The Risk of Nuclear War with China

September 20, 2012
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie exchange pleasantries in Beijing.

Last week two separate studies warned that China and the United States are pursuing military strategies and implementing defense policies that could lead to a nuclear war.

John Lewis and Xue Litai of Stanford University concluded a detailed exposition of China’s nuclear war plans with a very sober warning.

“Both sides, clinging to incongruous assessments, run the risk of provoking unanticipated escalation to nuclear war by seeking a quick victory or tactical advantages in a conventional conflict. This dilemma is not only real, but perilous.”

Thomas Christensen of Princeton expressed concern about the same problem; the possibility that a conventional military conflict between the United States and China could end in a nuclear exchange.

“For example, if strikes by the United States on China’s conventional coercive capabilities or their critical command and control nodes and supporting infrastructure were to appear in Beijing as a conventional attack on its nuclear retaliatory capability or as a precursor to a nuclear first strike, even a China that generally adheres to a No-First-Use posture might escalate to the nuclear level.” 

Neither study suggests that the military or political leadership of China or the United States intends to resort to nuclear weapons in the event of a military conflict. China’s commitment not to be the first to use nuclear weapons “at any time under any circumstances” is drilled into the officers and soldiers of China’s strategic missile forces. A classified text used to train those forces, The Science of Second Artillery Operations, unambiguously instructs,

“In accord with our national principle not to be the first to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances, the Second Artillery’s strategic nuclear forces can carry out a retaliatory nuclear attack against the enemy, following the command of the ‘high leadership,’ only after the enemy has first attacked us with nuclear weapons.”

Although the United States is unwilling to make a similar commitment, U.S. superiority in conventional weapons and overall military capabilities makes it unlikely the United States would consider using nuclear weapons for any purpose other than preventing a Chinese nuclear attack on the United States. The most recent U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, in an effort to deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy, declared that the “fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons…is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States, our allies and partners.”

The risk of a nuclear war with China lies in the potential for misunderstanding or miscommunication during a conventional conflict. China’s current strategy for employing its conventional and nuclear missile forces during a future conflict with the United States is self-consciously designed to create uncertainty, with the expectation that uncertainty will restrain U.S. military action. Unfortunately, China’s strategy could also precipitate a large-scale U.S. attack on China’s missile forces.

There are several Chinese military policies that might confuse U.S. decision-makers in a time of war. Some Chinese conventional missiles are located on the same missile bases as Chinese nuclear missiles. Some Chinese missiles, particularly the DF-21, can be armed with either a conventional or a nuclear warhead. Chinese conventional war plans call for long-range “strategic” conventional missile strikes at key enemy targets, including U.S. military bases on allied soil and the continental United States.

If this were not confusing enough already, the Science of Second Artillery Operations contains a section on “lowering the nuclear threshold” that details procedures for alerting China’s nuclear forces in a crisis for the express purpose of forcing a halt to an enemy’s conventional attacks on a select group of targets, such as Chinese nuclear power plants, large dams and civilian population centers. Although the Science of Second Artillery Operations unambiguously states that if alerting China’s nuclear missile forces fails to halt conventional enemy attacks China will hold firm to its “no first use” commitment, U.S. decision-makers might not believe it. Indeed, U.S. interlocutors have repeatedly told their Chinese counterparts that they do not find China’s “no first use” pledge credible.

The combination of these factors makes a nuclear exchange between the United States and China not only plausible, but also probable if the two countries were to become embroiled in a military conflict. As Lewis and Xue explain,

“If, in a time of high tension, the Chinese command authorized a conventional missile attack as an act of preemptive self-defense, the enemy and its allies could not know if the incoming missiles were conventional or nuclear. In a worst-case scenario, a Chinese first-strike conventional attack could spark retaliation that destroys Chinese nuclear assets, creating a situation in which escalation to full-scale nuclear war would not just be possible, but even likely.”

The Obama administration is “rebalancing” U.S. military forces in response to perceived relative increases in Chinese military capabilities. China sees this so-called “pivot” to Asia, especially when pared with new U.S. military strategies such as “Air-Sea Battle,” as a policy of containment. Both sides downplay the risks of conflict, but they also see each other as potential adversaries, and are hedging their diplomatic bets with expensive investments in new military hardware, including new technologies that will expand the conflict into cyberspace and outer space.  Territorial disputes between China and U.S. allies, rising nationalist sentiment in the region, and the potential for domestic political instability within China could produce any number of casussen belli that could trigger the conventional conflict that carries the risk of ending in a nuclear war.

It is disturbing, therefore, that both the United States and China have failed to find a productive way to discuss the risks of nuclear war, much less begin to take steps to mitigate those risks. The Chinese government appears trapped in a psychology of political and military insecurity that fosters a strategic dependency on secrecy and deception as its “trump card” in a potential conflict with the United States. The U.S. government, as Jeffrey Lewis points out in a recent essay in Foreign Policy, is held captive by “the illusion of the winning move” that “holds out the prospect of fighting and winning a nuclear war against China.” U.S. unwillingness to admit it is vulnerable to a Chinese nuclear attack is driving a slow motion arms race, reminiscent of the Cold War, where each new U.S. effort to find the winning move is checked by the latest Chinese advance in military technology.

On the edges of the official competition, misanthropes in both nations spread sensational and frightening disinformation that poisons public discussion, making steps towards dialog and cooperation more difficult for political leaders to take.  In the face of growing strategic distrust, neither government seems willing to accept the risks for peace that are necessary to minimize the risks of war, which, while still small, continue to grow.