As China’s nuclear weapons multiply, U.S and Japan work on deterrence by JIMBO Ken

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments that precede the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API; Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University; Visiting Fellow, Downing College, University of Cambridge)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on June 21, 2022:

API Geoeconomic Briefing


June 21, 2022

As China’s nuclear weapons multiply, U.S. and Japan work on deterrence

MSF Executive Director, Asia Pacific Initiative (API);
Professor, Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University





In a Japan-U.S. joint leaders’ statement issued in May following a meeting in Tokyo, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed to work together to strengthen deterrence, while calling on China “to contribute to arrangements that reduce nuclear risks, increase transparency, and advance nuclear disarmament.”

The move by the leaders of Japan and the United States to release a joint statement requesting China to advance nuclear disarmament was a rare one.

The same phrase appeared also in the Japan-U.S. joint statement on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) issued in January, indicating the two countries’ increasing focus on China’s nuclear capabilities.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prospects have become unclear for the review of the New Strategic Arms Reduction (New START) Treaty, a treaty between the U.S. and Russia for nuclear arms reduction. And in Asia, China is expanding its nuclear arsenal and North Korea is racing to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons.

Against this backdrop, what is behind moves by Japan and the U.S. to strengthen the extended deterrence, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella, while calling on China to advance nuclear disarmament?


China as a nuclear-weapons state

In 1964, China successfully conducted its first nuclear test, making it a nuclear-weapons state recognized under the NPT that entered into force in 1970. But the size of its nuclear capabilities were small compared with those of the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

It is well known that China’s then-leader Mao Zedong described U.S. nuclear weapons as a “paper tiger” that looked powerful but were difficult to operate in practice. However, Chinese authorities actually had an acute sense of being under threat from nuclear weapons.

As they faced the possibility of the U.S. using nuclear weapons in various conflicts arising from 1950 through the 1960s — the Korean War, the Indochina War and the Taiwan Strait crisis — they began to think seriously about nuclear counter strikes.

Under such circumstances, China conducted its first nuclear weapons test. The Dongfeng or East Wind 2 (DF-2) intermediate range ballistic missile became operational in 1966, establishing during that time the idea of liangdan, literally meaning “two bombs” and referring to a nuclear bomb and a ballistic missile to carry it.

China went further in improving the credibility of its theater deterrence by successfully conducting its first hydrogen bomb test in 1967, deploying DF-3 medium range missiles in 1971 and deploying strategic bombers designed to carry nuclear weapons.

China’s first nuclear test came as a great shock also to the Japanese government.

Eisaku Sato, during his first visit to Washington as prime minister in January 1965, is said to have told U.S. President Lyndon Johnson that he personally thought that if China had nuclear weapons, Japan should too.

Concerns over Japan’s possible nuclear armament and nuclear proliferation prompted the Johnson administration to clearly guarantee nuclear nonproliferation.

Following the meeting with Johnson, Sato decided to give up the idea of Japan possessing nuclear weapons and shifted to a national security policy of dependence on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

In December 1967, Sato announced the three non-nuclear principles of not possessing, not producing and not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons, and upon Okinawa’s return to Japan in 1972, he adopted the policy of ensuring the islands had a “nuclear-free, mainland status.”


Normalizing Japan-China ties

The rapprochement between the U.S. and China in 1971 under President Richard Nixon’s administration forced a structural shift in international relations in East Asia.

Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s administration established in July 1972 made the normalization of diplomatic ties with China its policy pledge.

While struggling to balance between U.S.-Japan security arrangements and China-Japan relations, Tokyo put together a joint communique with Beijing, that served as a basis for normalizing ties, released following Tanaka’s meetings with Mao and with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in September the same year.

As the two countries negotiated to normalize diplomatic ties, Foreign Ministry records of talks between Tanaka and Zhou from Sept. 25 to 28, 1972, show some interesting conversations over nuclear affairs.

Zhou: How would Japan cope with nuclear war?

Tanaka: With Japan’s industrial power and level of scientific and technology expertise, it is possible to manufacture nuclear arms, but we will not. Furthermore, we will never maintain nuclear arms.

Zhou: The Japan-U.S. security treaty has unequal aspects. However, they know that they cannot immediately dispose of this. This is because if Japan is not under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, then Japan would lose its right to voice their opinion.

Such conversations indicate Zhou’s sense of vigilance against the possibility of Japan becoming armed with nuclear weapons, and at the same time, his understanding to a certain extent of the nuclear umbrella in the U.S.-Japan security arrangements.

In response, Tanaka said Japan has the capability to be nuclear-armed if needed but stressed it had no intention to possess nuclear weapons.

We can see that Tokyo and Beijing came to an understanding regarding nuclear weapons, with China making clear that its progress of nuclear development will remain slow, as well as showing support for nuclear disarmament, no first use of nuclear weapons and negative security assurances — meaning a guarantee by nuclear weapon states that they will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.


New nuclear threats

Attention toward Beijing’s nuclear weapons grew again in Japan when the government in Tokyo unilaterally suspended new grant aid to China in response to its underground nuclear tests conducted in May and July 1995.

The tests came as countries were negotiating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and they were regarded as China’s last-minute rush to carry out the testing before signing the treaty.

