China’s Hypersonic Missile Test Does Not Change the Nuclear Calculus

Military vehicles carrying DF-26 hypersonic long-range anti-ship missiles pictured during a parade in Beijing in 2015. Courtesy of Imaginechina Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

Although China's recent hypersonic missile test is evidence of significant Chinese technological advancement, it does not represent a paradigmatic shift in nuclear deterrence.

In October, the Financial Times reported that China’s hypersonic missile test over the summer represented a technological breakthrough for nuclear weapons. The operational proof-of-concept missile flew at Mach 6 and manoeuvred in such a way that it could bypass any modern defensive system. In response to the article, we penned a letter to the Financial Times outlining why the latest test does not change the nuclear calculus in an era of great power competition – at least not yet.

Fundamentally, the test does not alter nuclear deterrence, considering that an estimated 13,000 active nuclear warheads already exist. Nuclear-weapon states can still strike globally, albeit with less speed and an increased risk of interception vis-à-vis China’s latest capability. But even with China’s upgraded offensive ability that has yet to be productionised, we remain sceptical about how the tenets of mutually assured destruction magically vanish with the advent of one test.

Instead, it is our opinion that the operational test reflects more China’s desire to maximise its global reach, and less a paradigmatic shift for strategic deterrence.

National Pride, Not Nuclear Deterrence, is at Stake in the Pacific Theatre

China continues to test the limits of its power by antagonising its neighbours. From contentious claims regarding ownership of the Spratly Islands to flexing its industrial might with island-building, China will continue to relentlessly pursue policies that maximise its national authority in the Pacific and beyond.

While the Western world should prepare for Chinese hostility towards Taiwan, it is doubtful that the conflict will escalate to nuclear exchanges

Therefore, as part of this greater trend, we must discuss the ongoing disputes over Taiwanese sovereignty and China’s hegemonic desire to envelop the smaller independent state. In 1949, the Republic of China relocated to Taiwan when Chiang Kai-shek fled. Since then, the Taiwanese government has effectively exercised jurisdictional rule over the island and a few outlying ones, as well. To China, the splinter is Mao Zedong’s great failure and is speculated to be nationally embarrassing for President Xi Jinping, who longs to surpass Mao as Communist China’s greatest figure. Moreover, the mere existence of an independent Taiwan undermines China’s ability to rule with monolithic strength – a possible pressure point – over the many distinct ethnic and cultural groups living in mainland China.

Undoubtedly, China must deal with Taiwan’s breakaway status. However, nuclear strike capability is not the best approach, even though Xi has said a forceful takeover is possible. While the Western world should prepare for Chinese hostility, it is doubtful, at best, that the conflict will escalate to nuclear exchanges. Instead, a more realistic scenario is that China will attempt to annex Taiwan with an amphibious force or continue to use airpower as an extension of fear-based psychological warfare. Further, nuclear conflict in any capacity over Taiwan would delegitimise Chinese rule, especially since governments require social contracts and chief among them is the duty to protect one’s own citizens. And, yes, social arrangements harken back to Mao’s Communist Party that championed ‘people-oriented’ approaches.

Predictably, Xi’s increasingly aggressive posture over Taiwan has sounded alarm bells in Washington. Earlier in October, US President Joe Biden declared that the US would defend Taiwan should China invade the island, which was seen as a contradiction of the decades-long US policy of strategic ambiguity. While the White House later announced that the policy remains unchanged, speculation continues to abound over a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and how the US would respond.

Countering Chinese Aggression Requires Cooperation with Key Allies

In a sharp break from his predecessor, Biden has repeatedly emphasised his eagerness to work with allies to challenge a rising China. In the Pacific theatre, the US has courted India, Australia and Japan to form the new Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known informally as the Quad. While the alliance does not explicitly frame itself as an anti-Chinese security collective, the four countries have pledged themselves to upholding the ‘free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law’ that will remain ‘undaunted by coercion’. One extension of the Quad’s posturing is to employ nuclear submarines in the Indo-Pacific as an integral element of the nuclear triad. Since submarines are not geographically bound to a specific landmass, unlike missiles in a silo, they should thus be able to independently deploy their arsenal in the event that their country’s mainland is struck or if given orders stating otherwise.

