The military modernization of China is causing uncertainty in Washington. Is a new nuclear race looming, this time between the USA and China?
The fear of a nuclear arms race is back. Once again, an escalation logic seems to prevail, which the first time could only be contained with politico-military restrationality - and with a lot of luck.
Back then, during the Cold War, it was the USA and the Soviet Union that kept filling their arsenals with new nuclear weapons. A credible deterrent, argued the strategists on both sides of the Iron Curtain, presupposes the ability to destroy one another. The claims to power of East and West clashed in the North Atlantic area and created a precarious balance of horror there.
The center of the new arms race is the Indo-Pacific. Today it is the United States and China who count each other's warheads and missiles. The rivalry between the two superpowers of the 21st century is increasingly taking on an atomic dimension. And some observers believe that they are feeling the breath of a second Cold War.
Last week the Pentagon released its annual report on China's military capabilities. And he warns that the People's Republic wants to catch up with the United States in terms of armaments and ultimately overtake it, the plans of party leader and state leader Xi Jinping do not allow any other conclusion.
Specifically, the US Department of Defense expects the Chinese People's Liberation Army to significantly increase its nuclear potential in the next few years. According to US estimates, by 2027 the number of operational nuclear warheads could increase from a good 200 to up to 700, and by 2030 to "at least 1,000". That would actually be a rapid increase. A year ago, the Pentagon foresaw a possible doubling within ten years. If the new estimates are correct, China would roughly quadruple its number of nuclear weapons by the early 1930s.
The numbers of the previous nuclear powers are still far higher than those of China. According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute Sipri, America has 5,550 and Russia even 6,255 nuclear warheads. But China apparently wants to narrow this gap. It is resolutely upgrading. In the summer, independent American scientists reported hundreds of new ICBM silos in Gansu Province and the Xinjiang region that they had discovered on satellite images.
In mid-October, the Financial Times reported two test flights of Chinese hypersonic missiles . Actually, these are not new weapons, the Soviet Union developed them as early as the 1960s. Ballistic missiles are launched into low orbit and then release a maneuverable missile with an atomic warhead that travels to its target from space. Yet China appears to have refined the hypersonic weapon in ways that baffled and shocked America's intelligence services. General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the tests were very close to a "Sputnik moment".
Sputnik, that was the first satellite that the Soviet Union shot into space in 1957 and which sparked the fear in the USA of falling behind the world power competitor at the time in terms of rocket technology.
A mistake, as it soon turned out. And today America's military superiority over China is overwhelming. US defense spending is several times that of the People's Republic. Chinese state media call the reactions in Washington "hysterical". America, they claim, is striving for "absolute security" in order to override mutual deterrence.
China's strategy remains defensive. But, argues the nationalist, overseas CCP organ Global Times : "A growing China that is exposed to strategic competition, including nuclear threats from the US, has the right and sees the need to strengthen its national defense, including nuclear deterrence capabilities."
In Washington, however, the voices are growing louder demanding that America must react to China's rearmament and accelerate the modernization of its own nuclear forces that has already been decided. The ingredients for an arms race are in place, possibly also for a second Cold War.
In any case, in Washington the military planners defined China as the new main enemy. "We are witnessing one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power the world has ever seen," General Milley said last week at the Aspen Security Forum in the American capital.
Everything far away from us, the Europeans could calm down. But is that true? "The global balance of power is changing," said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg a few days ago . "China is getting closer to us. We see them in cyberspace. We see them in space, in Africa, in the Arctic. And we see China trying to control critical infrastructure here in Europe."
In the coming summer, NATO will decide on its new strategic concept, which should set the direction for the next ten years. China will play a bigger role in this for the first time. The West is gearing up for a long-term confrontation with the new power in the Far East. Even with weapons that everyone knows must never be used.