While the world’s attention is focused on Gaza and Ukraine, a third flashpoint sparks and stutters in the Far East. This one threatens to flame up into a war that would immediately dwarf all current conflicts. I refer, of course, to the long-dreaded Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Like Gaza and Ukraine, this is an old problem. Like Gaza and Ukraine, it pits an authoritarian aggressor against a democratic neighbour living on desired land. Unlike those conflicts, however, this one would be almost certain to invite the participation of the United States military, leading to the first direct clash between major powers for eight long decades.
Most of us are aware of Taiwan’s repeated harassment by Chinese air and naval forces.For years, fighter jets and warships have circled like wolves round a campfire: now approaching, now retreating. Many people both inside and outside Taiwan have grown inured to the threat. Few of us will be aware of developments 2,000 miles northwest, out in the cold Chinese desert regions of Gansu, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. There, an enormous danger is growing underground. Night after night, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) labours beneath the sand, building hundreds of vertical cylindrical structures. These are missile launch facilities; nuclear silos.
When asked in recent weeks to nominate the most important current topic that no one seems to be discussing, historian Niall Ferguson had a simple answer: “China’s nuclear program.”Not so long ago—immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic—China’s arsenal still languished in the low 200s. But much has changed in a few short years. Beijing now has 410 nuclear warheads for delivery by land-based ballistic missiles, sea-based ballistic missiles, and bombers.On its current trajectory, it will have 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030. Five years after that, it will have 1,500.While this figure falls far short of the Russian and American stockpiles, it still leaves all other competitors in the dust. More concerning than the sheer number of nukes, however, is the Communist Party’s sudden and unexplained hurry.
China’s transformation began with the public debut of the Dongfeng-41 ballistic missile.Unveiled amid chest-bursting pomp and swagger at a military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Communist revolution, Dongfeng-41 (“East Wind”) can travel at 25 times the speed of sound and carry nuclear warheads over distances of 9,000 miles—more than enough, in other words, to get from China to the United States.
By 2021, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was able to orbit the globe with a hypersonic glide vehicle(twice), indicating that Beijing may soon be ready to launch nuclear strikes from space. That same year, the world became aware of three giant silo fields under construction in China’s northwest, with the potential to house 300 ballistic missiles.Satellite imagery provided by Planet Labs showed a series of rectangular air-inflated domes,and synthetic aperture radar imaging found heightened activity at the dome centres, a feature consistent with the presence of silo holes. Launch control centres were developing nearby, while tunnel entrances suggested the presence of further underground structures.
By January 2022, the domes had been removed at one site, revealing more than a hundred missile launch facilities. These were large enough to contain the mighty Dongfeng-41,raising the prospect of the Party filling whole silo fields with its most formidable weapon. But even this alarming scene would fail to capture the enormity of the threat, because it turns out that the DF-41 is capable of loading multiple independently targeted warheads.It is a “hydra-headed” missile, which means that each DF-41 can carry as many as ten nuclear warheads, and each warhead can be directed, mid-flight, to a separate destination. A future conflict over Taiwan involves a threat the world has never seen, and barely dreamed: a swarm of khaki-coloured airborne hydra raining down fire from suborbital space, cremating cities all along North America’s eastern seaboard.
In order to sustain its nuclear proliferation, the CCP is eating up the world’s uranium supply. At the same time as Chinese companies buy the mines in Niger, Namibia, and Kazakhstan, they also purchase huge quantities of yellowcake (concentrated uranium oxide) on the open market.They import the more highly enriched version of the mineral from Russia. In a period of just three months late last year, the volume of uranium travelling from Russian facilities to Chinese reactors was seven times larger than all the uranium removed worldwide under US and IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) auspices over the past 30 years.
While we don’t know for certain that this hoard of uranium will be used for weapons, the wider context is less than reassuring. A few years ago, China’s authorities suddenly stopped reporting plutonium stockpiles to the IAEA, without explanation. Around the same time, they began building nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities to extract plutonium from the spent fuel of power plants.(Plutonium is the primary fissile isotope used in the production of nuclear weapons.) And so, a clear picture is emerging. The Communist Party is leaving behind mere nuclear deterrence, and accelerating towards a “first-strike” capability—the potential to move pre-emptively, and decimate an enemy’s nuclear arsenal.
