27 October 2012

The Meaning of the Nuclear Evolution: China’s Strategic Modernization and US-China Security Relations

Thomas J. Christensen, The Meaning of the Nuclear Evolution: China’s Strategic Modernization and US-China Security Relations,” Journal of Strategic Studies 35.4 (August 2012): 447–87.

ABSTRACT Will China’s development of a new generation of nuclear weapons impact US-China security relations in important ways? One’s answer depends on how one views the following: whether or not Chinese leaders believe that they are only now acquiring a secure second strike capability; the scope of coercive power that secure second strike capability provides to conventionally inferior actors; the meaning of China’s ‘No First Use’ Doctrine; and the prospects for escalation control in future crises. Applying Cold War theories and tapping Chinese doctrinal writings this article concludes that China’s nuclear modernization program might prove more consequential than is commonly believed.

KEY WORDS: US-China Relations, Nuclear Strategy, Deterrence Theory, Crisis Management

By modernizing and expanding its nuclear forces, China is developing the ability to strike the United States with dozens more nuclear weapons than it could in the past, putting at risk millions more US citizens. To most observers, this would seem very threatening to US national security, but from the more jaded perspective of certain deterrence theories developed during the Cold War, the change in China’s nuclear posture may not amount to a fundamentally altered strategic challenge to the United States. After all, for three decades, China has had the ability to launch nuclear-tipped missiles at the continental United States, thereby killing millions of Americans. Moreover, the modernized Chinese nuclear force, like its smaller predecessor, will still be too limited in size and capabilities to constitute a threat to the massive US nuclear arsenal. Given the near certainty of US retaliation, China, even with a somewhat larger arsenal, will still have no incentive to launch nuclear weapons against the United States unless Washington were to launch a massive nuclear attack against China, an extremely unlikely event in any case. So, China’s nuclear posture toward the United States now and in the foreseeable future seems to fit nicely with China’s stated nuclear doctrines of ‘minimal deterrence’ and ‘No-First-Use (NFU)’ of nuclear weapons. So, the logic goes, China is merely upgrading its insurance policy against a massive nuclear first strike by the United States without gaining any new political leverage in the process.

Consistent with the view outlined above, the ongoing Chinese nuclear modernization drive indeed appears primarily designed to make China’s arsenal more survivable against a first strike by adding not just numbers, but mobility to China’s retaliatory force (mobile land-based missiles, and submarine launched ballistic missiles). Moreover, by switching from liquid to solid fuel, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reduces its response time in a nuclear crisis, making it harder for the United States or others to disable the Chinese retaliatory capability before it can be launched. This modernization is particularly important to Beijing not only because the United States enjoys massive nuclear superiority over China, but because Chinese strategists believe that advances in US conventional strike weapons and C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities and a growing network of missile defense systems pose new challenges for the survivability of China’s nuclear forces. No longer can Beijing dismiss the possibility of a US conventional first strike against China’s nuclear weapons and/or command and control system.

To the degree that Chinese nuclear modernization merely reduces the attractiveness or a US first strike on China – an unlikely scenario in any event – such modernization might add one additional layer of crisis stability while doing little to affect Washington’s ability to check assertive Chinese behavior toward the United States and its regional allies and partners at lower levels of violence. American optimists can take comfort in the fact that the United States enjoys and should continue to enjoy a high degree of conventional superiority over Chinese forces. Even though the United States has eschewed a No First Use policy of its own, Washington should be able to deter or respond to Chinese conventional challenges without resorting to the use of nuclear weapons. Moreover, some argue, Sino-American coercive diplomacy at the conventional level remains unaffected by China’s new nuclear capabilities because an escalation to the nuclear level in a conventional war is barred not only by Chinese publicly stated doctrines of No-First Use, but, perhaps more important, by China’s own self-interests given the nuclear balance across the Pacific. By maintaining conventional superiority and nuclear superiority, then, the United States should expect no more challenges from the People’s Republic of China after the current nuclear modernization is complete than before it took place.

This article will challenge the wisdom above by drawing on theoretical lessons from Robert Jervis’s path-breaking work on the role of nuclear second strike capability on deterrence during the Cold War. At the heart of this discussion is a key theoretical question that was hotly debated during the Cold War: does a second-strike capability in the hands of a conventionally inferior adversary provide that adversary significant coercive leverage in crises and conflicts at the conventional level. Many theorists at that time, particularly of the more hawkish variety, believed that US strategic nuclear forces were useful mainly or even exclusively as a check on Soviet nuclear attack against the United States and, to a lesser degree, its allies. Scholars such as Albert Wohlstetter and Colin Gray argued that strategic nuclear deterrence, to the degree it existed, was almost hermetically sealed from other levels of violence. So, even if the United States had enough retaliatory capability to prevent Soviet nuclear attack against the United States, the Soviets still could exploit advantages at the conventional level in full knowledge that the United States would be deterred from escalation to the nuclear level. Proponents of this ‘stability-instability’ paradox, a term coined by Glenn Snyder, argued that the United States needed at least parity if not superiority at all levels of violence in order to check the Soviet Union, especially when providing ‘extended deterrence’ to US allies in Europe and elsewhere. They bemoaned the apparent Soviet conventional superiority in Europe, for example, as quite dangerous.

