s build-up of its nuclear forces after a new report saying Beijing was building 110 more missile silos.” Part of the buildup of tension has to do with President Biden proving he can be “tough” on China. In an almost schizophrenic message during his first address to a joint session of Congress, Biden set the tone, saying “In my discussions with President Xi [Jinping] I told him, ‘we welcome the competition, we’re not looking for conflict,’” Biden said. “But I made absolutely clear that we will defend America’s interests across the board.”
A terrible confluence of events may be pushing us toward inevitable conflict if cooler heads do not prevail. Against the backdrop of protests in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and accusations about the origin of the COVID-19 virus coupled with allegations of genocide against the Uighur Muslims, tensions are rising, straining our already fragile relationship with China. For all intents and purposes, China is a political tinderbox. All that is needed to start the conflagration is a match, and it seems we have that in the form of what looks like a military nuclear buildup in China.
A report from the American Federation of Scientists (AFS) on Monday found the following:
The silo construction at Yumen and Hami constitutes the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever. China has for decades operated about 20 silos for liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBMs. With 120 silos under construction at Yumen, another 110 silos at Hami, a dozen silos at Jilantai, and possibly more silos being added in existing DF-5 deployment areas, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) appears to have approximately 250 silos under construction – more than ten times the number of ICBM silos in operation today.
The number of new Chinese silos under construction exceeds the number of silo-based ICBMs operated by Russia, and constitutes more than half of the size of the entire US ICBM force. The Chinese missile silo program constitutes the most extensive silo construction since the US and Soviet missile silo construction during the Cold War.
As frightening as the statements are in the report, it is our reaction that is even more disconcerting. In almost perfect resonance with McCarthur’s remonstrance, the military-industrial apparatus is flexing its proverbial muscles. In a tweet linked to a New York Times article on the AFS report, U.S. Strategic Command said, “This is the second time in two months the public has discovered what we have been saying all along about the growing threat the world faces and the veil of secrecy that surrounds it.” Rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat.
The tweet’s reference to a “second time” is alluding to an April statement by Admiral Charles Richard, the head of US Strategic Command, who stated he “can’t get through a week right now without finding out something we didn’t know about China,” and that China is “adopting a limited ‘high alert duty’ strategy,” meaning a nuclear retaliatory capacity should China’s warning system detect a missile threat.
Richards painted the present picture of potential conflict in stark terms, admonishing:
We’re at a point where end-of-life limitations and cumulative effects of underinvestment in our nuclear deterrent and supporting infrastructure against the expanding threat leave me no operational margin. The nation simply cannot attempt to indefinitely life-extend leftover Cold War weapon systems and successfully carry out the assigned strategy. They’re at risk of losing credibility in the eyes of our adversaries, and if they continue to work at all, they will likely not be able to pace the threat that they’re intended to deter.
And if you think that all Democrats are opposed to this siren call for a nuclear response, here are the words of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI) in the form of a question to Richards: “And so bottom-line question: what are you doing to ensure that missile warning infrastructure of radars and satellites are capable of determining whether there is a ballistic or hypersonic missile attack on the United States?
Not to be outdone, Gen. Timothy Ray, Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command, told reporters at the 2021 Air Force Association Symposium “A troubling revelation has been about the trajectory of the Chinese nuclear program. The Chinese have plans to at least double their arsenal by the end of the decade. They are departing from what has been known as a minimalist theory.”
Of course, it takes two to tango, even is that tango is nuclear conflagration. In a moment of retaliatory jingoistic fervor, Hu Xijin, the editor of the Chinese state-run newspaper the Global Times wrote, “We must be prepared for an intense showdown between China and the U.S. The number of China’s nuclear warheads must reach the quantity that makes U.S. elites shiver should they entertain the idea of engaging in a military confrontation with China.”
Hu’s hyperbolic patriotic stance was matched in ferocity by his specificity: “As the U.S. strategic containment of China has increasingly intensified, I would like to remind again that we have plenty of urgent tasks, but among the most important ones is to rapidly increase the number of commissioned nuclear warheads, and the DF-41s, the strategic missiles that are capable to strike long-range and have high-survivability, in the Chinese arsenal,” Hu argued. Rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat.
Even as China primes itself for nuclear war, it propagandizes for peace, at least in a one-sided fashion. In June, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, said the United States and Russia should “substantively slash their nuclear stockpile in a verifiable, irreversible and legally binding way to create conditions for the ultimate comprehensive and complete nuclear disarmament.”
China’s disingenuousness, combined with a growing zeal for confrontation on part of the Biden Administration, could be pushing us into a dynamic known as Thucydides’ Trap. Thucydides was an Athenian historian and general and considered an expert on the Peloponnesian War, which was fought between the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta) and the Delian League (led by Athens). The concept of Thucydides’ Trap warns “. . . that all rising powers threaten established powers” setting off a series increasingly bellicose maneuvers as the adversaries attempt to gain or maintain power.
Much like a rising Athens threatened Sparta’s supremacy, China is now engaged in efforts to establish regional supremacy. With an eye towards global hegemony, the United States stands in its way.
Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University, and author of the book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, framed it this way in a recent PBS interview: “In this case, we see almost a prototypical rising power in China, which is restoring — being restored, as some think of it, to its natural place at the center of the universe, and is the dominant power. And no ruling power has ever been sure that it belongs as number one than the USA. So, I would say, this is an almost perfect lucidity dynamic, and I think we’re seeing the syndrome in both cases, and the behavior of both parties.”
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