China now understands what a nuclear rivalry looks like
China now understands what a nuclear rivalry looks like

China now understands what a nuclear rivalry looks like

The prospect of nuclear war is not getting much attention these days outside of think tanks, intelligence services and generals. The world’s Cold War nuclear nightmare disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago. The notion that anyone could use them in a competition for mutual destruction seems like a relic of the Cuban missile crisis – a dark memory of a bygone era.

But the danger persists, not only because of the current confrontation with Russia over the fate of Ukraine. China, an old but relatively small player in the nuclear game, seems to be increasing the size of its arsenal significantly. The U.S. Department of Defense, in its latest assessment of China’s military capabilities, predicts that by 2030, the Chinese will have roughly tripled their current stockpile of nuclear warheads to 1,000. Perhaps no other single statistic with such sharp clarity shows how drastically and fundamentally the relationship between the United States and China is deteriorating, and how much this trend can jeopardize American national security and global peace. Throughout its nuclear history – dating back to the 1960s – China has been content with a relatively modest arsenal. Federation of American Scientists discretion that China has 350 nuclear warheads, a small size compared to Russia’s 6,257 and the United States’ 5,600. The uncharacteristic structure shows that China’s strategic policy is changing.

This does not mean that Beijing is preparing to use nuclear weapons. The Chinese leadership has not made its final intentions clear. Official Beijing Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied make any significant expansion of its nuclear weapons.

Much more clearly are the potential dangers at China’s nuclear hub. New nuclear weapons could add power to Beijing’s foreign policy, which is becoming more aggressive, and affect how Washington responds. They could trigger a regional nuclear arms race when countries that have stony relations with China, especially India, improve their own arsenal. The Chinese expansion also increases the risk that a conventional war (e.g. over Taiwan) will escalate into a nuclear conflict. And globally, China’s build-up could accelerate a descent into disorderly superpower competition last seen before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Half a century of American foreign policy was designed to avoid this very outcome. The primary purpose of President Richard Nixon’s Beijing meeting in 1972 with Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, was to draw communist China into US circles and reinforce its ugly schism with the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, the fall of the Soviets and China’s capitalist rise seemed to justify this approach – perhaps even heralding the ultimate triumph of American democracy over authoritarian threats and heralding a “flat”, prosperous world.

Unfortunately, 2022 is set to be a rewrite of the Cold War with an unhappy ending. The conflicting shift in China’s overall stance, combined with President Xi Jinping’s apparent willingness to resist Russia’s persistent aggression in Europe, could place the United States in exactly the predicament it avoided decades ago: a standoff with a brand of nuclear-armed authoritarian states that is set to. roll back American power. As Beijing’s relations with Washington have deteriorated, those with Moscow are undoubtedly friendlier than they have been since the 1950s. As if to make up for a lost opportunity for the Cold War, the two dictatorships support each other in their attacks on the American-led world order.

The United States may not be prepared to face this dual threat. “This is truly an unprecedented challenge, the threat of two peers or almost equal nuclear power rivals,” said Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. “We have always been able to build a nuclear force to deal with the Soviet Union and later Russia, and then China, North Korea and Iran were minor cases.” Thus, China’s construction raises “really fundamental questions for the United States’ nuclear strategy.”

Comparisons from the Cold War to understand the relationship between the United States and China today are typically misplaced. But perhaps less so when it comes to nuclear weapons. The two sides may be doing what the United States and the Soviet Union did in the early stages of the Cold War: storming a nuclear confrontation without a safety net. “In the old Cold War calendar, it’s like 1960s,” said John Culver, a retired CIA analyst who once served as the top expert on the American intelligence community in East Asia. “Both sides are preparing for strategic competition, but at least for the United States, a coherent strategy has not yet emerged. At some point there will be a bilateral crisis between us and China, and at that time we will both stare into the abyss, just as the Cuban missile crisis forced both sides to decide the parameters of dialogue. Or fail to achieve a dialogue and risk a steep escalation and possible war between two nuclear powers. “

Beijing’s nuclear ambitions will prompt accusations in Washington. Has American naivety helped the enemy that the United States had sought to deter? Yet Beijing’s nuclear strategy shift may be a product less of American decisions than of Xi’s unprecedented efforts to strengthen China’s power and prepare the country for a new era of superpower competition.

The big question is: Why now? Xi is likely to react to what he sees as a more dangerous United States. The build-up is “probably because Beijing now assesses that there is a high risk that they could fight a war with the United States,” Culver said. “They have seen the path of the bilateral relationship and they have decided that there is now a need for large nuclear deterrent capabilities.”

