Hong Kong: Beijing’s most serious border tensions exist with India, and the two sides have repeatedly failed to reach consensus after violence erupted last year. On 23 October, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress approved China’s first national law concerning its 22,000km-long land border with 14 different countries to better maintain national security.
The law promulgates dispute management mechanisms based on the “principle of equality, mutual trust and friendly consultation”. However, the latest round of talks with India broke down as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has no intention to back down from its aggressive encroachment.
The Land Border Law states that China “shall take measures to resolutely safeguard territorial integrity and land border security, and guard against and combat any acts that undermine territorial sovereignty and land boundaries”. It requires citizens and organizations to support border patrol and control activities. It also allows weapons to be used against any who illegally cross borders.
Sixty-two clauses spread over seven chapters say, for instance, “…that the state shall build basic facilities for the purposes of blockade, transportation, communication, monitoring, deterrence, defense and assistance when needed. The state can also build facilities for blockades on the border after negotiations with the neighboring country.”
One Chinese law professor said the law, to be enacted on 1 January 2022, “provides an abundant legal foundation for China in dealing with border disputes with involved neighbors”. The problem is that Beijing puts domestic law above international law. In the South China Sea, for instance, it rubbishes United Nations provisions and attempts to uphold its own twisted interpretation of local law.
China has few true allies, but ten Chinese and Russian warships combined last week for their first “joint cruise” in the Western Pacific.
The vessels passed through the Tsugaru Strait (between Japan’s Hokkaido and Honshu i
slands) on 18 October, before sailing down Japan’s eastern coast and returning through the Osumi Strait. China and Russia conducted their first joint bomber aircraft patrol last December.
What they did is entirely legal, but it is political signaling by the two countries. Bilateral ties have been improving since 2005 after a long-standing border dispute was resolved, and things really warmed after 2014 when Russian relations with the West nosedived because of military action in Ukraine. Their proto-alliance is designed to oppose US “hegemony” and to reshape the international order, but their closeness is exaggerated.
Writing for The Jamestown Foundation, Pavel K. Baev, a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, said, “Beijing has shown limited interest in developing cooperation with Russia to enhance its strategic offensive/defensive capabilities, despite the potential boost this might provide.”
Baev concluded, “China’s consistent choice against engaging in any meaningful cooperation with Russia in areas perceived as crucial for its national security is determined not only by the desire to avoid any dependency, but also by doubts over the Putin regime’s stability, which are informed by lessons learned from the USSR’s collapse. The Kremlin may have no such doubts regarding Xi’s grasp on power, but is anxious about the contrast in global perceptions between China’s rise and Russia’s
China continues to astound with its military technological breakthroughs too. In August, it tested a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) in a secretive 78th launch of a Long March 2C rocket.
When asked about this mysterious test that saw a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) circle the globe, Zhao Lijian, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, denied it was an FOBS: “As we understand, this was a routine test of a space vehicle to verify technology of a spacecraft’s reusability … As I just said, it’s not a missile but a space vehicle.”
However, Zhao was talking at cross-purposes, either deliberately or in error, as he was referring to a different test of a suborbital vehicle that occurred on 16 July. After all, if it was “routine”, why did China keep it under such a shroud of secrecy?
Joshua Pollack, Editor of the Nonproliferation Review, and Senior Research Associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, explained that an FOBS has the same function as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or HGV, to deliver a warhead to the other side of the world.
Pollack explained, “What separates them is the nature of the ‘vehicle’ on top of the rocket, and the trajectory it’s designed to fly on. An ICBM flies in a high arc through space, an HGV glides in the atmosphere, and FOBS enters low Earth orbit (lower than the ICBM, higher than the HGV).”
In fact, an ICBM is the most efficient way to deliver nuclear warheads. They can carry multiple warheads, and reach their intended targets very quickly. Pollack added, “The other two types are relatively exotic. Mostly, they’re ways to evade missile defenses.” The idea of an FOBS paired with an HGV is somewhat rare and, while there are advantages of this combination, the idea is not totally new. Indeed, the USA can do something similar by flying its X-37B “space plane” in similar fashion.
Pollack also pointed out: “None of the weapons are good for surprise attacks against the US, which has exceptional detection capabilities. It’s much easier to predict the target of an ICBM in flight, but…all three types will be detected at launch and tracked in flight.”
He said people are freaked out by the seeming novelty of the Chinese FOBS-HGV combination, but “they’re mostly novel because they’re inefficient! ICBMs are preferred. That’s probably why, despite serious interest in HGVs in the US, we have never considered them for delivering nuclear weapons. While we’ve invested a lot in ‘midcourse’ missile defenses that the exotic types are good at evading, Russia and China haven’t.”
