Differences between Chinese and U.S. Nuclear Thinking and Their Origins

By Bin, Li | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports, October 28, 2016 | Go to article overview

Differences between Chinese and U.S. Nuclear Thinking and Their Origins


Bin, Li, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports


In keeping with the pace of China's reform and opening up, Chinese nuclear experts have been gradually stepping onto the international stage and engaging in comprehensive exchanges with their foreign counterparts since the 1980s. However, this process has not always been smooth. Apart from the obstacles presented by international politics, one important impediment in these dialogues has been the difference between China's unique perspective on nuclear issues and the viewpoints of U.S. academic circles, which are representative of dominant international positions. These disparities are not merely the result of differing security environments and levels of military strength in China and the United States; they also reflect differences in basic thinking, because, over many years, each country has developed its own nuclear philosophy in the process of implementing its security policy.

A PARADIGM FOR SECURITY STUDIES

In the United States, the analysis of national security issues tends to follow a basic paradigm, which involves identifying and measuring national security threats.1 These threats are usually made by external enemies that may harm the United States. The magnitude of such security threats can be measured using two indicators: capability and intent. If a foreign country (or a subgroup of foreign nationals) were to have a very strong capability and intent to harm the United States, it would be deemed a major threat; otherwise, it would be considered a minor threat.

Academic or policy analyses of national security threats typically do three things. First, using the example of U.S. missile defense efforts in East Asia, a policy analysis would need to prove that North Korea has missile capabilities that could harm the United States. Second, the analysis would need to show that North Korea has the intent to cause harm to the United States using its missiles, which would imply that North Korea is a serious security threat. Third and finally, such a policy analysis would have to demonstrate how the United States could or could not use missile defense technology to respond to this security threat. According to this logic, during the Cold War the Soviet Union was deemed the primary nuclear threat to the United States. But since the end of the Cold War, nuclear terrorists and those countries that pose a risk of nuclear proliferation have instead become the first-order nuclear threats to the United States, while China and Russia have been relegated to being second-order nuclear threats.2

This kind of research paradigm-which determines national security threats and measures their magnitude based only on capability and intent-is concise, easy to understand, and serviceable. Therefore, it is not only popular in the United States but has also been widely accepted by scholars and students in other countries, including China. Over time, this paradigm has been accepted in many countries as a matter of course and as the only logical choice. Little attention has been paid to the very different security paradigm that exists in China.

China's indigenous, mainstream security paradigm focuses on the study of national security challenges. The national security threats that the United States identifies are usually made by its external enemies, whereas the security challenges on which China usually focuses are particularly dangerous situations that are likely to cause harm to China. Because of the influence of the U.S. security paradigm, Chinese security experts do not reject the term "security threat." Typically, threats and challenges are mentioned in the same breath. For example, in China's white papers on national defense, the expression that is generally used is "security threats and challenges." However, the security challenges that these documents identify are typically situations, as opposed to specific enemies. For instance, in the 2008 white paper, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan were considered a security challenge, because this was a situation that could cause harm to China. …

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