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China’s Nuclear Adventurism: Threats And Deterrence Strategy – OpEd

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According to a Pentagon analysis released in early November last year, China is rapidly expanding its nuclear forces and is creating a massive, varied, and more sophisticated nuclear arsenal. China also tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic space missile this summer, as stated in the report. China’s desire to expand and strengthen its nuclear arsenal however is not surprising as their long-term policy under President Xi Jinping is to establish a “world-class military” by the middle of this century.

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China has launched a far more assertive foreign policy under Xi, which looks to be focused on disrupting, if not outright replacing, the US-led, rules-based international system. According to the US Intelligence Community’s most recent Annual Threat Assessment, China poses a severe threat to the national security of the US and its allies and partners in the economic, technical, political, diplomatic, and military domains.

Perhaps China’s military threat is the greatest of all. For decades, Beijing has studied the US’s war strategy and developed a military strategy and capabilities aimed at preventing it from projecting military might into the Indo-Pacific. China has spent its economic gains on new military capabilities, and its accelerated military expansion has changed the Indo-Pacific power balance, prompting many defense analysts to doubt if the US can still safeguard longtime allies and partners in the area.

Only a few years ago, experts considered China’s nuclear threat to be the least serious of the three nuclear-armed enemies the US faces. For years, US defense officials have been concerned that China will try to “race to parity.” China, on the other hand, has made considerable advances in its nuclear capabilities during the previous several decades. Despite having a significantly smaller and less advanced arsenal than the US or Russia, the Pentagon currently estimates that China might have up to 700 deployable warheads by 2027 and is likely aiming for at least 1,000 by 2030.

The buildup of China’s strategic forces jeopardizes the US military and its deterrence aims, including preserving an advantageous power balance in the Indo-Pacific, and the goals of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) including deterring nuclear and non-nuclear strategic assault and ensuring allies.

Furthermore, China’s nuclear development means that the US will have to cope with two great powers (Russia and China), both with a considerable nuclear arsenal, for the first time in its history. When China had a modest nuclear stockpile, the US could build a nuclear strategy and stance targeted toward Russia, and China could be seen as a less important issue. If the United States and Russia are in a crisis or conflict, China may be more inclined to launch a simultaneous strategic strike against the US and its allies. Beijing may believe that the US has the competence or determination to deal with two great-power military challenges at the same time.

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An expanding nuclear arsenal might also bolster Chinese determination, making it more eager to create and escalate conflicts against the US and its allies, perhaps increasing the possibility of nuclear war. China’s developing nuclear arsenal may act as a deterrent to conventional attack. Beijing may assume (correctly or incorrectly) that it has a free hand to launch an armed strike against US regional allies because it can obtain a local, conventional advantage and threaten the US with nuclear weapons to dissuade intervention or escalation. There would be an obvious danger of nuclear escalation in the case of such a confrontation.

A prospective Chinese attack on Taiwan is one of the top worries for US military strategists. Beijing regards the island as a wayward province and has not ruled out using force to reintegrate it into China’s mainland. Given the island’s proximity to mainland China (approximately 100 miles), it may be difficult for the US military to either forestall an invasion or free the island following a Chinese capture.

Allies may not feel secure if they perceive the United States’ growing susceptibility to a Chinese strategic strike will erode Washington’s commitment. This might have serious implications for US strategy in the area, including the possibility of US allies developing their own nuclear arsenals, undermining the global non-proliferation framework. Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei all have the industrial potential to produce nuclear weapons if they so choose.

Furthermore, China’s nuclear expansion will put further pressure on the US nuclear arsenal’s capacity. For years, the US has maintained a counterforce targeting strategy that necessitates the capability to cover the nuclear-related targets of its major nuclear-armed enemies. As a result, Washington needs a nuclear program capable of simultaneously deterring Russia, China, and North Korea.

Due to China’s rapid development of conventional and nuclear military capabilities, as well as growing doubts about the US’ extended deterrent pledges among Indo-Pacific allies and partners, the US should examine new steps to strengthen deterrence.

Substantial advances to the US force posture across the Indo-Pacific region, as well as increased investments in conventional capabilities, would bolster the US’ power to block a Chinese fait accompli, signaling a shift in regional conventional strategy from deterring through punitive actions to deterring through denial. As a result, the US should strive to have a quantitative and qualitative military superiority at every step of the escalation ladder, from conventional to strategic nuclear, so that Beijing does not feel it can gain an advantage by escalating a military war.

Thus, the US should think about making major adjustments to how it reassures its Indo-Pacific partners. While some have suggested simply adopting NATO’s approach, Washington and its partners require a structure that takes into account the region’s unique history, politics, and security factors. With this in mind, the US should convene Australia, Japan, and South Korea at the secretary-level to analyze regional security trends and consider alternatives for increasing deterrence.

Lastly but not least importantly, China regarded the US and its allies tied up in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran’s nuclear deal as a strategic opportunity to expand its nuclear arsenal. As President Biden has argued, withdrawal from Afghanistan would allow the US to focus more on China. Withdrawing from Iraq and arresting Iran’s nuclear progress through JCPOA can help the United States sharply focus on China and neutralize its destabilizing activities in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere.

It will not be easy to carry out these proposals, but the repercussions of failing to deter a Chinese strategic strike might be disastrous. To avoid a possibly catastrophic deterrence failure, the US and its allies must act immediately.

*Peter Rodgers is an international relations graduate of Penn State University.

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