Other theorists, most notably Robert Jervis and Thomas Schelling, used Chicken Games as a metaphor, arguing that once two states obtained a state of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), security relations became more a matter of balance of resolve, than a balance of power. MAD itself is a bit of a misnomer. For the politically relevant dynamics of MAD to exist, neither side needs to be able to decimate the other entirely. All that is necessary is that each side can level ‘unacceptable damage’ against the other, even after absorbing a full-scale first strike. As the leading scholars of nuclear deterrence and coercive diplomacy have long argued, such thresholds of acceptable pain are subjectively determined; the question is not simply how much objective physical destruction the responding country can level in a retaliatory second strike, but whether or not the predicted level of destruction is considered ‘acceptable’ to the target.

Adopting this version of a MAD concept, Jervis in particular argued that a secure second-strike nuclear capability against the Soviets provided the United States with an effective broad spectrum deterrent in Central Europe, to include prevention of aggression at levels far below the strategic nuclear threshold. He asserted that this condition held even when and where the Soviets enjoyed conventional superiority or superiority at the tactical and theater nuclear levels. Jervis employed Schelling’s concept of ‘the threat that leaves something to chance’, arguing that the Soviets could never rest assured that a conventional war would not escalate to the strategic nuclear level. The forward deployment of US conventional forces, tactical nuclear weapons and theater nuclear weapons in Europe, even if smaller in number than their Soviet counterparts, would create an obvious slippery slope toward strategic nuclear war that would prove sufficient to give the Soviets’s pause before they tried to exploit any alleged advantage against the United States and its NATO allies at lower levels of violence. This was particularly true since any Soviet aggression in Europe would be an attempt to alter the recognized status quo, a situation which students of psychology, such as Jervis, believe should strongly favor the defender over the attacker in terms of relative levels of resolve to run risks, fight wars, and pay heavy costs in those wars.

The United States now faces a conventionally inferior potential adversary with nuclear weapons, so the hawkish and dovish logics of the Cold War, somewhat ironically, are turned on their heads in the post-Cold War world. China’s military modernization over the past two decades has produced an array of new conventional capabilities that, for the first time, pose a serious coercive challenge to forward deployed US forces in the Western Pacific. But it is still fair to say that the United States enjoys broad spectrum conventional military superiority over China. So, a contemporary application of the ‘stability-instability paradox’ might suggest that the acquisition or maintenance of a Chinese second strike should prove immaterial to the United States because the United States maintains such conventional superiority and Chinese nuclear retaliatory capabilities can only deter a US nuclear strike against China, not US conventional operations. This is particularly true, if, as Robert Ross has argued, Chinese elites believe in the stability-instability paradox and clear firebreaks between conventional and nuclear conflict.

In other words, and somewhat ironically, a relatively calm reaction to contemporary Chinese nuclear modernization in the United States requires ascribing to the Chinese a relatively hawkish view of Cold War deterrence challenges for the United States vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Ross’s argument is tightly logical but depends on assumptions about Chinese attitudes regarding nuclear deterrence that, as we will see below, may not be valid. In this article, I will call into question any unalloyed optimism about the meaning of China’s evolving nuclear arsenal. The four lines of argumentation relate directly to Jervis’s Cold War theories. Whenever possible, I will support the arguments by referring to newly available doctrinal works in China regarding conventional and nuclear deterrence. …

For some of the articles cited here, see:

Michael Chase, Andrew S. Erickson, and Christopher Yeaw, “Chinese Theater and Strategic Missile Force Modernization and its Implications for the United States,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 32.1 (February 2009): 67-114.

Lyle J. Goldstein and Andrew S. Erickson, eds., China’s Nuclear Force Modernization, Naval War College Newport Paper 22, 2005. 

Andrew S. Erickson and Michael S. Chase, An Undersea Deterrent? China’s Emerging SSBN Force,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 135.4 (June 2009): 36-41.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Ballistic Trajectory—China Develops New Anti-Ship Missile,” China Watch, Jane’s Intelligence Review 22 (4 January 2010): 2-4.

Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, “Using the Land to Control the Sea? Chinese Analysts Consider the Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile,” Naval War College Review, 62.4 (Autumn 2009): 53-86.