Superiority Complex

Why America’s growing nuclear supremacy may make war with China more likely
Strategic Implications of the Nuclear Imbalance

The most plausible flash point for a serious U.S.-China conflict is Taiwan. Suppose Taiwan declared independence. China has repeatedly warned that such a move would provoke an attack, probably a major air and naval campaign to shatter Taiwan’s defenses and leave the island vulnerable to conquest. If the United States decided to defend Taiwan, American forces would likely thwart China’s offensive, since aerial and naval warfare are strengths of the U.S. military. But looming defeat would place great pressure on China’s leaders. Losing the war might mean permanently losing Taiwan. This would undermine the domestic legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, which increasingly relies on the appeal of nationalism to justify its rule. A crippling defeat would also strain relations between political leaders in Beijing and the Chinese military. To stave off a regime-threatening disaster, the political leaders might decide to raise the stakes by placing part of the Chinese nuclear force on alert in hopes of coercing the United States into accepting a negotiated solution (for example, a return to Taiwan’s pre-declaration status).

By putting its nuclear forces on alert, however, China’s leaders would compel a U.S. president to make a very difficult decision: to accede to blackmail (by agreeing to a cease-fire and pressuring the Taiwanese to renounce independence), to assume that the threat is a bluff (a dangerous proposition, given that each Chinese ICBM carries a city-busting 4,000-kiloton warhead), or to strike the Chinese missiles before they could be launched.

How do America’s growing counterforce capabilities affect this scenario? First, American nuclear primacy may prevent such a war in the first place. China’s leaders understand that their military now has little hope of defeating U.S. air and naval forces. If they also recognize that their nuclear arsenal is vulnerable—and that placing it on alert might trigger a preemptive strike—the leaders may conclude that war is a no-win proposition.

Second, if a war over Taiwan started anyway, U.S. nuclear primacy might help contain the fighting at the conventional level. Early in the crisis, Washington could quietly convey to Beijing that the United States would act decisively if China put its vulnerable nuclear arsenal on alert.

Finally, if China threatened to launch nuclear attacks against America’s allies, its territory, or its forces in Asia, nuclear primacy would make a preemptive first strike more palatable to U.S. leaders. Any decision to attack China’s ICBM force, though, would be fraught with danger. A missile silo might have escaped detection. Furthermore, a strike on China’s 18 ICBMs would leave Beijing with roughly 60 shorter-range nuclear missiles with which to retaliate against U.S. forces and allies in the region. However, in the aftermath of a “clean” disarming strike—one that killed relatively few Chinese—American leaders could credibly warn that a Chinese nuclear response would trigger truly devastating consequences, meaning nuclear attacks against a broader target set, including military, government, and possibly even urban centers. In light of warnings from Chinese defense analysts and from within China’s military that it might use nuclear weapons to avoid losing Taiwan, an American president might feel compelled to strike first. In this terrible circumstance, he or she would reap the benefits of the past decade’s counterforce upgrades.

But America’s growing counterforce strength is a double- edged sword. To date, China’s nuclear modernization has progressed very slowly. Beijing is working to deploy new mobile ICBMs and ballistic-missile submarines, but U.S. estimates of when these systems will become operational have repeatedly been pushed back. However, as China’s role in the world changes, and especially as its leaders come to appreciate American counterforce capabilities, Beijing will face increasing pressure to accelerate and expand these programs—and it may already be doing so. Because America has spent decades honing its antisubmarine- warfare skills and technology, a few new Chinese nuclear-armed submarines wouldn’t substantially reduce Beijing’s vulnerability. A more attractive path would be to deploy hundreds of new mobile missiles. Of course, U.S. officials would likely view deployment of these missiles as a sign of growing bellicosity—and, amid worsening relations, would undertake additional military preparations.

Furthermore, American efforts to permanently secure nuclear primacy might encourage what defense experts call “crisis instability” and increase the chance of an inadvertent escalation. If China doesn’t redress its nuclear vulnerability in peacetime, it may feel great pressure to do so during a brewing crisis or conventional war—simply to protect its forces. But a Chinese decision to arm a portion of its ICBM force, or to disperse its shorter-range mobile nuclear missiles, might be misinterpreted by the U.S. as nuclear blackmail or preparation for a nuclear attack (for example, on American military bases in Asia). Such a step could trigger the preemptive attack that the Chinese action was meant to forestall.

