China's Nuclear Future

By Erickson, Andrew S. | The China Journal, January 2007 | Go to article overview
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China's Nuclear Future


Erickson, Andrew S., The China Journal


China's Nuclear Future, edited by Paul J. Bolt and Albert S. Willner. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006. x + 221 pp. Aus$88.00/US$52.00 (hardcover).

This edited volume, with contributions from leading experts in the field, assesses the modernization of China's strategic force and suggests that Beijing is in the process of adapting its nuclear posture to a changing strategic environment. In lieu of a traditional conclusion, it weighs future alternatives for China's nuclear force and doctrine and probes the factors that will determine Beijing's ultimate nuclear path. The editors are well qualified for this ambitious task. Paul Bolt, Professor of Political Science at the US Air Force Academy, has taught extensively in China. Colonel Albert Willner has taught at the US Military Academy and is a US Army expert on China.

The book fills an important gap in the existing literature. China Builds the Bomb (1988), by John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, remains the definitive history of China's 20 -century development of nuclear weapons. China's Changing Nuclear Posture (1999), by Ming Zhang, thoroughly documents China's reaction to India and Pakistan's nuclear tests. In The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China's Search for security in the Nuclear Age (2006), Jeffrey Lewis offers a relatively static assessment of China's nuclear arsenal that challenges foreign estimates of its qualitative and quantitative nature. Lewis contends that China's nuclear force is unlikely to change substantially because of durable beliefs on the part of Beijing's leadership concerning the opportunity costs (particularly in centralized control), and the limited marginal utility, of additional nuclear weapons, especially in sophisticated deployment patterns. Bolt and Willner bring these and other important issues together into a single, up-to-date volume. Unlike Lewis, they consider the possibility of change in depth by probing explicitly and systematically the domestic and international factors that could influence China's nuclear posture. This nuanced consideration of multiple possibilities is a wise approach; political science has been notoriously ineffective in offering accurate predictions of the future, especially in situations in which scholars have incomplete access to relevant information.

Four particularly compelling issues emerge from this book. First, continued lack of Chinese transparency concerning nuclear weapons development and policy not only makes this subject challenging for foreign research but may complicate China's own nuclear strategy. Evan Medeiros emphasizes the psychological dimensions of nuclear deterrence as he skillfully deploys Chineselanguage sources to elucidate the evolution of China's nuclear strategy and doctrine. "Chinese military thinkers consistently stress the centrality of using deception to foster ambiguity about China's nuclear capabilities" (p. 57). Medeiros highlights "an explicit tension in Chinese writings ... between maintaining secrecy about capabilities" and "revealing China's will and determination to use nuclear weapons in a crisis" (p. 68).

second, much has been made of Chinese strategic culture and its emphasis on the finely calibrated use of force to achieve favorable changes in the overall strategic situation. In this regard, Christine Cleary reviews the impact of grand strategy, national security interests and strategic culture on Chinese decisionmakers. Placing these factors in a more specific context, Medeiros argues that China's nuclear doctrine emphasizes "sufficiency and effectiveness" (p. 55). In this sense, "relative numbers of nuclear weapons are not central to Chinese military planners.

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