Deterrence with China: Avoiding Nuclear Miscalculation

By Forman, David S. | Joint Force Quarterly, October 2014 | Go to article overview

Deterrence with China: Avoiding Nuclear Miscalculation


Forman, David S., Joint Force Quarterly


The record reveals that defense planners have not been particularly successful in predicting the future. The U.S. has suffered a significant strategic surprise once a decade since 1940: Pearl Harbor, the North Korean invasion of South Korea, the Soviet H-bomb test, the Soviet reaction to the Arab-Israeli War of1973, the fall of the Shah of Iran, the collapse of the Soviet Union and, most recently, 9/11.

--MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS

As China rises and the United States seeks to maintain its global dominance, the world is faced with a new historical phenomenon: a dramatic shift in power between two nuclear-capable nations. As the relative power of each nation nears parity, tension is inevitable and the character of the evolving Sino-U.S. relationship poses a risk of nuclear miscalculation. Commander David S. Forman, USN, wrote this essay while a student at the National War College. It won the 2014 Secretary of Defense National Security Essay Competition. Nuclear use between China and the United States would be a catastrophe, but China is an independent actor, and the United States can only influence, but not control, the crossing of the nuclear threshold. If U.S. policymakers neglect this risk, miscalculation is more likely.

This article analyzes nuclear deterrence principles with China across the spectrum of peacetime, conventional crisis or conflict, and nuclear war. If the United States finds itself in a crisis or conflict with China, it would be important to know how the United States achieved deterrence in peacetime as well as how deterrence might be regained if a crisis deteriorates to the point of involving nuclear weapons. The article then makes recommendations on how to enhance nuclear deterrence. By assessing the full spectrum of potential conflict in this manner, the United States can lower the risk of miscalculation.

Nuclear weapons have helped prevent conflict between world powers on anything close to the scale of another world war, (1) but nuclear deterrence toward China is different. Pivotal factors that allowed deterrence to be effective in the past do not project to the future of the Sino-U.S. relationship for two main reasons: the relative growth of China within the relationship, and the fluid maritime relationship between the United States and China, which affects how a conflict might begin and therefore how nuclear deterrence could be implemented.

Though 20th-century China developed in a world largely influenced by the United States, China is now in a position to influence the world toward its own interests. (2) China's growth from a considerably closed society in 1972 to a global near-peer to the United States today is a fundamental difference from the Soviet-U.S. relationship. The history of the nuclear age has yet to see a significantly weaker nuclear power eclipse a dominant nuclear power.

The second factor that distinguishes the Sino-U.S. relationship is its maritime nature, and military tensions at sea differ greatly from tensions on land. Naval assets are continually in motion, and there is no equivalent to trench warfare or prolonged stalemates in the air or on the sea. Also, as evidenced by North Korea's suspected sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010, (3) the sea sometimes offers a sense of plausible deniability that leads to aggression that would not occur on land.

China's nuclear arsenal is estimated to be small in comparison to that of the United States, but it is growing. (4) Without official reports from China, U.S. estimates are susceptible to large errors, but analysts assess that China holds between 175 and 250 nuclear warheads. (5) China has demonstrated land and air launch capabilities, and reliable submarine launch capability is expected in 2014 or 2015.6 Some of China's missiles are already capable of reaching portions of the United States, and fielding capable ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) will only improve their capability. …

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