A Second Cold War, This Time in Space

Perhaps there should be a statue to the anticommunist US senator Joseph McCarthy in Beijing, since he’s the inadvertent father of China’s nuclear programme. Just after the second world war, a young engineer from Hangzhou, Qian Xuesen, was working for the Pentagon at Caltech’s jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California. The US air force was delighted with his pioneering space and ballistics research, and had such faith in him that he was sent to Germany to interrogate Wernher von Braun, the mastermind of Germany’s ballistics programme. But McCarthyism altered the course of Qian’s brilliant career: in 1950 he was accused of being a communist, placed under virtual house arrest, then expelled to Mao’s China in 1955. Former navy secretary Daniel Kimball said that Qian, a “genius” with a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was “worth five divisions” and that he would “rather shoot him than let him leave the country” (1), but at the peak of the anti-communist witch hunt, such protests made no impression. Mao welcomed Qian, who pledged allegiance to the regime and established China’s first ballistic missile programme from scratch.

In 1966 Qian supervised China’s first nuclear missile test in the Xinjiang desert. The launch of the first Chinese satellite, the Dong Fang Hong (DFH-1), on 24 April 1970, was his project, too. Qian retired in 1991, garlanded with honours, and died in 2009. He embodied the close links between the PRC’s nuclear and space programmes from their inception. From the first nuclear test in October 1964 to the triumph of 15 October 2003 when Lieutenant-Colonel Yang Liwei, aboard the Shenzhou 5, made China the third nation to launch a manned spacecraft, Beijing has strengthened those links, seeking to optimise its technological, budgetary and strategic resources. Despite the creation in the 1990s of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and plans to commercialise space missions, the People’s Liberation Army has a stronger role than ever in the space programme.

Seeking to maximise the leverage of the nuclear-space-ballistic triangle is not uniquely Chinese: it’s also familiar to specialist engineers in the US and France. But China is noteworthy for having espoused early on the nuclear doctrine of no first use (NFU), plus a solemn assurance – implicit in NFU – that it would never use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear nation. It also opposed any militarisation of space. It has relatively few means of defence and the viability of its delivery options (bombers carrying missiles and submarines capable of launching nuclear warheads) is questionable: this has made it the most discreet member of the international club of states with both space programmes and nuclear arms: France, the US, the UK, Russia, China and now India.

Discreet thus far, that is: with its economic development bringing growing political and military power, Beijing’s desire to keep a low profile may not be sustainable much longer, as indicated by its latest defence white paper, published on 16 April. The terms of its nuclear equation, long fixed, are changing, and the US has been first to register alarm.

Size of China’s arsenal

“Do we really know how many missiles the Chinese have today?” asked Richard Fisher – a keen, even obsessive China-watcher at the US International Strategy and Assessment Centre – in 2011: he knew that the Pentagon and Congress would take note (2). Uncertainty surrounds the size of China’s arsenal; it’s currently the only country in the P5 group (3) not to declare how many nuclear weapons it possesses. In 2009 SIPRI (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) put the number of China’s deployed operational nuclear warheads at 186. The International Panel of Fissile Material (IPFM) (4) reckons 240. If you compare these estimates with the thousands of warheads held by Washington and Moscow, US reactions seem oversensitive. In May 2010 the US officially announced that it had 5,000 nuclear warheads (tactical, strategic or non-deployed). Of these, 1,700 are operational, on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) or strategic bombers (5).

A 2011 report from Georgetown University stirred up the small world of western experts on China’s nuclear programme (6). Over three years, under the direction of Professor Philip Karber, a former Pentagon employee, a group of students collated new data in the public domain. Their conclusions shocked the experts: the Chinese apparently had 3,000 nuclear warheads. The study also “revealed” a 5,000-km network of tunnels thought to be for the transport and stationing of nuclear weapons and specialist units. This “underground Great Wall” fired journalists’ imaginations and became the symbolic nuclear centrepiece of China’s naval bases in Asian waters (7).

American advocates of nuclear disarmament, such as Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, accused the Pentagon of fixing the study by involving Karber who, along with Richard Fischer and the gossip columnist William Gertz, is a prominent and insistent critic of “the Chinese threat”. The military rejected the high estimates (8). The question found its way into the political arena and on 14 October 2011 Republican Michael Turner presented the existence of this “unknown” underground labyrinth to Congress: “As we strive to make our nuclear forces more transparent, China is building this underground tunnel system to make its nuclear forces even more opaque”. The European press presented this “staggering network of tunnels” as a surprise, as did the Indian newspapers. This January, Barack Obama yielded to pressure from all sides and commissioned a Pentagon investigation, due to be published in August.

