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The China Challenge: Nuclear Deterrence and Soft Power
Beijing’s first moves against the West are not conventional battles but psychological warfare, propaganda and cyberattacks
By Michal Fiszer, Jerzy Gruszczyński and Michael Puttré
Recently, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said his three most important priorities were “China, China and China.” In a speech before the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 20, he expressed deep concerns in particular over Beijing’s rapid expansion of its nuclear forces into what he described as a “first strike” capability. This, along with China’s advances in space warfare and modernizing of its conventional forces, defines the threats facing the United States—as the Air Force sees them—from this would-be hegemon.
While Secretary Kendall’s address properly focused on China’s growing nuclear capabilities, the gathering’s inclusion of “cyber” in its agenda was fitting because this frequently unaddressed aspect of waging war goes completely ignored in public conceptions of warfare. The West is already under constant and furious cyberattack from its enemies, both state-sponsored and criminal. Even so-called criminal attacks can be seen as “privateer” attacks underwritten by foreign powers such as China, Russia, Iran and their proxies. Our increasingly outdated notions of what constitutes warfare allow enemies to attack America and its allies virtually unchecked.
We are already at war, even if our authorities don’t realize it or don’t want to talk about it because then they would have to respond. Their reluctance to acknowledge this warfare is largely because it also includes the soft power of influence to undermine our institutions. It is conceivable that many decision-makers have already been co-opted or compromised by such soft power without realizing it.
In a previous article, we described how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is developing its “hard power,” in the form of troops, ships, planes and missiles for its People’s Liberation Army (PLA), to establish supremacy over the Indo-Pacific region and to challenge the West for control of the globe. At the same time, China is increasing its arsenal of deployed nuclear weapons with new and varied types, developing its capabilities to wage war in space, and actively expanding its cyber and “soft power” activities.
This article focuses on the psychological weapons China is bringing to bear on the U.S. and its allies: overt strategic nuclear power (nuclear deterrence is a form of psychological warfare), less obvious “soft” influence warfare, and ongoing cyberwarfare that the West chooses not to believe is war at all, even though the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does.
Strategic Missile Power
The PLA Rocket Force combines all surface-to-surface ballistic and cruise missiles: tactical, operational and strategic. This is an odd organization because it integrates what we could call strategic (nuclear) weapons with battlefield (conventional) ones. The overwhelming majority of these are conventionally armed missiles, mostly short- and medium-range systems. For our purposes, we are concerned only with the strategic forces, although it is worth noting that the PLA Rocket Force is the world’s largest missile force, with an estimated 2,200 conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles.
Today, China deploys approximately 350 nuclear-armed missiles, among them around 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with a range capable of covering the entire territory of the United States. Added to this are about 120 medium-range missiles and 130-150 short-range missiles. The latter two categories enable theater and regional nuclear strike capabilities.
The Chinese military does whatever it can to obscure the strategic picture and maintain uncertainty regarding the real capability and number of its missiles, and especially the number and yield of its nuclear warheads. For this reason, the missiles of different types and ranges are mixed within an organization (unit or base) and in some cases are even located in the same sites. This, along with the integrated structure of the PLA Rocket Force, makes it very difficult for analysts to keep track of China’s actual missile capabilities through intelligence or technical (satellite) means.
Importantly, China has not signed any strategic arms control treaty and therefore is not bound by any legal restraints on the number of new nuclear weapons and launch systems it can deploy. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated that the Biden administration will “pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal,” but nobody has explained how this is going to be accomplished. China has shown no interest in joining any arms control regime, and the U.S. has shown little interest in maintaining, let alone expanding, its own nuclear deterrence capabilities. From Beijing’s point of view, China and the U.S. have merely to pursue their existing policies for the Chinese to achieve a viable first-strike capability.
It is worth mentioning that China is working to ensure that it has the capability to retaliate in force against a major nuclear blow, from either the U.S. or Russia. China is making its ground-based ICBM arsenal more survivable and more numerous and developing a serious threat in the form of submarine-based ballistic missiles.
The PLA Rocket Force already deploys a significant percentage of its nuclear capability on road-mobile launchers. Train-mobile missiles are in development. Experts were alarmed this summer to note that China appears to be building more than 100 new missile silos in its western desert regions. These could be intended for an expanded fleet of missiles or to serve as decoy targets for its enemies. All of this makes the problem of destroying China’s ICBM capability in a first strike more complicated.
Perhaps even more alarming was China’s test of a hypersonic, globe-spanning missile system in August. The purpose of hypersonic weapons, which are much more expensive and complex than ballistic missiles, is to evade enemy air- and missile-defense systems. The so-called fractional orbital bombardment system would be able to approach U.S. targets from unexpected directions, such as from over the South Pole, that are not covered by the existing missile defense network.
The purpose of expanding China’s missile numbers and capabilities is not necessarily so that the country can prevail in a nuclear war with the U.S. China merely wants to ensure that the U.S., or any other enemy, cannot prevent China from retaliating against any attack and inflicting a horrible cost. In this sense, China’s nuclear deterrent is an extension of its soft power: While it may never be used (hopefully), it must weigh on the minds of those who would oppose the CCP’s policies.
Officially, the PRC claims that it will not use nuclear weapons first but only in retaliation. That makes sense since China has nothing to gain from a first strike. However, Chinese military officials have recently threatened Japan with nuclear annihilation if it were to intervene in any attempt by China to conquer Taiwan. Was this an incidence of China letting the no-first-use mask slip, or an example of psychological warfare? Perhaps the answer to either question is yes.
Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, stated in February 2021: “There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons, if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state.” Thus, regardless of stated public policy, China or Russia (or the U.S., for that matter) could conceivably resort to the use of nuclear weapons if it faced catastrophic defeat in a conventional war.