Although the Australians had initially struck a deal with France’s Naval Group in 2016 to build a conventional submarine fleet, the deal fell through in the summer of 2021 when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison decided to invest in nuclear submarines instead. This new arrangement helped reinforce a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US, known as AUKUS. Understandably, losing the $65-billion nuclear submarine deal was a tremendous financial blow to French President Emmanuel Macron as he faces an upcoming re-election battle. In response to the cancellation, Macron recalled his Ambassadors from the US and Canada, and stated that it is up to the Australians to repair their broken relations. By contrast, over the past few days it appears that Biden has successfully made amends with Macron, as evidenced by an apology video that was coordinated in front of the press pool.

In order to successfully implement strategic deterrence, relationships must be assuredly strong

To some extent, this apology helps Macron save face, but the debacle reflects new trends in the transatlantic alliance.

Evolving Trends in the Transatlantic Nuclear Strategy

France’s current posture reveals Macron’s increasing desire to seek strategic autonomy, while increasing France’s relative power in the process. By doing so, Macron is inadvertently – or perhaps knowingly – undercutting the US’s nuclear umbrella that protects Europe. His increasing hostility to the UK is also rooted in a desire to see Brexit fail as he seeks to claim the mantle of EU-wide leadership.

For the Australians, it would behoove them to politically amend the fractured relationship with the French and, if possible, provide financial compensation for some of the losses through another contract vehicle or even the existing one. In order to successfully implement strategic deterrence, relationships must be assuredly strong. Perhaps the Australians must ask themselves what they can offer the French as a partner.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has envisioned an active foreign policy role for the UK in the post-Brexit era. The deal signals an ongoing commitment to strengthening diplomatic and military relationships within the Anglosphere. For the moment, the UK has found post-Brexit relevance by shoring up the Anglosphere in the Indo-Pacific. The question is how the former naval superpower can retain its importance not only in this region, but also elsewhere.

With respect to the US, Biden has rightly apologised to the French. In addition, with the forthcoming nuclear posture review that will be overseen by the White House, all eyes are on this administration to do more of what it has shown it is willing to do – that is, to work with regional allies to ensure strategic deterrence. Moreover, as the nuclear posture review evaluates issues of first-strike decision-making or sole purpose, the world awaits the US’s decision on whether to codify its strike policy.

Contextualising the Pentagon’s Report on Rising Chinese Nuclear Advancement

Earlier this month, the Pentagon released its annual report to Congress on China. The paper, titled ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021’, noted that China’s nuclear arsenal had increased beyond internal estimates. This rapid expansion from a few hundred to possibly 1,000 warheads by the year 2030 concerns many in US–China circles. The report also stated that China has an experimental nuclear triad, signalling that it could be moving away from a minimal deterrence strategy.

The test does not change the world’s overarching nuclear calculus, but it is a testament to Chinese technological advancement that, if left unchecked, could undermine the balance of power

After a recent virtual summit between Biden and Xi, the US and China agreed to talk about their nuclear arsenals. While it is far from clear that the US and China will reach a landmark agreement, the willingness to hold talks is welcome. Nonetheless, in light of the Pentagon report, the US and Taiwan will need to shore up their nuclear defensive capabilities. One of the most challenging aspects when creating defensive technology is developing an anti-air device that can track objects through time and space that travel in never-seen-before movements.

Specifically, Air Force Global Strike Command should continue to invest in research and development, find cost-effective ways to sustain legacy weapon systems, and maintain nuclear modernisation schedules so that existing technology does not become obsolete.

Concluding Thoughts

Recently, the Financial Times reported that allies are lobbying Biden to prevent the US from changing its ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons policy, further fuelling speculation that a conflict over Taiwan could go nuclear. Despite widespread concern, we maintain our position that China’s hypersonic missile test does not change the world’s overarching nuclear calculus. Still, it is a testament to Chinese technological advancement that, if left unchecked, could undermine the balance of power. But the test does not move the needle today. And known dependencies and unknown dependencies stand in the way of China’s ability to productionise a weapon – all of which diverts significant resources away from amicably integrating Taiwan back into the mainland.

As Bloomberg’s Andreas Kluth notes, humanity faces multiple existential threats, of which nuclear war is but one. He rightly advances salient arguments for increased East-West dialogue and, like the Financial Times and others, discusses how defensive posturing may lead to offensive manoeuvring. However, although important, China’s operational test has not fundamentally altered the already precarious nature of the nuclear world we inhabit.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent nor claim to represent official positions for Tufts University, the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force, RUSI, or any other affiliations that the authors belong to, stated or otherwise.

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Ananmay Agarwal

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Ryan J A Harden

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