Not a secret after all

But the “underground Great Wall” wasn’t such a secret. In December 2009 the Hong Kong daily Ta Kung Pao published details of this vast construction project, which is thought to have employed tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers for a decade. The Asian public learned that the second division of the People’s Liberation Army – in charge of strategic nuclear forces – decided in 1995 to bury nuclear ballistic missiles more deeply so as to make them less vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike. A network of modernised tunnels is now said to run under the foothills of the mountains of Hebei Province in northeast China, several hundred metres below ground in a landscape of steep cliffs and canyons well suited to housing a geosecured nuclear response system.

It’s especially noteworthy that this revelation originated in a Chinese state TV documentary, in March 2008, which commented on the completion of the tunnel-building programme. Given the strict state control of the media, this announcement – which did not escape the attention of the Indian, American and European militaries – is tantamount to an official declaration. The tunnel programme is not an end in itself for the PLA, but a means of protecting its retaliatory strike capacity.

China is also moving from large, fixed, liquid-propelled missiles, vulnerable to being taken out in a preemptive strike, to lighter missiles with solid-fuel propulsion, which can be quickly relocated on mobile launchers, such as the DF-31A, which has an 11,000-km range. Whether mobile or buried underground, surface-to-surface missiles are the only part of China’s “nuclear triad” (the others being bombers and submarines) with genuine credibility.

China knows it cannot limit itself to protecting its nuclear response capability if it wants to retain credibility as a nuclear power that the US will respect, however reluctantly. It also needs to combat proactively the progress of the US’s antimissile defence, which is capable of neutralising China’s response capability. To escape, the PLA has long had its eyes on an alternative battlefield: space.

During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards (hostile to intellectuals, scientists and engineers) chanted “The higher the satellite, the lower the red flag!” Those days are gone. According to the former air force chief of staff and current vice-president of the powerful Central Military Committee, General Xu Qiliang, “China’s national interests are expanding and the country has entered the age of space” (9). Beijing is showing clear signs of wishing to challenge the US’s hegemony there – including in case of conflict, since, given the increasing dependence of modern armies on space, preventing the enemy having access to it is a priority.

Convinced that negotiations only take place between equals, China, along with Russia, believes that only significant independent progress will allow them to check the Pentagon’s ambitions for space superiority. China and Russia could then force the US to sign an undertaking to make space a militarily neutral zone, which would plug the gaps in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. In 2001 recommendations in a report from the Space (or Rumsfeld) Commission exploited this treaty’s shortcomings and concluded that there was nothing preventing the US “placing or using weapons in space, applying force from space to earth or conducting military operations in and through space” (10).

China’s space aims

Kept out of the international space station by NASA, the Chinese are building their own – Tiangong – which will be completed by 2020 and open to scientists of all nations. They are developing a heavy-thrust space rocket and have announced a moon mission for 2025. They dream of outstripping the US and sending a manned craft to Mars after 2030. The second generation of their Beidou Navigation Satellite System will soon have 35 satellites, and offers the same geolocation services as GPS, including military functions.

But the collateral effects of this strategy may have gone beyond its original aims. China destroyed an old FY-1C weather satellite in January 2007 with an SC-19 interceptor to demonstrate its ability to strike in space. The US, with wide international support, immediately condemned China’s action as “space delinquency” and criticised the risk of space debris falling to Earth as well as the departure from its declared policy. In January 2011, in the most recent version of its National Security Space Strategy, the US warned: “We will retain the right and capabilities to respond in self-defense [in space], should deterrence fail” (11).

The American Everett Dolman asserts that “the coming war with China will be fought for control of outer space” (12). In the background there is the nuclear question: US early-warning satellites, which are used to detect ballistic missiles, are now a potential target for China. Without these satellites, US strategic nuclear command and the organisation of forces would be globally handicapped.

The US also has a painful premonition that it risks being outclassed technologically. It has all but forgotten that “Long March” rockets launched 20 or so commercial satellites before the US imposed an embargo on sales of satellite components to China in the 1990s. NASA didn’t get involved, as it still looked down on China. But the atomic clock has moved on. Even if the disparity in capability with the US remains vast, an exponential race to catch up is under way. Although the “major focuses” mentioned in the 2011 Chinese white paper on space are all civil – scientific and peaceful development, innovation, autonomy and opening up internationally – 18 out of 19 Chinese satellite launches that year were defence-related.

In 2012 around 30 Chinese satellites were put into orbit: telecommunication (Zhongxing 10), navigation, surveillance, reconnaissance and data transmission (Tianlian 1). A warning satellite programme is under way and a new satellite launch centre will soon open at Wenchang on Hainan Island. Meanwhile, the US moon programme, Constellation, was cancelled by Obama in 2010. Gregory Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists believes “we [the US] need to get past the idea that the Chinese need us more than we need them” (13). An MIT engineer in 2008 modelled the conditions of a space war and was reassured by his conclusion that the Chinese would undoubtedly lose (14).

