When discussing nuclear deterrence three ideologies come to mind: disarmament and nonproliferation, mutually assured destruction, and the establishment of missile defense systems. The disarmament and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons in general is effective because the fewer nukes in existence, the lesser the chances of nuclear warfare ensuing become. Unfortunately, it is implausible that every country will completely disarm out of distrust for each other. This is where the concept of mutually assured destruction comes in, that if one country fires a nuclear weapon on another then the attacked country will retaliate by firing its own nuclear weapon and everyone loses. This ideology does not require the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons currently in existence, only enough to retaliate to any given country’s possible nuclear attack. Finally, ballistic missile defense systems (BMDS) are necessary as they provide a defense not only against a nuclear attack from a specific country but also against the emerging threat of a nuclear attack by a terrorist group, which is a different scenario because a terrorist group can spread across many countries, making nuclear retaliation difficult.
This in mind, a question from the audience asking the Chinese and Russian panelists how their countries felt about the US’s shift in policy to the deployment of Ballistic Missile Defense systems on the West Coast brought up an interesting response from General Yao Yunzhu of the Chinese Academy of Military Science. She answered that China is opposed to US deployment of ballistic missile defense systems on the West Coast or even anywhere in East Asia. She further noted that, “China has to take into account [this new policy] in designing the size of its nuclear arsenal,” hinting that as the United States develops its missile defense system on the West Coast, China will essentially be forced to build its offensive nuclear capability from the “minimal” size it has officially stated to have.
This kind of response from China does not seem to make sense. If these missile defense systems are effective and placed in as many countries around the world as possible then this would serve as an effective means of nuclear deterrence by mitigating the impact that nukes could have thus promoting nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. On the other hand if these BMDS are not effective, then their existence anywhere in the world is negligible and should not matter to China.
That being said, the lingering question remains, why is China concerned by the establishment of BMDS?