The greatest dangers of nuclear escalation, however, would arise during a conventional military confrontation between the U.S. and China. Contemporary American military doctrine is designed to rattle and confuse an adversary by degrading and overwhelming its command apparatus. Since at least 1991, a high priority in U.S. air campaigns has been to deny the enemy “situational awareness” by targeting its electricity supply, communications infrastructure, radar sites, and military-command bunkers. This may help win conventional battles, but it’s counterproductive if the goal is to prevent nuclear escalation. Glimpsing only a confused picture of the battlefield, and knowing that their radar coverage has been heavily damaged, Chinese leaders would feel tremendous pressure to put their nuclear forces on alert, especially those that can be dispersed (that is, their medium-range mobile missiles). These steps could trigger a U.S. escalation.

The previous period of American nuclear primacy—the 1950s and early 1960s—illustrates some of the strategic implications of such preeminence. The United States was able to force the Soviet Union to concede during a series of crises over Berlin from 1958 to 1961. At the peak of the 1961 Berlin crisis, President Kennedy carefully explored launching a surprise nuclear attack to disarm Soviet forces. Soviet leaders, although unaware of these deliberations, knew that any escalation was a losing proposition for them, and they backed down.

Also telling is the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The U.S. strategic nuclear advantage helps explain why the Soviet Union sought to place missiles in Cuba in the first place: The Soviets had very few missiles that were capable of reaching American cities. But U.S. nuclear primacy—albeit eroding by 1962—also contributed to the Soviet decision to withdraw the missiles, because Khrushchev believed the United States was prepared to launch a major war, including massive nuclear strikes, against the Soviet Union.

America’s nuclear primacy over China likely will have similarly beneficial and dangerous consequences. Optimists might find solace in the argument that nuclear primacy is irrelevant. Perhaps China’s leaders will feel no pressure to build new arms in peacetime or to escalate in wartime, because they believe the United States would never risk launching a counterforce strike. According to this view, the mere possibility that a disarming strike could fail—for example, because of faulty U.S. intelligence about Chinese targets—is more than enough to deter U.S. leaders. Chinese leaders have been satisfied with a small nuclear arsenal for decades precisely because they’re convinced that no sane leader in Washington (or Moscow) would risk losing a city over a foreign territorial dispute. China can therefore continue to stand pat. If Beijing doesn’t put its nuclear forces on alert during a crisis, U.S. leaders won’t be tempted to escalate.

One problem with this argument is that it underestimates the importance that the Chinese have always placed on the survivability of their nuclear arsenal. During the Cold War, China configured its small arsenal to survive a disarming strike from its likeliest adversary—the Soviet Union. China deployed medium-range missiles, capable of reaching Russia, on mobile launchers and hid others in caves. As Chinese leaders recognize that the United States is developing ever-more-discriminating nuclear and conventional options, they will feel great pressure to enlarge and protect their forces. The optimists’ argument also ignores the prospect that Chinese leaders may rationally choose to put their arsenal on alert during a crisis—and inadvertently trigger an escalation. The Taiwan situation poses a fundamental danger: The balance of power favors Washington, but the balance of interests favors Beijing. Just as the United States hopes that its military dominance will deter China from attacking Taiwan—or at least deter China from escalating to the nuclear level during a war—China might reasonably assume that its dedication to preventing the breakup of what it sees as the Chinese homeland will ultimately compel the United States to back down.

Finally, the notion that the United States would never consider a disarming attack because of the risk of failure underestimates the power of fear during a crisis. Facing 18 alerted Chinese ICBMs, U.S. leaders may take actions that seemed too risky to contemplate during peacetime. A war game is not war, of course, and it is impossible to know how a nuclear standoff, over Taiwan or any other flash point, would unfold in real life. It is equally hard to know what China’s leaders—the current ones or their successors—will decide about their deterrent posture. But it would be a big mistake to assume that China will be satisfied with a small arsenal. As China becomes a true great power and adopts a broader set of global interests, and as U.S. military preparations—conventional and nuclear—focus increasingly on China, leaders in Beijing will likely grow more and more uncomfortable living in the shadow of American nuclear primacy.

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