For the past few weeks, there has been apprehension in the US about whether China is expanding its capacity to store and launch nuclear missiles.
The basis for this apprehension is the latest satellite photos that have led to speculation that China is digging hundreds of pits to build underground silos (a vertical cylindrical structure constructed underground, for the storage and launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles) in a large area in eastern Xinjiang.
An organization named Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a non-governmental organization founded in 1945 to address national security challenges with scientific support, has claimed, based on these satellite images, that China is building a new nuclear missile field in Xinjiang.
In early July, there were reports that China was building 120 missile silos near Yumen in Gansu province. Another recent report claims spotting a new Chinese missile silo field in eastern Xinjiang.
The FAS stated the silo field in eastern Xinjiang is in a much earlier stage of development than the Yumen site and that construction began in the southeast corner of the complex in early March 2021 and is continuing at a rapid pace.
The FAS also said that so far at least 14 silos have domed covers and the soil has been cleared to prepare for the construction of another 19 silos. The FAS says that the grid-like layout of the entire complex suggests that it will eventually have about 110 silos.
Can digging pits just for silos mean they will keep missiles in them? Defence experts believe that historically silos have been used only to store missiles.
The Chinese media is calling the US findings “fake news” and “rumours”.
According to Howard Zhang, editor of the BBC Chinese Service, official media such as the Global Times has rubbished the US findings of the silos, saying what appears in satellite imagery are farms for new wind power plants.
However, the Chinese government has not officially commented or reacted to the US allegations or the Chinese media’s theory of wind power farms.
The US is trying to get China involved in the nuclear arms control talks which are currently held only between the US and Russia. China has so far declined the invitation because its nuclear power is ‘tiny’ compared to that of the US and Russia and that its nuclear power is only a “minimum deterrent”.
The FAS report points to what could be the biggest increase in the Chinese strategic nuclear force in several decades. Howard says, “if the silo sightings are real and as stated in the FAS report, the number of Chinese missile silos will be equal to or greater than that of Russia and half that of the US.
According to the latest research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China has a stockpile of 350 nuclear weapons today compared to 6,255 nuclear weapons with Russia, 5,550 with America, 225 with Britain, 156 with India, and 165 with Pakistan.
Some international analysts also suggest that the display of these silos could be a negotiating strategy in the context of the tense rivalry between the US and China.
In an interview with BBC, Dr Faisal Ahmed, an expert on Chinese affairs at Delhi’s Fore School of Management says that because of the strain in relations between the US and China in the recent past, “excavation of missile silos in Yumen and eastern Xinjiang region could potentially be a Chinese strategy”.
Dr Ahmed says that India needs a double focus. They say that India should focus on upgrading its naval surveillance and modernizing the Navy.
According to Dr Ahmed, India should be ‘cautious’ about its strategic dependence on the US in the Indian Ocean region. He says, “the US has its own strategic interest in preventing the rise of China and China has its own ambitions to displace the US as a power in the Indo-Pacific region. There is a need to focus on our own geostrategic interests in the ocean without taking anyone’s side.”
Desai believes that even though India does not need to worry about these silos as it is US-centric, India needs to be cautious because of the souring of its relations with China in the recent past.
“By developing nuclear capabilities, China aims to counter America’s geopolitical dominance in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Taiwan Straits,” he says.
Adding, he says, “China’s current nuclear capabilities are much lower than those of the US or Russia, and new developments will only be a modest increase. China’s nuclear capabilities will certainly act as a deterrent, even if those capabilities are smaller than those of the US. It will also boost China’s geo-strategic role in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Defence experts are discussing whether China is constructing these silos to bluff its rivals.
Suyash Desai, a Research Associate working in the China Studies Program at The Taxila Institution does not deny that these silos can also be built to deceive other countries. He says, “For example, if China builds 100 silos, they don’t need to keep missiles in each of them. In case of conflict, it will confuse other countries. All these silos will have to be destroyed to get rid of nuclear weapons.
Desai says China’s nuclear policy has been one of ‘definite retaliation’. He says that now with the discovery of these silos, experts are showing a slight change in Chinese attitude where China is moving towards a ‘launch on alert’ which means that China will retaliate immediately if it is warned of an attack.