Friday 05 Jun 2020 | 01:33 | SYDNEY
Friday 05 Jun 2020 | 01:33 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: China subtleties


Sam Roggeveen


12 June 2009 16:45

Professor Stuart Harris from the Australian National University sees a link between my recent post on Chinese nuclear capabilities and another which questioned Peter Drysdale's proposal for Australia to conduct a China policy review:

A useful and interesting post on Chinese missiles, which is relevant to another post concerning your hesitations on whether we need a public debate on China policy.

The NASIC report you cite is on balance better and more moderate than some US defence establishment reports. The US defence community has, in the past, consistently and often substantially overestimated China’s nuclear development program. This report’s content does not do so. But the introduction includes more upbeat language:

'China has the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world. It is developing and testing offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, qualitatively upgrading certain missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses...the number of ICBM nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States could expand to well over 100 within the next 15 years.'

From that passage, a reader would not know that:

  • of the acknowledged nuclear weapons states, China has the smallest nuclear weapons program, and that its development has been proceeding extremely slowly.
  • the estimate seems to assume that China’s existing ICBMs, the DF 5s (CSS-4s), will continue to be in place although new DF31As are meant to replace them and eventually are likely to do so for good operational reasons.
  • in practice, of the over 100 ICBMs referred to, less than half at most are likely to be able to cover the whole US – the rest are considered by many intelligence analysts as ‘theatre’ weapons. It is certainly more reasonable, for example, to count the DF-4 (CSS-3) as an IRBM than an ICBM.

There are other reasons, including China’s nuclear deterrence doctrine, that argue against over-reacting to China’s nuclear missile development.

This is just one example of how subtleties are likely to get lost in a public debate on China policy – the recent White Paper and the discussion of the RIO/BHP issue are perhaps not totally encouraging. This is not to say that there is not the problem that Peter Drysdale has highlighted. There is a problem. The government does need to develop a consistent and coherent policy based on more deliberate and considered statements from our leaders than some recent utterances have indicated. This could provide a more informed basis on which normal discussion and debate would develop.