Questions over China’s progress

The atavistic reactions of some American journalists to the possible rise of an “equal competitor” at global level should not obscure the fact that Chinese progress in the nuclear and space fields does raise questions. All observers agree that China is the only member of P5 which is currently increasing its warhead stockpile. But how quickly? In the war of statistics, some experts suggest China has 1,800 operational nuclear warheads. But as arms control activists acknowledge, the crucial issue is not whether China is updating its arsenal – it is – but misinformation about the rate of that modernisation.

Nevertheless, given Chinese nuclear ambitions, the strategic balance within the P5 will shift. The UK says it now has fewer than 160 operational warheads. France, which has cut its stockpile by 50% since the end of the cold war, has also reduced its budget for nuclear deterrence by half and currently has around 100 operational warheads. In scarcely 10 years, as a result of what could be called a “space-nuclear symbiosis”, China has overtaken Europe’s two nuclear powers, which may have been its medium-term objective, and has put itself in the same league as the US, though still far from its equal. The US and China may eventually find themselves caught in a repeat of the absurd cold war dialectic and engage in the kind of irrational arms race that led the US and the USSR to stockpile warheads in silos to maintain the “balance of terror”. In the 1960s, the US had up to 31,000 operational warheads.

This maximalist vision of nuclear deterrence contrasts with the French principle of strict sufficiency (in a nuclear-armed world, “you only die once”), a dogma of “rational irrationality” which the French had convinced themselves that the Chinese had espoused since 1964. President Hu Jintao declared in 2009 at the UN that China “reiterated solemnly its firm engagement to a defensive nuclear strategy”.

This February Obama announced a further reduction in the US nuclear arsenal, which may shrink from 1,700 warheads to fewer than 1,000 by 2020. But will this minimal strategic life insurance hold if Chinese advances are confirmed? Will we see the return of the visions of strategist Hermann Kahn, who founded the Hudson Institute in 1961 and declared that the stockpiling of warheads was not so stupid, since a nuclear war could have a “winner” (15)?

The worried reactions of China’s neighbours will also be influential. In theory, the Japanese could relatively easily turn their new solid-fuel Epsilon rocket, which is due to make its maiden flight this year, into a long-range ballistic missile. Vietnam has ambitions in space. India is making progress with anti-satellite technology.

The solution can only be political. Re-establishing the safeguard of the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, unilaterally condemned by the Bush administration in 2002, would have some merit if negotiations included China. Such negotiations would be difficult, but the Chinese would have to examine any such offer, to judge by their official pronouncements on the essential conditions for global nuclear disarmament (16). In the meantime, a new logic of simultaneous modernisation of nuclear and space arsenals seems to be permanently altering the strategic balance in East Asia.

Olivier Zajec is a senior researcher at the Compagnie Européenne d’Intelligence Stratégique and author of La Nouvelle impuissance américaine(America’s New Impotence), L’Å’uvre, Paris, 2011.


(1) Evan Osnos, “The Two Lives of Qian Xuesen”,The New Yorker, 3 November 2009.

(2) “US worries over China’s underground network”, Agence France-Presse, Paris, 14 October 2011.

(3) The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are the only states with nuclear weapons recognised by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

(4) The IPFM was set up in 2006 by civil experts in non-proliferation from 17 countries. It is headed by Professor R Rajaraman of the University of New Delhi.

(5) “Nuclear Weapons: Who has what at a glance”, Arms Control Association, Washington, DC, November 2012.

(6) “Strategic implications of China’s underground
Great Wall”, Asia Arms Control Project, Georgetown University, 2009.

(7) See “China’s naval ambitions”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, September 2008.

(8) Hans M Kristensen, “Stratcom Commander rejects high estimates for Chinese nuclear arsenal”, Strategic Security Blog, Federation of American Scientists, 22 August 2012.

(9) “China ‘to put weapons in space’”, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 3 November 2009.

(10) “Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization”, 11 January 2001. Its conclusions were later judged too aggressive by subsequent Defence Department reports.

(11) National Security Space Strategy, January 2011.

(12) Everett C Dolman, “New Frontiers, Old Realities”, Strategic Studies Quarterly, vol 6, no 1, Washington
DC, 2012.

(13) Jeff Foust, “Space Challenges for 2011”, The Space Review, 3 January 2011.

(14) Noah Shachtman, “How China Loses the Coming Space War”, Wired, San Francisco, 1 October 2008.

(15) Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War,Princeton University Press, 1960.

(16) “Statement by the Chinese delegation on nuclear disarmament at the thematic debate at the first committee of the 67th Session of UNGA”, 19 October 2012.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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