The Japanese government conveyed a deep regret over the tests at various levels, including Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, and decided to freeze grant aid to China until the cessation of the testing.

Rising China-Taiwan tensions and China’s large-scale missile exercises in the Taiwan Strait from 1995 through 1996 hightened the risk of military conflict concerning Taiwan.

Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai, then-deputy chief of the general staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army, was reported as saying in 1995 that China could use nuclear weapons in any conflict over Taiwan and that Americans cared more about Los Angeles than they did about Taipei.

A similar remark was made in 2005 by Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, a dean at China’s National Defense University at the time, who suggested that in the event of U.S. intervention in a conflict over Taiwan, Beijing could respond with nuclear weapons.

Such remarks evoked the possibility that disputes around Japan would develop into nuclear war between the U.S. and China.

An exceptional case of Japan directly expressing concern over China’s nuclear capabilities was the China policy of Katsuya Okada, the foreign minister under the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan which was in power between 2009 and 2012.

In May 2010, Okada, who had a strong belief in nuclear disarmament, voiced concern over China’s nuclear policy during a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, saying that amid an overall move toward a world without nuclear weapons, China was failing to fulfill its commitment to nuclear disarmament and was enlarging its nuclear arsenal.

Yang immediately rebutted, pointing out that China’s nuclear strategy and policy was very clear, that its proposition and efforts on nuclear disarmament were widely recognized.


China’s nuclear forces at new stage

The U.S. Department of Defense, in its 2021 report on military and security developments involving China, said Beijing likely intends to possess at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030, suggesting that China’s nuclear forces will expand at a pace exceeding what the Pentagon predicted only a year before — at least double in size over the next decade from the low-200s.

A sharp rise in China’s nuclear capabilities indicate that China has shifted away from its minimum deterrence policy and has entered a stage of obtaining an assured retaliation capability, even considering the possibility of using theater nuclear weapons for escalation control of military conflicts that use conventional weapons or conducting counterforce attacks — aimed at disarming the enemy’s nuclear forces — against the U.S.

Such assumptions are backed by Beijing’s moves that include accelerating the pace of developing ICBMs, upgrading nuclear submarine missiles, deploying medium-range missiles that are operational as nonstrategic nuclear weapons and improving nuclear weapons operational capabilities to support these systems.

China must have clearly reconfirmed the role of nuclear arms, as Russia, when it invaded Ukraine this year, threatened to deploy nuclear weapons from an early stage to check direct military intervention by the U.S. and NATO, and also because attention is focused on the effectiveness of the “escalate to de-escalate” strategy — using limited nuclear strikes as a demonstration to shock an adversary into coming to a compromise.

In order for Japan to face China’s increase of nuclear arsenal, it is necessary to guarantee extended nuclear deterrence of the U.S.-Japan alliance in a new dimension.

This means a multitiered deterrence structure is needed to cope with strategic nuclear weapons that can reach the U.S. mainland and nonstrategic nuclear weapons that might be used on battlefields.

What is essential in extended nuclear deterrence is for the U.S. military to possess and operate nuclear forces that match each of the regions for the purpose of defending its allies and make clear its intentions against potential enemies through demonstrating its nuclear posture and operations.

At the same time, it is crucial for Japan, a U.S. ally, to have a deep understanding of the extended nuclear deterrence capabilities and intentions of the U.S. and work to raise the credibility of the nuclear umbrella through participating in the planning stages of its basic guidelines and operations.

This is why Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, at a meeting in Washington in May, shared the recognition that “bilateral efforts at various levels to ensure nuclear deterrence remains credible and resilient is more important than ever.”

On the other hand, Kishida and Biden affirmed their commitment to strengthen the NPT as the cornerstone of the international nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

Beijing has not yet shown any intention of getting involved in multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations, arguing that nuclear disarmament has not progressed in the U.S. and Russia.

Japan has a role to play in encouraging China to bear responsibility for nuclear arms control, as well as improving its capability, based on its alliance with the U.S., to deter Beijing from increasing nuclear forces.

In September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China will establish the “major-country arms control theoretical system with Chinese characteristics,” maintain and promote global strategic stability and strengthen and improve international arms control and disarmament regime.

The first thing Japan must work on is urging Beijing to implement specific measures to clarify and realize these goals.

Secondly, Japan should ask China to clarify its own nuclear forces and nuclear doctrine.

Particularly, the fact is that China has not disclosed the size of its nuclear arsenal, giving as a reason its quantitative inferiority until now, but recently it has greatly expanded its nuclear weapons and diversified the means of transporting them.

Beijing no longer has a reason to refuse working for greater transparency in nuclear forces.

Without such efforts to achieve transparency, it will not be possible to open up a path to nuclear arms control and disarmament.

Because China is foreseen to emerge as a nuclear superpower, it is necessary for the country to foster responsibility for global arms control and disarmament.

Nuclear weapons have had important implications in the China-Japan relationship in the last half a century.

The implicit understanding regarding China’s nuclear weapons which was formed in the 1970s is about to be substantially overturned by its enhancing of nuclear capabilities.

In such a situation, it is becoming more important to strengthen extended nuclear deterrence under the Japan-U.S. alliance and at the same time call on China to proceed with nuclear arms control and disarmament.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.