BOOK REVIEW: Nuclear Minimalism

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BOOK REVIEW: Nuclear Minimalism The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China's Search for security in the Nuclear Age By Jeffrey G. Lewis MIT Press, March 2007, 200 pp.

China has always been something of a footnote for the U.S. expert community interested in nuclear weapons issues, and nuclear issues have always been something of a footnote for the U.S. expert community interested in China. The result is a gap in our understanding of the past, present, and future of China's nuclear forces. Since the publication two decades ago of the path-breaking historical review China Builds the Bomb by John Lewis and Xue Litae, there has been only a trickle of new historical and analytical material. This relative paucity of analysis contrasts sharply with the importance of the issues at stake. The choices China makes about its nuclear future will have wide-ranging implications in Asia and beyond, as will the choices others make about their nuclear relationship with China.

Jeffrey Lewis's new book, The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China's Search for security in the Nuclear Age, is thus an important addition on a significant topic It is based on detailed analysis and fleldwork conducted for a doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland. Lewis observes that China's search for security in the nuclear age has been poorly understood by outsiders, an observation validated every time an American speaks about China as "that country with 20 nuclear weapons" (20 is the number of warheads understood to be deliverable on the United States by long-range missiles, whereas the actual number of nuclear warheads in China's possession is larger by a factor of 10 or more-a topic about which there is great uncertainty and no Chinese transparency).

Accordingly, Lewis begins with a survey of the evolution of China's nuclear forces over the last four decades and the key strategic concepts that have informed its force planning. He then offers two case studies exploring the thinking of China's leadership on the requirements of strategic stability: China's participation in the Conference on Disarmament and its efforts there to expand prohibitions on the military uses of outer space. He also conjectures about the impact of developments in U.S. nuclear policy and posture on future Chinese force planning. The result is part history and part polemic. Its ultimate value rests on the validity of three core propositions Lewis puts forward.

The first is that China developed nuclear forces with a commitment to "the minimum means of reprisal." Lewis begins his study with a quotation from Marshal Nie Rongzhen, a founding father of China's nuclear program: "My attitude was clear throughout. For more than a century, imperialists had bullied, humiliated, and oppressed China. To put an end to this situation, we had to develop sophisticated weapons such as the guided missile and the atomic bomb, so that we would have the minimum means of reprisal if attacked by the imperialists with nuclear weapons." Lewis goes on to demonstrate the ways in which this commitment to minimalism informed the development of China's military doctrine, force structure, and national nuclear policy.

Of course, this first proposition is not controversial. Lewis's unique contribution is to plumb the case studies to lend credence to the argument that such minimalism is deeply ingrained. He brings home the important point that China's experts do not equate strategic stability with quantitative parity. In their view, the strategic situation is stable when China can resist attempted coercion by outside powers with nuclear weapons, an ability that rests directly on a capacity for limited but certain retaliation for any actual nuclear attack on China. Numbers do not matter, they argue, so long as the number of weapons that might penetrate to an attacker in retaliation is higher than zero.

Lewis's second core proposition is that China's force planners continue to be guided by this principle. …