Yet Beijing’s nuclear expansion cannot be seen apart from Xi’s broader agenda to project Chinese power into his region and beyond – whether economic, technological, diplomatic or ideological. “Xi has decided The time to bite our time and hide our abilities is over. It’s time for the next partysaid Kroenig. China’s People’s Liberation Army “will become a world-class military, and to do that you must have a world-class nuclear force.”

China’s nuclear structure may not immediately change certain dynamics in the current strategic situation. The United States will still have far more warheads. And China is already capable of hitting the American heartland.

Measuring the threat depends in part on predicting Xi’s purpose. He may be striving to achieve a closer balance with the United States in the hope of achieving greater deterrence – in other words, the kind of nuclear stalemate that prevailed during the Cold War. Xi may also be preparing China for a potential US attack. By improving intercontinental capabilities, “Xi ensures that China can withstand a first US attack and infiltrate US missile defenses with the surviving Chinese nuclear weapons,” James Acton, co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s nuclear policy program , told me. He described that aspect of the structure as a “defensive modernization” that would not change the status quo.

Still, we can not rule out that Xi has more sinister intentions. Unlike the United States, China declares as an official policy that in any conflict it will not use nuclear weapons first. Perhaps Xi intends to maintain this commitment. But the hundreds of missile silos that the Pentagon says China is building are not necessarily the best investments for a purely defensive strategy. These fixed locations can easily be targeted and destroyed by U.S. missiles, and are thus “not weapons you build if you were really worried about a U.S. first attack,” Kroenig said. These capabilities make more sense, he said, if China intends to have a “superpower force.”

For now, however, the biggest impact of Xi’s nuclear build-up may be on Asia, where Beijing’s foreign policy interests are most concentrated. Instead of an intercontinental nuclear weapons party, Beijing may be more willing to use nuclear weapons in a local conflict – for example, by dropping one at a U.S. military base in Japan. “I think China’s development of its regional forces is much more worrying to me and potentially offensively oriented,” Acton said. “I think China wants opportunities to fight a limited nuclear war, which is a new element of its strategy.”

Aside from that, simply possessing a more muscular nuclear arsenal can help Beijing advance its foreign policy goals by limiting how the United States and its allies respond to Chinese actions toward Taiwan or elsewhere in the region. “In the past, the United States has been able to do what it wanted out there, and the Chinese really could not do anything about it,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “Not anymore.”

In the long run, China’s construction may cause its neighbors to react in kind. U.S. allies protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, such as Japan and South Korea, could pressure Washington to develop and deploy regional nuclear capabilities to counter China. Or worse, they could build their own. India, which also has a controversial relationship with China, may at some point decide to expand its small nuclear arsenal.

Clearly, Washington needs a new strategy. Experts say simply building more nuclear weapons is not the answer – or perhaps even necessary in response to China’s expansion alone. Scowcroft Centers Kroenig, in a recent paper, stressed that the United States “must maintain a favorable balance of power over China at every step of the escalation ladder” as a continuing deterrent to Chinese military action. That, Kroenig suggested, could require the United States to increase its capabilities to combat a limited regional nuclear conflict in Asia – an area where China now has an advantage.

Perhaps the most urgent need is to get the two sides talking. Unlike Washington, Beijing has no history of accepting restrictions on its nuclear weapons and has been avoid negotiations. But the two countries are talking about talking. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that Xi and President Joe Biden at their virtual summit in November agreed to “look to start continuing the discussion on strategic stability” – hardly a firm commitment.

But even if the negotiations do not achieve much in the short term, they may eventually develop into arms control negotiations that can stabilize the nuclear threat that occurred during the Cold War. “We need to think about dealing with a potentially catastrophic situation and using not only the military, but all the tools of the civil service, especially more diplomacy to rebuild a strategic dialogue and put up some crash barriers,” said Culver, the former CIA analyst. “In a crisis, we will have to rebuild all the dialogue we used to take for granted from scratch at the worst possible time.”

But the Cold War has another lesson – that avoiding nuclear conflict requires not only stable diplomacy but also a clear strategy. The United States is already a major nuclear power; the trick is to convince both its opponents and allies that it will continue to defend its interests whatever it takes. “If China uses nuclear weapons, it will be because it doubts the determination of the United States, not the capacity of the United States,” Acton said. Struggling with a nuclear China is as much a matter of will as it is of arms.

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