China’s ‘Underground Great Wall’ Could Swing Nuclear Balance

Chinese military has reportedly built a huge underground tunnel network
from which nuclear missiles can be deployed.

China’s strategic missile squadron, the
Second Artillery Division, has built an “Underground Great Wall”
stretching for more than 5,000km in the north of the country, according
to a report in Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao on Saturday. Citing the People’s
Liberation Army’s official newsletter, the paper said the underground
tunnel system has been built to conceal nuclear weapons to ensure the
nation’s second strike capability.

According to state broadcaster CCTV, the tunnel network, reportedly
hundreds of meters underground, has been under construction since 1995
and can withstand several nuclear attacks. A documentary broadcast by
CCTV in March 2008 revealed that the PLA had been building underground
facilities enabling it to launch a counterstrike in case of a first
strike scenario. The news has received very little attention both in the
west and in Asia, despite the vast scale of the project. 

“The early version of China’s mid- to long-range missiles had all
been deployed above ground and were vulnerable to detection by spy
satellites and attacks by interceptor missiles. That prompted the
Chinese military to move all of their missiles hundreds of meters
underground,” reported Taiwan’s Asia-Pacific Defense Magazine. PLA
squadrons deployed below ground would be completely undetectable. 

For a country to convince potential opponents that it possesses a
credible means of retaliation is a vital element of a nuclear deterrent.
China has long had a minimalist posture in this regard, holding a small
amount of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Previous estimates put
the numbers of China’s nuclear warheads at between 150-400. However,
some military analysts have recently estimated the number could be much
higher, even reaching into the thousands, which could be accommodated in
the new tunnel network.

The New START accord signed by US President Barack Obama and Russian
President Dmitry Medvedev last year limits US and Russian nuclear forces
to 1,550 deployed warheads apiece. If the PLA has covertly departed
from minimal deterrence then this balance could be overturned, with
China on equal or near-equal terms with the United States and Russia in
deployed nuclear weaponry. 

Therefore, whether the news reinforces strategic stability between
China and the United States or alternatively marks the start of a new
arms race between the world’s largest and second largest economies will
be a source of much debate.