China’s nuclear expansion is proceeding in tandem with the modernization of its conventional armed forces. The former provides the ultimate security that the CCP will be able to use the latter unconstrained by an enemy’s nuclear threats. Unless the U.S. really neglects its own nuclear forces, which is unlikely but not out of the realm of possibility, China’s so-called first strike capability would mainly provide freedom of action for its conventional forces.
Expanding Definitions of Soft Power
U.S. nuclear might is a reality, and China’s nuclear capability is growing. Given these facts, any military confrontation between the countries ideally would be waged well below the nuclear threshold. China may dream of defeating the U.S. in a pivotal war for control of the Indo-Pacific and being left to enjoy the fruits of its victory. It’s not clear that the U.S., or the West, would be inclined to fulfill China’s wishes. In fact, the recent AUKUS security pact between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. suggests China’s potential foes may be preparing for the long haul.
Fully appreciating that it cannot count on military power alone to solve all conflicts with the world’s powers, China has also been using all available non-kinetic means to win its quest for world dominance. The wars of the 21st century don’t seem to be won by deploying massive formations of ships, planes, tanks and soldiers. They are won by using a broad range of different tools, visible and invisible. The rivalry among the world’s powers takes place on many different fields.
Can a war be won with soft power? If you doubt it, we are here to remind you that the West won the Cold War, causing the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc to collapse, essentially with soft power. China has studied this war very carefully, even as the West forgets its greatest victory.
The CCP desires that China dominate its region and, more ambitiously, become the leading superpower in the world. It will use all means available, aggressive and (seemingly) passive, to achieve that goal. Since the CCP had little or no say in the world order as it now stands, it has no qualms about violating “the rules” to achieve its aims.
Is it possible for the CCP to make its vision a reality? From an economic point of view, there is a long way to go. However, step by step it might be possible. Furthermore, China can use the examples of previous superpowers to hone its approach to world power status. In a recent report, Anthony Cordesman and Grace Hwang of the Center for Strategic & International Studies wrote:
China emphasizes the integrated use of political, economic, and military power, and it is using such assets to achieve its goals without warfighting with major powers like the United States. The U.S. and Western states have increasingly attempted to respond using measures like sanctions, but they do not have political and economic systems that allow the state to directly integrate such operations, and much of the U.S. and Western analytic effort focuses separately on military dynamics and warfighting compared to civil and economic competition.
In the contemporary world, soft power might be even more effective than hard power. Especially in the era of globalization and networking, information has become an incredibly strong weapon. Instead of forcing people to do something, it is possible to convince them to do it with the use of propaganda, disinformation and economic enticements. Such techniques might take much more time than conventional warfare, but they are less costly, and above all, people do not resist.
Appreciating non-kinetic means of coercion, China established a new kind of military service in December 2015: the PLA Strategic Support Force. According to China’s Ministry of Defense, the official tasks of the new arm are quite enigmatic: “The Strategic Support Force is a new-type combat force for safeguarding national security. It is an important growth point of the military’s new combat capability. It is mainly formed from the functional integration of various types of support forces with strong strategic, foundational and supportive functions.”
In reality, the newly established force has two primary missions. The first is to effectively support the PLA’s strategic forces with information through space- and network-based capabilities, including communications, navigation and positioning, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Associated with this is the protection of the military information infrastructure. The second task is to conduct information operations, space- and counter-space missions, cyberattacks, electromagnetic warfare and psychological operations.
A key task of China’s military cyber capabilities is to attack Western computer networks. This includes continually gathering technical information on potential targets and their cybersecurity protections. The enemy’s command-and-control networks are high on the priority list, if technically accessible.
According to “21st Century Chinese Cyberwarfare” by William Hagestad, the PLA’s objectives are as follows:
Command-and-control warfare that effectively destroys the enemy’s decision-making ability and command infrastructure;
Effects-based warfare, incorporating a multitude of intelligence sources to disable the enemy’s ability to react effectively through the denial of its network infrastructure systems;
Psychological warfare to create a strategic advantage over enemies by sowing confusion and undermining their will to resist; and
Economic warfare by the creation of conditions of uncertainty, disabling an enemy’s ability to make strategic economic decisions through information denial and manipulation.
The PLA’s Network Systems Department also supports forces tasked with conducting strategic electronic warfare and information operations. The former includes such activities as paralyzing an enemy’s radio-based command-and-control systems through jamming and cyberattacks. Information operations include gathering and processing information through network espionage and satellite observation and waging psychological warfare through disinformation and information manipulation.
The elevation of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force to an independent arm on par with traditional combat forces illustrates the vital role the CCP assigns to non-kinetic warfare. The Strategic Support Force’s biggest advantage is that it can conduct “adverse operations” below the traditional threshold of combat operations. It can weaken other countries by manipulating public opinion and cause other difficulties through cyberattacks against vital networks. And it can do so without an enemy—particularly the U.S.—seeing itself as the target of an act of war, which it absolutely has been and continues to be.
China’s quest for world domination in 2021 seems a major challenge to the whole West, not only the U.S. China is using its military power to support this struggle. On the kinetic strategic level, China possesses a strong and growing nuclear deterrence force, which has to be considered seriously. On an operational level, the PLA’s conventional power gives the CCP the wherewithal to conduct local or even regional operations, even when confronted with deployed U.S. contingents. But above all, China is using its soft power to become the world’s dominant power.
The West, led by the U.S., has experience handling challenges from nuclear-armed superpowers. It is expert in developing and countering strategic threats with technology, engineering, skill and political will. China’s soft power is the real challenge and must be addressed with adequate energy and sophisticated means because the country is working tirelessly to undermine the political will of its enemies. The first step is for the West to appreciate that the fighting has already started.