The Relationship between Nuclear Weapons and Conventional Military Conflicts

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

The Relationship between Nuclear Weapons and Conventional Military Conflicts


Chong, Liu, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports


China has long pursued a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, and it has unique views on nuclear weapons and nuclear war. This unusual approach also holds true for China's views on the relationship between nuclear weapons and conventional conflict, which run counter to the conventional Western views, as exemplified by the stability-instability paradox. The stability-instability paradox is a simplified theory used to study the relationship between nuclear weapons and conventional conflicts. It does not consider major factors such as structural interdependence or changes in the international power structure, so it is not suitable for explaining the prevention, management, and control of low-intensity conflicts between China and the United States.

The possibility of an outbreak of military conflict or a proxy war between China and the United States is far smaller today than it was between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, if U.S.-China conventional crisis management mechanisms were to fail and a crisis were to escalate into a conventional war, the nonmilitary factors holding a conflict in check would be weaker than they were before the war, and the stability-instability paradox would be more applicable. At some point, if the damage inflicted on the United States in a conventional war were to approach the scale of damage that a Chinese nuclear second strike could cause, the United States could be even more inclined to use nuclear blackmail in an effort to force China to compromise or even to scale up the conflict, because U.S. nuclear forces have an asymmetric advantage. Such U.S. actions, in turn, would cause the crisis to spiral out of control.

Under the framework of a new type of great-power relations, the two countries should continuously strengthen confidence-building measures and crisis management mechanisms, which would allow them to resolve any crisis promptly. In addition, the United States should earnestly reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy and reach a consensus with China on a mutual policy of no first use of nuclear weapons as well as a shared pledge not to attack the other party's nuclear weapons. Based on this consensus, both countries should also explore specific measures to prevent conflicts and accidents from escalating into nuclear crises.

CHINA'S VIEWS ON NUCLEAR WAR

China's nuclear strategy has unique and profound analytical and philosophical roots, which have caused the country to view issues such as nuclear weapons, nuclear war, and conflict escalation rather differently than the West does. For the past decade or more, Chinese scholars have conducted quite a lot of research on Mao Zedong's thinking on nuclear strategy. Their discussion and analysis of Mao's nuclear thinking from different perspectives provide a clear portrayal of his wisdom while also reflecting the philosophical underpinnings of China's nuclear strategy.1

On the whole, China has had two incentives for developing nuclear weapons: countering nuclear blackmail, and decoupling nuclear weapons from the conventional military domain. These points are intertwined. Countering nuclear blackmail was the original motivation for China's development of nuclear weapons, as well as the fundamental driving force for its nuclear modernization. The doctrine of decoupling nuclear weapons from conventional conflicts holds that nuclear weapons do not possess actual combat value, that conventional wars and nuclear wars are not necessarily linked, and that wars should be fought with conventional weapons. Mao's many discussions and speeches fully reflect this judgment. Deng Xiaoping and other leaders inherited this thinking, and it has been consistently reflected in important Chinese government documents.

Before China possessed nuclear weapons, it faced enormous pressure from nuclear blackmail. For this reason, Mao Zedong emphasized that nuclear weapons are not scary and put forward the famous thesis that atomic bombs are paper tigers. …

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