US peeks into China's nuclear fortress
By Peter J Brown

The Chinese government is probably unhappy about a new report by a Virginia-based, non-partisan think-tank called Project 2049 [1] that reveals significant and previously little known details about Base 22 in the Qinling mountains in Shaanxi province, China's primary storage facility for nuclear weapons. Publicity about this new report - "China's Nuclear Warhead Storage and Handling System" - first appeared in Defense News in early March. [2]

One can quickly understand the reason for Beijing's displeasure. Although the existence of this strategic storage complex in northwest China has been known for years, what has been said in the report about the size - 400 square kilometers, the tunnel complex inside Taibai Mountain, and the railway lines leading to

  

this mysterious fortress is not the kind of detailed information that China is eager to share with the outside world.

"I would expect the Chinese government to be a little disconcerted about such information appearing in the public domain, but the report's author, Mark Stokes, has noted elsewhere that China is becoming more open so I would expect Chinese readers to react across the spectrum, from rage to shrugs," said Dr Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Non-proliferation Initiative at the Washington DC-based New America Foundation.

Stokes, a former US defense attache who worked at the US embassy in Beijing in the early 1990s, is now executive director of Project 2049. He is probably not the most popular person in Beijing these days, but his report actually paints a very positive picture of the rigid yet reliable system of controls put in place by the Chinese Communist Party's Central Military Commission (CMC) to ensure the absolute safety and security of China's nuclear warheads. Base 22 and the entire centralized storage and handling system falls under the control of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Second Artillery.

"The key thing is that China appears to manage its limited nuclear inventory in a responsible manner, and it is worth examining ways to deepen and broaden cooperation in safeguarding nuclear warheads and materials on a global basis," said Stokes.

Any report that includes new details about China's strategic weapons let alone the infrastructure that China has built surrounding these weapons is bound to compliment as well as fuel the ongoing attempt by US conservatives to confront and ultimately defeat US President Barack Obama's plan to dramatically reduce the US stockpile of nuclear weapons. In addition, this report comes at a time when US conservatives are focused on implementing a grander missile defense scheme to counter what is unfolding in Iran, North Korea, and China.

Of course, the US Congress has been preoccupied with health care lately. Stokes makes it clear that when the dust settles surrounding health-care issues, US Congress will wake up to what he is really saying about China. Stokes has not seen any reaction to his report on Capitol Hill thus far.

"I am not as well informed as I should be about political issues with regard to US nuclear policy," said Stokes. "In short, I am just not that concerned with China's limited nuclear deterrent. It is the conventional capabilities that could be used in a Taiwan scenario that concern me more."

Those are words that will certainly stir up the hard-line faction of conservatives in the US Congress who are already pressing for a stronger stance against China across the board, and for F-16 sales to Taiwan. These same members of Congress continue to fend off at least one key Obama nominee for a senior post at the US Department of Defense who is perceived as being too quick to cancel missile defense spending.

Because his report also addresses China's possible development of a conventional capability that may or may not mirror work by the US on the so-called "Prompt Global Strike" conventional missile-based attack system, a vocal response should be forthcoming. (See US's strike threat catches China off guard , Asia Times Online, Feb 4, 2010)

Lewis, on the other hand, does not expect or does not see why US conservatives might be so outraged by the findings of this report.

"It suggests the Chinese storage and handling arrangements reflect a force that is kept off alert and under tight central control. If anything, this suggests China continues to rely on nuclear weapons for core deterrence," said Lewis.

Stokes is not viewed as a simply another right-wing China hawk from the US who writes reports that are more ideologically driven than based on actual research and supported by hard facts.

"I worked with Mark for a couple of months at the Pentagon. He is a hawk, but he does not let his politics get in the way of his analysis," said Lewis. "If I had a meeting on China's strategic modernization, Mark would be on my invite list."

Despite the possible impact of this report in both Beijing and Washington, Stokes finds the media coverage especially in China to be balanced and acceptable. A report in Xinhua, for example, injects not even a single word of commentary. [3]

"The only responses I've seen have reflected Western reporting of the report. Huanqiu Ribao [Global Times] and Xinhua have both covered in a fairly objective manner. The most recent Xinhua reporting summarized the study in some detail and pretty accurately," said Stokes. "I am not exactly sure what to make of the coverage, but I assume there is some context with the pending release of the new US Nuclear Posture Review, the upcoming Nuclear Summit which [President] Hu Jintao may attend, and the five-year review of the Non-proliferation Treaty [NPT] set for May."

Stokes emphasizes that his report is very relevant to the NPT review.

"Of course, one of the key issues in the NPT is nuclear safety and security, and presumably transparency, which is the primary theme of the paper I did," said Stokes.

Dr Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China Project manager at the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) describes the work by Stokes as "a solid report" and he agrees with the conclusion that, "Beijing adopts a responsible and serious attitude with regards to nuclear security and safety."

