THAAD Will Lead to Increased Chinese Nuclear Development

By: Gabriel Gorre, Guest Contributor

Photo Credit: US Pacific Command (PACOM)

On March 7th, the United States began its deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea.[i] The deployment of the THAAD system aims to minimize the damage from North Korean short and medium range missiles, a danger on display in recent North Korean missile launches.[ii] Yet, despite the stated intentions and fears of the United States and South Korea, the Chinese government has expressed outrage at the installation of the missile defense system. China believes that the system represents a threat to its security, and the country has responded with retaliation against South Korean companies and plans to begin Pacific Ocean patrols with its nuclear submarines.[iii] This response, while overly aggressive from a Western perspective, lines up with China’s historical response to perceived security risks. Indeed, a full response may be yet to come: based upon China’s historical response to US military expansion, the deployment of THAAD could result in a more aggressive Chinese nuclear posture.

China’s Historical Response

From the beginning, China has developed its nuclear capability in response to perceived threats from the United States. The initial development of China’s nuclear weaponry was spurred by fears of the United States, who had threatened to use nuclear weapons against China twice in the 1950s, during both the Korean War and the crisis in the Taiwan strait.[iv] Since then, China has focused on developing a credible nuclear deterrent, maintaining what it viewed as the minimum level of nuclear development to ensure protection against attacks from outside powers, like the United States. Specifically, China seeks “invulnerability” by maintaining the levels required to guarantee retaliation—a second-strike capability.[v]

This has inevitably meant that as its rivals’ military capabilities developed, China needed to follow suit to maintain its minimum deterrence threat. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, China has undergone a significant nuclear modernization effort. This effort has resulted in “one of the world’s most impressive nuclear…ballistic missile programs”, including road-mobile ICBMs, placing almost all of the United States within range of China’s nuclear weapons.[vi] China has also sought to develop its own nuclear triad. Since the mid-1990’s, China has expanded its nuclear submarine fleet, with up to five additional submarines expected to enter service over the next ten years.[vii] In addition, China seeks to develop long-range nuclear bombers.[viii] If successful, China will have officially achieved a nuclear triad, substantially improving the security of its second-strike capability.[ix]

Importantly, China has sought these changes due specifically to developments in the United States. China does not seek to match other nations, such as the United States and Russia, in the size of its nuclear arsenal.[x] However, since it seeks to achieve mutual deterrence at a minimum, China will alter its capabilities in response to nuclear modernization efforts and arsenal expansions abroad, especially in the United States.. For instance, China’s most recent nuclear advancements, which include mobile missiles and multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs), have been developed to “ensure the viability of China’s strategic deterrent” in light of advancements in the United States and abroad.[xi]

Why China Finds THAAD Troubling

One such advancement that Beijing has responded to is the development of missile defense systems. Within China, scholars note that the deployment of such missile defense systems “will be “the most significant factor”” in China’s future nuclear development.[xii] This reaction stems from a Chinese fear that such systems can undermine their military capabilities. THAAD, in particular, has earned the ire of the Chinese government. This is not because the THAAD system can destroy Chinese missiles fired at the United States—the placement of the system precludes that possibility.[xiii] Instead, China worries about THAAD’s radar system. The system can penetrate into China, potentially providing increased warning of Chinese missile strikes. [xiv] This reduces the efficacy of China’s nuclear deterrent, as it provides the United States with the ability to respond soon after a Chinese missile launch, allowing it to launch a counterstrike or to prepare its missile defense systems to intercept incoming missiles.[xv] This provides the United States with an advantage over China—and, as history has shown, China does not ignore security deficits between itself and its rivals.

Chinese Response to THAAD

As shown above, China has historically sought nuclear development—and, at times, notable expansion—when faced with a threat to the invulnerability of its second-strike capability. THAAD provides just such a threat. Thus, historical precedent suggests that China could lead to a more aggressive nuclear posture in order to counteract the advantages provided to the United States by the THAAD system.

