Nuclear Pieces on the Asia Chessboard: U.S., China, and Extended Deterrence

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Andrew Schwartz: Welcome to the Asia Chessboard, the podcast that examines geopolitical dynamics in Asia and takes an inside look at the making of grand strategy. I'm Andrew Schwartz at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Hannah Fodale: This week, Mike discusses the nuclear pieces on the Asia Chessboard with Caitlin Talmadge, professor at Georgetown University, as they explore the multipolar nuclear deterrence environment in the Indo-Pacific region. Mike and Caitlin analyze US and Chinese nuclear capabilities, the potential for nuclear arms races in the region, and the relationship between nuclear and conventional forces.

Mike Green: Welcome back to the Asia Chessboard. We're going to talk today about nuclear strategy and nuclear deterrence, extended deterrence, proliferation, one of the most important parts of the chessboard, and one we haven't really addressed in detail yet on this podcast. But we have picked the perfect person to help us navigate those issues, Professor Caitlin Talmadge, a colleague at Georgetown and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, author of some prize-winning books on how dictators fight wars, on the origins of defense policy, but particularly focused on theory and practice of extended deterrence and nuclear deterrence. And right now in the Indo-Pacific, that is becoming the hot topic with the nuclear posture review and all sorts of other developments brewing in the region. Caitlin, welcome.

Caitlin Talmadge: Hi, great to be here.

Mike Green: So, we always begin with you, and although we're colleagues at Georgetown, I don't know the answer to this either, how did Caitlin Talmadge get into nuclear weapons? I bet your parents are asking that too. I know you were at CSIS, like all great strategists at one point, but how did this journey bring you to your expertise today?

Caitlin Talmadge: Sure thing, yeah. Well it's great to be here. Thank you so much for the opportunity to chat with you, a big fan of you and your work and the podcast. So I mean, I think the simple answer to how I got into all this was I've kind of always had the bug, the security studies bug. I remember being a nine year old kid when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and being really, really interested in that and writing a fourth grade short story about that, which was kind of weird at the time. And just always wondering why did that happen? Why did the US respond? Whey did other countries join in? And that kind of got me into reading the newspaper and just paying attention to issues surrounding the use of force and the politics surrounding the use of force. And eventually in college I got really into issues surrounding arms control, nuclear weapons, wrote my senior thesis on that. Came to work at CSIS, as you mentioned, and had some really outstanding mentors there working on nuclear issues.

Caitlin Talmadge: And did a bunch of work in graduate school looking at conventional defense issues, but have come back to nuclear studies, because as I'm confident we're going to talk about today, the nuclear and the conventional are very intertwined and you really I think in today's landscape have to understand both in order to say anything about military operations or defense issues or US foreign policy, and certainly that's true in the Asia context that we'll be talking about today.

Mike Green: A lot of people who start on the journey you just described, they quickly get lumped into either being arms controllers or they are deterrence experts. And you've managed to, I don't know, defy that kind of pigeon holing or maybe bridged the different schools. How would you describe yourself in the larger debate about nuclear weapons?

Caitlin Talmadge: I think I am very much in the middle. I think sometimes that's a problem that we have in the very accurately characterized nuclear landscape that you just mentioned where we sort of have ideological camps almost where you're either an arms controller and you're part of that club or you're part of the deterrence club, and never the twain shall meet. I actually think there's incredibly smart people on both sides of that debate who are very dedicated to making the world safer, advancing US interests, and people are just really smart. I just learn a lot from listening to friends in both of those camps. And I think the funny thing is often they kind of want the same things and the question is how do you get there? And I think, for instance, that deterrence and arms control are kind of two sides of the same coin, like you should be designing your arms control policies in ways that actually enhance deterrence, and there are ways that you can do that. And so it's a smaller group, I would say, that's kind of not clearly affiliated with either side, but we are out there and I think honestly a lot of policymakers actually are kind of in that group in the middle, that they're not often as vocal as you would hear on Twitter and in the blogosphere and so forth.

Mike Green: Yeah, I imagine your time as an RA at CSIS grounded you a bit before your PhD in terms of what is, as a practical matter, achievable with policy? Did you work with Clark Murdock?