"That does need to be qualified, however. Several years ago, UCS hosted a Chinese fellow from their nuclear weapons research facility in Mianyang at our offices in Cambridge. He was here to conduct research on nuclear security and safety," said Kulacki. "It was clear from his research that China had given very little consideration to what is often called the 'insider threat' ; the threat of theft or sabotage facilitated by an insider."

Despite his earlier comment, Kulacki criticized the report, and pointed out that, "some of the Chinese sources cited in this report do not contain information that substantiates the claims made in the text".

China certainly might not have expected - or wanted - some of the information that Stokes has released to be spilled out in the public domain, but despite any sign of anxiety on Beijing, Stokes does not see his report as breaking new ground.

"There is not [much new information in my report] per se, beyond pulling together various sources from China itself. It may be the first time Chinese sources have been summarized for Western audiences though in some detail. [The Federation of American Scientists] has covered some of the storage facilities in its reporting over the last couple of years," said Stokes.

That said, Stokes does not expect everyone to agree with his depiction of the potential mismatch or imbalance that exists between the actual number of nuclear warheads that China possesses, and the number of military personnel it has assigned to its strategic forces. Stokes also admits that there is bound to be disagreement over what he has to say about one of China's long-range missiles as well.

"I suspect there could be some disagreement with a couple of my conclusions. For example, that there does not appear to be much significant growth in number of warheads despite growth in the number of [PLA] missile brigades,' said Stokes. "Another area of possible disagreement could be a conventional mission for the 8,000-kilometer range DF-31 [missile]."

Stokes describes his overall work as "preliminary" and deserving more study.

"The Second Artillery, for some time now, has been expanding the use of conventionally-armed ballistic missiles. Whether conventional DF-21s count as 'long-range' depends on what you mean by 'long'," said Lewis. "The distinction is usually that the Second Artillery troops are 'operators' - which is to say responsible for the handling and use of the weapons. That does not mean that they play a dominant role in policymaking. Indeed, I suspect one reason for the growth in conventional missiles is that it increases service autonomy."

Stokes argues that China may be placing more emphasis on a massive conventional missile strike capability than many experts in the West are prepared to accept.

"The reality is that we do not really know how many warheads China has had in the past. I just did not see any obvious sign of a significant growth in warhead inventory," said Stokes.

Stokes avoided going into more detail on this topic because this was not really the focus of his study. Besides, he discussed China's extended conventional strike capabilities in a report last September.

"There is a significant body of literature regarding a conventional DF-21, specifically the DF-21C and maybe DF-21D [designated an anti-ship ballistic missile or ASBM] in the near future. A conventional DF-31 is certainly possible if technical issues can be overcome with regard to a terminal guidance system on a missile traveling at higher reentry speeds," said Stokes.

Kulacki identifies parts of the report that deserve more careful scrutiny. For example, in his discussion of the Second Artillery, and the expanding use of conventionally-armed ballistic missiles, Stokes writes that, "the distinction between ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear and conventional payloads is becoming increasingly blurred".

"I concur. But there are indications China is considering turning conventional strike missions over to the [PLA Air Force]," said Kulacki. "If so, this should help draw a clearer line between nuclear and conventional payloads." [4]

As far as efforts to persuade China to accept the need for more transparency, this is where this report makes its mark.

Stokes credits China for managing its limited stockpile of nuclear weapons in a responsible manner. At the same time, he wonders if many in China "may want to know where nuclear warheads are and if they are safe. Public interest grew in the wake of the May 2008 earthquake, with the epicenter being fairly close to sensitive civilian defense industry facilities. I suspect there has been some conscious effort to calm whatever public concerns may exist," said Stokes in response to comments in the blog on www.armscontrolwonk.com.

The emphasis on increased transparency "could reflect greater confidence in the survivability of the country's nuclear deterrent. Recent conclusion of major Second Artillery infrastructure projects over the last decade, initial operational capability of the mobile solid-fueled DF-31A, and increasingly sophisticated missile defense countermeasures may have contributed to the greater degree of confidence," Stokes added.

Lewis describes the overall impact of this report as something that moves everyone ahead slowly towards a safer world.

"The impact of the report just depends on the person and the politics inside China. It will make some Chinese more leery of transparency, but others will observe that the information got out and the world didn't end, so there may be less to fear from transparency," said Lewis.

Stokes raises enough questions here both about China's capabilities, and unexplained gaps in the US knowledge base such that US hardline conservatives may come away feeling even less comfortable with the current state of affairs.

Notes
1. To view the report, click here.
2. The Defense News (March 8) article entitled, China's Central Nuke Storage ID'd, can be seen along with numerous comments by Mark Stokes by clicking here.
3. Articles in the Chinese media about the Project 2049's report can be seen by clicking here:

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4. PLease click here.

Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from Maine USA.