24.04.23 China Review

Disarmament race: With help from Russia, China could achieve nuclear parity with the US

The weakening of Russia, combined with growing Chinese influence, could upset the world's strategic nuclear balance. For various reasons, neither China nor Russia on their own can challenge US nuclear leadership for the foreseeable  future. Beijing, however, may seek assistance from Moscow to obtain the materials required for a rapid buildup of its nuclear forces and the establishment of nuclear parity with the US. Until recently, such a scenario seemed improbable; should it come to pass, Russia would lose the last vestiges of sovereignty that would allow it to balance its growing economic dependence on China. However, the move may become more likely if Putin faces a genuine threat to his authority and seeks urgent help from Beijing. But in order to do so, he would have to overcome opposition from a sizable segment of the military elite who oppose the transfer of plutonium to China.

Although the US National Security Strategy 2022 identifies China as the sole US competitor, with Russia described as merely ‘a source of global disruption and instability,’ Russia remains unrivalled in terms of nuclear deterrence. According to estimates from the Federation of American Scientists, Russia will have a stockpile of 4,489 nuclear warheads in 2023, with 1,674 deployed and 2,815 in reserve, compared to the 3,708 possessed by the US (of which 1,770 are deployed) and the meagre 404 in China’s arsenal. This is according to a survey conducted by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

These figures, however, could be inaccurate: because Beijing is not a signatory to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), it is not subject to inspections and has a greater capacity to conceal its nuclear forces than the United States and Russia. According to the latest Pentagon estimates, China's nuclear arsenal will possess up to 1,000 warheads by 2030 and 1,500 by 2035.

However, as the review notes, Russia's nuclear capabilities on paper may not reflect reality, just as Russian precision-guided weapons have demonstrated their ineffectiveness during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The SS-18 M6 ‘Satan’ (RS-20V) missile, capable of carrying up to ten warheads, was developed at the Ukrainian Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and manufactured at the Ukrainian Yuzhmash plant in Soviet Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro, Ukraine). Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, maintenance and repair of these missiles, which carried more than half of Russia's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warheads, became too complicated, and by 2021, these missiles were being phased out of service.

The SS-X-29 Sarmat (RS-28) heavy missile is to be replaced by Satan. President Putin had previously promised that the Sarmat would be operational in 2022, but in December 2022, he admitted that the project had been postponed indefinitely. According to CNN, the new missile's first (and so far only) flight test in April 2022 was likely a failure.

The authors of this study believe that the difficulties in bringing the new missiles into commission are also related to personnel shortages in the Russian military-industrial sector, corruption, and managerial ineptitude. The crisis has been exacerbated by the increase in dubious ‘treason’ charges levelled against Russian scientists working in the military industry since 2014. More than 50 such cases are known to exist, with defendants facing sentences of up to 20 years in prison. These issues have been exacerbated by the sanctions imposed as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which prevent the import of modern electronics and other high-tech products.

Thus, Russia will face delivery challenges for some time to come. China, on the other hand, has made significant advances in launch vehicle production in recent years. Still, it is unable to rapidly increase the number of nuclear warheads it possesses due to a lack of domestic sources of weapons-grade plutonium. The first CFR-600 fast-neutron reactor in China is scheduled to start operations in 2023, followed by a second in 2025. Each of these reactors is capable of providing fissile material for the production of up to 50 nuclear warheads per year.

A hypothetical transfer of some of Russia's nuclear warheads to China could be a quick solution to this problem. However, this would violate the terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It would also mean that Russia would be arming China, with whom it has previously had border and territorial disputes, at its own risk. Russia could, however, give China some of its stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium: Moscow previously declared a surplus of 50 tonnes of the material, enough to produce approximately 14,000 warheads. The transfer of plutonium to a country that already possesses nuclear weapons would not violate the NPT.

Such a scenario would allow China to significantly expand its nuclear capabilities without violating international treaties. As a result, the review notes, China may become the United States' primary strategic competitor much sooner than has been anticipated by the authors of the National Security Strategy under the Biden administration.

However, it is not yet clear under what circumstances Russia might be compelled to help China achieve its nuclear goals. Until recently, such a scenario seemed utterly improbable. However, Russia's recent behaviour has been so risky, illogical, and inept that the possibility of such a scenario can no longer be dismissed. Indeed, this scenario would deprive Russia of the benefits and elements of sovereignty it currently enjoys, which help to counterbalance its growing economic reliance on China. However, in the long run, this reliance may become critical. In which case, the chances of a plutonium deal might increase, especially if Putin faces a genuine threat to his power as a result of his inability to succeed in Ukraine and the country’s mounting economic issues. As such, he may be forced to seek urgent assistance from Beijing. However, he will have to overcome the opposition of a significant portion of the military elites, who are adamantly opposed to the transfer of plutonium to China.