US homeland ballistic-missile defense (BMD) is designed to counter threats from rogue states like Iran and North Korea, rather than nuclear powers like China and Russia. Pollack extrapolated, “If that’s so, we shouldn’t be overly worried about Russian and Chinese efforts to make double-sure or triple-sure that they aren’t affected. But if we don’t like these developments, then we’re going to have to rethink our refusal since 2002 to limit the growth of our BMD programs.”
As explained, the technology itself is not new – even if the combination chosen by China is novel – but the question is why has there been a spike in nuclear weapons and delivery methods in China?
The possible reason is a chilling one, but it fits other patterns of Chinese behavior and many aspects of the PLA’s build-up.
Vipin Narang, the Frank Stanton Professor of Nuclear Security and Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), offered some thoughts: “At some point in the past several years, China woke up and decided it needed to compete with the US on nuclear weapons in ways it hadn’t for decades previously. It is investing in a lot more survivability and a lot more penetrability.”
Narang offered this conclusion: “I doubt it is because China seeks to conduct a bolt-out-of-the-blue first strike against the US.” He said that would amount to suicide because of the USA’s fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines. “Instead I lean toward another hypothesis: China estimates that the risk of a conventional war with the US is higher now than ever, and it needs to stalemate the US at the nuclear level – escape US nuclear coercion – in order to open space for more aggressive conventional options.”
He added, “So the take-home risk with all these developments isn’t the risk of nuclear war with China – though that obviously goes up – but the risk of a really nasty conventional war where China unloads its massive arsenal of conventional missiles in theater without fear of US nuclear escalation. This isn’t a new logic. This is, in fact, exactly the stability-instability paradox. China is seeking to shore up its side of strategic stability in order to potentially open up greater offensive options at the conventional level, in a war it starts or one that comes to it.”
All these missile advancements thus act as a backstop for conventional military action by the PLA. The greatest risk of conventional war between China and the USA centers on Taiwan, and the former’s ambitions to subjugate it for the glory of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This thought that China is gearing up for conventional warfare is a recurring one, with Xi intent on rattling his sabers against the democratically governed island.
Last week, President Joe Biden reaffirmed the USA’s commitment to defend Taiwan. His administration has routinely signaled its willingness to do so – in March, for example, Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance noted, “We will support Taiwan, a leading democracy and a critical economic and security partner, in line with longstanding American commitments.”
An all-out amphibious invasion of Taiwan remains extremely risky militarily and politically for China, but the chances of miscalculation are growing as Xi amps up the pressure. Militarily, it would be fraught with danger, as the PLA could only contemplate an amphibious invasion across the Taiwan Strait in the months of March-May and September-October because of weather conditions, for example.
Professor Caitlin Talmadge, Associate Professor of Security Studies at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, voiced her concerns too. “What are we to make of all these recent revelations about emerging Chinese nuclear capabilities? Is China about to lob a nuclear weapon at the US? No. But context is everything, and the context here is worrisome.”
Talmadge explained in a series of tweets, “China has been engaging in both quantitative nuclear expansion (e.g. new silos) as well as qualitative improvements (e.g. being able to deliver nuclear across more diversified platforms). Not surprising given PRC power. More surprising it hadn’t already happened, actually.”
However, she added that these improvements to China’s nuclear arsenal come against a backdrop of a worsening relationship with the USA and other powers, threatening behavior toward neighbors like Taiwan, and tremendous growth in Chinese conventional forces. She reaffirmed that China is not gearing up for some sudden nuclear strike against the USA.
Instead, “…It looks a lot like China wants to be sure that the US can’t use nuclear weapons to coerce China in a conventional crisis or war that China might start or stumble into. China is working to entrench the US in a deeper state of mutual nuclear vulnerability, which is a concern if China then challenges the status quo at the conventional level.”
She noted, “Under deep nuclear stalemate, the conventional balance of power and balance of resolve will determine outcomes. And those probably favor China in a future conflict. Hence, China does not have to be plotting to lob a nuke at Los Angeles for recent developments to be concerning and consequential.”
Peter Mattis, a Research Fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, also asserted, “CCP leaders almost certainly considered modernizing/expanding/diversifying PRC nuclear forces a necessary condition for any attempt against Taiwan.”
Furthermore, there is increasing talk emanating from China that it should reconsider its No First Use policy regarding nuclear weapons. One such voice is Sha Zukang, a former Chinese ambassador for disarmament affairs to the United Nations in Geneva in the 1990s, who said, “The strategic pressure on China is intensifying as [the US] has built new military alliances and as it increases its military presence in our neighborhood.”
He suggested one such modification to China’s No First Use policy may be to make it conditional in the case of the USA if, for example, it did not let up its “negative measures” against China.