One possible response is a straightforward expansion of the size of its nuclear arsenal. As stated above, attempts to achieve parity with the United States would be fruitless, yet China need not seek parity in order to reduce the effectiveness of THAAD. Observers note that the current “modesty” of China’s arsenal results in a considerable asymmetry between itself and states like the United States.[xvi] Given the failings of current US missile defense systems on the west coast of the United States, even a small increase in the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal could overwhelm them, thus restoring the security of its second-strike capabilities.[xvii]

Another response is to enhance the readiness of its nuclear weaponry by placing them on high alert. China, unlike Russia and the United States, keeps its nuclear weapons “off alert” and off their delivery vehicles.[xviii] However, some within China have proposed placing its nuclear weaponry on high alert, as this would allow China to respond immediately upon warning of an attack.[xix] Such a change in policy would result in more danger to the United States than a simple augmentation of the Chinese nuclear arsenal due to the increased danger of an error resulting in a nuclear exchange. For instance, Chinese officials could mistake a conventional strike for a nuclear attack and launch nuclear weapons in response, and a human error or warning system malfunction could lead China to respond to a US nuclear attack that does not actually exist.[xx]


Ultimately, China’s history suggests that a threat to its minimum deterrence capabilities will result in an increase in Chinese nuclear development. China views THAAD as such a threat, believing it to be a threat to the security of its second-strike capability. This suggests that, in line with previous instances of a perceived security gap, China will respond with increased nuclear development.

Gabriel Gorre is a bachelor’s degree candidate at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a BSFS Fellow at the Georgetown Security Studies Program (SSP). He is pursuing a degree in Science, Technology, and International Affairs.

[i] Mullany, Gerry, and Chris Buckley. “China Warns of Arms Race After U.S. Deploys Missile Defense in South Korea.” The New York Times. March 07, 2017.

[ii] Lyon, Rod. “The Hard Truth About THAAD, South Korea and China.” The National Interest. February 23, 2016., 1.

[iii] Mullen, Jethro, and Sol Han. “One Company Is Bearing the Brunt of China’s Anger over U.S. Missile System.” CNNMoney. March 7, 2017.; Borger, Julian. “China to Send Nuclear-armed Submarines into Pacific amid Tensions with US.” The Guardian. May 26, 2016.

[iv] Sagan, Scott D. “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb.” International Security 21, no. 3 (1996): 54-86. doi:10.2307/2539273, 58-59.

[v] Colby, Elbridge A., Abraham M. Denmark, and John K. Warden. Nuclear Weapons and U.S. China Relations: A Way Forward. Report. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2013. JSTOR, 10.

[vi] Colby, Denmark, and Warden, 33; Office of the Secretary of Defense. Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016. Report. April 26, 2016., 22; Bender, Jeremy. “Pentagon Report: Chinese Ballistic Missiles Can Target Nearly the Entirety of the US.” Business Insider. May 11, 2015.

[vii] “China Submarine Capabilities.” Nuclear Threat Initiative – Ten Years of Building a Safer World. July 15, 2016.; DoD Report, 26.

[viii] DoD Annual Report, 38.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Colby, Denmark, and Warden, 36.

[xi] DoD Annual Report, 57.

[xii] Colby, Denmark, and Warden, 37.

[xiii] Panda, Ankit. “THAAD and China’s Nuclear Second-Strike Capability.” The Diplomat. March 09, 2017.

[xiv] Park, Sungtae Jacky. “This Is Why China Fears THAAD.” The National Interest. March 30, 2016., 3

[xv] Zhao, Tong. “Strategic Warning and China’s Nuclear Posture.” The Diplomat. May 28, 2015.

[xvi] Panda.

[xvii] Willman, David. “$40-billion Missile Defense System Proves Unreliable.” Los Angeles Times. May 28, 2015.

[xviii] Kulacki, Gregory. China’s Military Calls for Putting Its Nuclear Forces on Alert. Report. January 2016., 2

[xix] Kulacki, 1.

[xx] Kulacki, 6. Kulacki compares this possibility to the avenues for error that existed in the Cold War between the US and the USSR, which resulted in a number of false alarms, each of which could have led to nuclear war.

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