I use phrases like “first-strike capability” and “decimate an enemy’s nuclear arsenal,” but this language can hardly prepare us for the reality of nuclear strikes. Nothing can. No conflict has ever involved the second-generation weapons that replaced Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even in 1945, we didn’t see the fullest destructive potential. Both strikes missed their precise targets. Bomb debris remained at altitude, causing much of the subsequent radiation to dissipate harmlessly into the air. Ambient winds prevented firestorms at Nagasaki. And in Little Boy’s case, only 1.3 percent of its material actually fissioned.
Nations may have exploded the newer bombs beneath desert floors and out on tropical atolls, but never in a combat situation. When these weapons are used, the resulting fireballs can reach tens of millions of degrees Fahrenheit in temperature—similar to the environment at the heart of the sun. No one in the blast centre would survive, and estimates suggest those within a ten-mile radius would receive lethal radiation doses.Up to 53 miles away they may experience the burning of their retinas. The atmosphere would become clogged with dust: blocking sunlight, flinging crop production into chaos, and raising the spectre of famine.
Some have argued that we are just witnessing a nervous reaction to recent changes in US policy. The Pentagon’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, for instance, suggested the expansion of flexible US nuclear options to include low-yield weapons.One year on, Washington pulled out of an old accord: the 1987 US-Soviet INF Treaty, which had proscribed the use of ground-launched nuclear missile systems with a range of 310 to 3,400 miles.These two shifts were highly significant for certain analysts.As they watched the great Chinese nuclear rush, they saw alarm at perceived vulnerability, rather than a plan for aggressive conquest.
It’s true that chronic paranoia has always been a feature of Communist Party leadership. And the maintenance of silo fields in sparsely populated areas is certainly a good defensive tactic—an aggressor would be obliged to waste its arsenal in razing the silos, leaving fewer weapons for use against military bases and urban population centres.
But there is a problem with this theory. The cycle of action and reaction did not begin in 2018. The Nuclear Posture Review was itself a countermeasure—China’s president had already declared his intention to “fully transform [the PLA] … into a first tier force.”It was a response not only to rhetoric, but to the tangible threat posed by the PLA’s development of “nuclear warheads on protected ICBMs and SLBMs capable of reaching the United States and nuclear-armed, theatre-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching US territory, allies, partners, forces, and bases in the region.”While its greatest escalation would not come until 2020, the nuclear danger in the East was already growing prior to 2018.
Even if there are no clandestine Chinese plans to initiate a major conflict, and even if Beijing really is motivated only by fear of Washington’s posture, the sudden upsurge in weapons of mass destruction could itself make war more likely. This is due to China’s unique circumstances. Desperate at the prospect of irreversible economic and demographic decline, fearful of a fast-closing window for action, and cognisant of the power bestowed by its newly-acquired arsenal and first-strike capability, the CCP may simply come to the realisation that it has enough good reasons to attack Taiwan. Before a full invasion, it could gain a crucial head start by using these missiles to wipe out US military bases in the Asia-Pacific region.
According to the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) theory, a nuclear conflict would lead to the destruction of both warring sides. Because that fact is understood by everyone with the power to launch the strikes, no nation is willing to initiate nuclear war. The theory has held thus far, defying the expectations of most members of the general public. Few living in the fraught climate of the 1950s would have bet on the passage of another 70 years without a single state using the dreaded weapons. We have been lucky enough to live through the Nuclear Peace: a period without historical precedent; a period in which there has been no direct conflict between great powers. This knowledge might tempt us to downplay the new Chinese proliferation. But the Nuclear Peace has always been a high-wire act, rather than some guaranteed law of nature. It depends on the relative rationality of all parties, and it also depends on a great deal of blind luck.
Suppose a war over Taiwan never happens. We would still need to face the problem of all that destructive firepower the Party has willed into existence; all those huge missiles lying out in the desert, like a fleet of sleeping dragons. There could be few worse locations for such a danger than Communist China: a wildly unpredictable and hopelessly unstable state from the moment of its conception right up until the present day.
At some point, and perhaps sooner than many think, the Chinese Communist Party will fall. In the ensuing chaos, colonial acquisitions like Tibet and Xinjiang will likely seek independence. Let us hope we do not have to wait until such a late stage for the world to finally remember that vast nuclear stockpile, part of which sits inside the border of Xinjiang province—the eye of the storm as the state begins to break apart.