China’s Nuclear Forces and Weapons of Mass Destruction
July 20, 2016
There is no way to assess the exact probability that China or the United States will ever make threats to use nuclear weapons in a regional conflict or escalate to their actual use, but the probability they would even make explicit threats seems extremely low.
A new report by the CSIS Burke Chair entitled “China’s Nuclear Forces and Weapons of Mass Destruction” explores the strength and capability of China’s nuclear weapons, and the steadily greater role they play in giving China strategic leverage and defining its role as a world power. The new report is available on the CSIS website at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160720_China_Nuclear_Weapons_Report.pdf.
In the case of China and the United States, each side’s nuclear weapons already have an important deterrent impact in restraining the other’s behavior without overt threats, and continued nuclear modernization and the relative size of each side’s force sends all the signals China or the U.S. needs as to the other side’s power. Both nations must also take account of the fact that even openly raising the very possibility of an actual nuclear exchange would threaten the stability of Asia, the global economy, and the U.S. and Chinese economies in ways in which the end result could not be calculated.
As for actual nuclear war fighting, China and the United States have every reason to calculate that moving beyond the tacit threat already posed by the existence of the other’s nuclear forces to actual nuclear exchanges at any level would almost certainly be so destructive and to be far costlier to both sides than any strategic or military gains could ever be worth.
At the same time, history is a grim warning that deterrence sometimes fails, and escalation occurs in ways that are never properly planned or controlled. Moreover, despite China’s declared strategy of limited deterrence, China must look beyond the U.S. nuclear stance and to the fact that North Korea, Russia, India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons and the possibility that the ROK or Japan might eventually develop nuclear weapons.
China must also recognize that Russia and other powers will inevitably use China’s nuclear forces as a key metric in judging its status. Regardless of the rhetoric of restraint that China uses in discussing nuclear weapons, they remain important tools in shaping its influence and perceptions of its power through out the world.