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—Gideon Grudo

China is set to accelerate the expansion and modernization of its nuclear arsenal—and maybe even adjust current nuclear policy, according to a recent RAND study.

The acceleration of nuclear modernization contrasts with an approach to deterrence, which has been “broadly consistent since [China’s] first nuclear test in 1964, according to the report.

“I think the headline is: Although China has historically punched below its weight in the nuclear realm, its recent progress—both in terms of numbers and quality—has been dramatic,” the report’s lead author, Eric Heginbotham, told Air Force Magazine. “It’s been increasing its attention to nuclear force building.”

China’s progress may not come as a surprise to organizations like Air Force Global Strike Command, but the public may not be aware of the rising trend in the Far East, considering what it knows of both US and Russian nuclear force reductions, said Heginbotham—who was also the lead author on 2015’s US-China Military Scorecard.

Despite disarmament, the US is still capable of striking globally. Heginbotham called a first strike from the US “China’s chief concern.”

“Missile defense greatly exacerbates that fear, since China might not have many surviving missiles to retaliate with,” Heginbotham said. “Depending on how the US first strike fared, the surviving—retaliatory—missiles might be significantly outnumbered by missile defense interceptors, jeopardizing China’s ability to inflict retaliatory damage.”

Other state actors are contributing to China’s worries, too.

“Causality can and already does run in a variety of directions,” Heginbotham said. India is now making its own military plans with China in mind, while China has started “paying more attention” to India. “For the first time,” Heginbotham said, “we’re really seeing official, Chinese critical responses.”

China has for a long time followed a no-first-use policy, what Heginbotham called a “fundamental Chinese policy” and a “pretty clear statement” on how China would, or wouldn’t, handle an adversary. But in recent years, they’ve discussed difficult scenarios. For example, if China were engaged in a war and an opponent tried to use conventional weapons to degrade its nuclear capability, would that count as “first use?” Another strong priority in China’s nuclear history is being “lean and effective.”

“They don’t want to build more than they have to to achieve the basic functions of nuclear weapons,” Heginbotham said.

Internal factors are a large part of China’s purported nuclear policy shift, too. Heginbotham describes three such factors as: a “gradual shift” from direct and focused civilian, “political control” of policy to involvement by more militaristic, “bureaucratic actors;” the rising status of nuclear operators within the People’s Liberation Army (especially the new Rocket Force); and the “lack of organizational firewalls” between the conventional and nuclear components of the Rocket Force. Without such firewalls, capabilities relevant to “nuclear warfighting might be transferred from the conventional force to the nuclear side, Heginbotham said.

“There are limits on the information we have,” Heginbotham warned, adding “all these things are tricky.” But there are still conclusions that can be drawn from China’s potentially changed nuclear philosophy.

“The evolving nuclear balance may also affect competition and conflict at lower levels, particularly in the grey-zone conflicts that have become a background condition of international relations in East Asia,” he said. “Chinese leaders may push regional claims harder in the belief that the United States has fewer escalation options.”

The two countries have “common interests in avoiding unstable nuclear arrangements,” Heginbotham concluded, and “dialogue might encourage China’s political leaders to think more seriously about the consequences of some of its nuclear decisions.”