Deployments of nuclear-capable missiles always send a message, but it isn’t always immediately clear who the target is. Chinese media reported Tuesday on the possible deployment of long-range Dongfeng-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles in northeastern China close to Russia, triggering speculation in Russian media about China’s intent. One possibility that has been raised is that the move was in response to potential U.S-Russian negotiations over arms treaties. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rebutted the idea, adding that Russia does not consider China’s positioning of the nuclear-capable systems in Heilongjiang province a threat. And with a quick look at the Chinese nuclear missile force structure, the Kremlin’s reaction makes sense: The nature and capabilities of the Dongfeng-41, along with its deployment near the city of Daqing close to the Russian border, mean that the systems are far more likely intended as a nuclear deterrent against the United States.
China has had a nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States since the early 1980s, the Dongfeng-5, but it has issues that have limited its recent effectiveness as a credible deterrent. Its liquid fuel propellant means that it must undergo a lengthy fueling process before it can be launched, and its lack of mobility renders its silos vulnerable to strikes by increasingly accurate munitions. Those threats to its survivability reduce its value as a minimum credible deterrence. China needed to upgrade to a more survivable missile inventory given its historically smaller nuclear arsenal and no-first-use doctrine.
Development of the Dongfeng-41 — a solid-fuel nuclear-capable road-mobile system — is thought to have begun in the late 1980s, but the program was subject to multiple delays and pauses along the way. Other updates to China’s strategic arsenal were introduced in the meantime. The medium-range Dongfeng-21 ballistic missile was deployed in 1991, followed by the intercontinental Dongfeng-31 missile in 2006. With those deployments, the Chinese replaced many of their older, less capable and immobile missiles with solid-fueled mobile systems. The Dongfeng-31 in particular gave China the capability to strike all of India or Russia, but China continued to rely on the aging Dongfeng-5 to underpin its nuclear deterrence posture against the United States. It was the only missile in the Chinese arsenal with the range to reach the US mainland. This gap was ameliorated somewhat with the introduction of the extended-range Dongfeng-31A, but its payload was considered insufficient, so the capability gap remained.
This is where the Dongfeng-41 comes in. Since China has had the Dongfeng-31, a missile capable of reaching all of Russia, for more than a decade, Moscow does not consider the Dongfeng-41 to be an added threat. If anything, deployment of the Dongfeng-41 near the Russian border actually increases the system’s vulnerability to a Russian strike, including from conventional weapons. Instead, its deployment is heavily influenced by geography. Given the distances involved and the ballistic missile trajectory from China to the United States, Heilongjiang province is the ideal location to maximize the missile’s reach so it covers all of the continental United States. The Dongfeng-5 missiles have long been based in the same region for the same reasons.
China is in the middle of a campaign to expand both the scope and capabilities of its nuclear forces. Not only is it adding newer and more capable ballistic missiles to active duty, but it is also expanding its capabilities in other areas, such as the development of technologies that would give its missiles the ability to carry multiple warheads and the buildup of the sea-based leg of its nuclear deterrent.
The nuances, deployments and developments of China’s entire nuclear arsenal must be kept in perspective when evaluating the deployment of its new intercontinental ballistic missiles. But it is even more crucial to maintain a close watch on the effect Chinese nuclear weapons developments have on the rest of the world. Its evolving capabilities have the potential to increase competition with India, in turn affecting Pakistan’s nuclear growth. They could also complicate arms control dynamics between the United States and Russia.
Nuclear deterrence, buildups and negotiations are no longer limited to the bilateral constructs of the Cold War. Today, as developments occur in one nuclear-armed power — whether China’s deployment of a new ballistic missile or US President Donald Trump’s call for an expansion and modernization of US nuclear forces — their ripple effects touch the other established and emerging nuclear states. The effects of those ripples could include catalyzing a period of acceleration in the global nuclear arms race. The number of independent nuclear powers and the increasingly complex interactions among them would dim the prospects of containing such an arms race, considering the checkered past of success of multiparty arms control agreements.