Center for Strategic Communication

A Manhattan fallout shelter from the Cold War. Photo: Flickr/Kate Haskell

It turns out that China’s been mixing its nuclear missiles in with its conventional ones at the same military bases. Not really, uh, advisable: that makes it really hard for other countries to figure out if a Chinese missile launch is just a conventional one or the beginnings of a nuclear Armageddon. But fret not — while China’s missile mingling may not be very sensible, it’s not going to cause World War III.

In what’s thought to be the first comprehensive, non-governmental report on China’s nuclear warplans, John Lewis, a professor of Chinese politics at Stanford University, reveals that China stores its nuclear and conventional missiles in the same locations. Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Lewis warns that the intermingling could trigger a nuclear launch: once another nation watched a Chinese missile blast off, it might trigger a nuclear retaliation from a confused, panicked Russia or United States. And then, should the Chinese see their nuclear assets targeted and destroyed, they might conceivable launch their surviving nuclear warheads.

Nor is Lewis convinced that China’s military policies are characterized by restraint. “The notion that China only acts in self defense is wrong,” he tells Danger Room. “Their whole war plan is aimed at attacking Taiwan.”

That said, even Lewis thinks China’s missile ambiguity is unlikely to result in a nuclear exchange. (In fact, he emphasizes that the Chinese government actually encouraged him to write his piece — as a gesture of transparency.) And other experts agree that the Chinese missile move is merely stupid, not suicidal.

Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons analyst at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies, says the de facto presumption in the case of a missile launch is that China isn’t going nuclear. The People’s Republic has a declared no-first-use policy; China isn’t going to nuke, say, Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

And James Dobbins, a former U.S. ambassador to a host of conflict zones, thinks the U.S. isn’t buckwild enough to go nuclear over a confusing missile launch. “I don’t believe the U.S. would launch a nuclear strike on warning in response to a Chinese ballistic attack on U.S. or allied targets,” Dobbins tells Danger Room.

So why would China group its nuclear and conventional missiles together? Experts largely agree that the decision was a logistical one and “practical, not rational,” says Monterrey’s Jeffrey Lewis. Another theory: the Chinese think launching a conventional weapon from a nuclear base would prevent a counterattack, since an adversary is unlikely to take the risk of bombing a nuclear weapons base.

There’s also another possibility: a lumbering, dumb bureaucracy keeps the missiles group together out of inertia. The Chinese may make bad missile decisions. But under that theory, at least their reasons for those bad decisions will be familiar to the Pentagon.