Caitlin Talmadge: So, I was hired by Kurt Campbell, I had interned for the Washington Quarterly and worked for Alex Lennon when I was in college and had the opportunity there to meet Michelle Flournoy and Kurt Campbell. And I can't remember the exact circumstances, but I made it back to CSIS for an interview with Kurt my senior year in college and he hired me on the spot to work for Michelle. I can remember it very vividly in his office. And that was the days before people did so much over email and this and that, it was just kind of, "You're hired," a handshake, show up after Labor Day. And yeah, I had the opportunity to learn from him and to learn from Michelle, and yes of course Clark was there, Kath Hicks was in the office next door, Austin Carson who's now a professor at the University of Chicago was in my windowless office with me. So it was a really great place to learn about all these issues and have really smart thinkers at the top of their intellectual game, but people also who understood the policy process and politics at the highest level. And it was definitely an amazing crucible in which to spend a brief but really important period between college and grad school.

Mike Green: And that was in the period when CSIS was in the old building, so you probably actually felt like you were in a nuclear bunker preparing to survive the Eschaton right?

Caitlin Talmadge: Yeah, I was not in the Taj Mahal in which you currently reside, so yes. But I do have very fond feelings every time I walk by 18th and K because there are just so many great people there and I'm so grateful for the experiences that I had.

Mike Green: So you worked for Kurt, I didn't realize that, so you've had an early interest in Asia. So let's turn to the region. How would you describe the role of nuclear weapons in strategic stability in Asia up to this point? And is it changing?

Caitlin Talmadge: I think it's definitely changing. I think nuclear weapons are way more prominent and central to the politics of the region than they have been, even in the relatively recent past. I was thinking about just the change over my lifetime the other day. So my birthday's next week, I'm going to be 41, so I was born in 1980. And what was Asia like in 1980 on nuclear issues versus how is it today? Well if you think back, the Soviets were an Asian nuclear power and the Americans were an Asian nuclear power, but China at that time was barely an Asian nuclear power, they had a very small, very recessed, borderline unusable nuclear arsenal, maybe 150 warheads, which was about half the size of the British and the French arsenals at the time. So we're talking pretty small, and also not very capable, not able to pose a really credible threat of hitting Moscow or Washington. You had the Pakistanis seeking nuclear weapons at that time. You had India having tested but having a really small recessed arsenal at best. So really a region where you didn't have major indigenous nuclear powers. You kind of had this super power nuclear shadow hanging over the region.

Caitlin Talmadge: But it really looks different from how it is today, because today the Soviet or now Russian nuclear arsenal hasn't really gone anywhere. I mean it's smaller, but it's still capable. The Americans are more capable in many ways, even though the arsenal's smaller. But in terms of regional players, you have legitimate real regional nuclear actors in Asia today that did not used to be there. China in particular, and I'm sure we'll talk about this more today, has made some really significant strides in its nuclear arsenal since the 1980s, both quantitatively and qualitatively. You have the Pakistanis with a full blown nuclear arsenal and a capability to engage in coercive nuclear escalation against India. You have India with a full blown nuclear arsenal and growing counterforce capabilities, meaning nuclear capabilities that can take out other states' nuclear capabilities, obviously the Pakistanis being the main concern for them but China a concern for India as well. And then, of course, North Korea. You have a country that has totally emerged as a nuclear power with intercontinental ballistic missiles that I think pose a credible, not a perfect threat, but how credible does the threat have to be, to paraphrase Bob Jervis, a credible threat to the American homeland.

Caitlin Talmadge: And then on top of all that, I see your eyes were maybe glazing over, but the list is so long, Mike. You have these hedgers in the region. You've got South Korea getting ballistic missile submarines that are for conventional missiles but, boy, they could carry nuclear weapons maybe. And Japan investing in long range conventional, for now, strike capabilities. So the whole landscape looks different, and you've got not only, I think, more nuclear actors, which is a change. But I think you have more potential for arms races or crises that involve multiple players, so you're no longer just talking about nuclear dyads but you're talking about triangles, and maybe even more than one triangle that intersects with another one. So the US, North Korea and China, and China, India, and Pakistan. I have some forthcoming work on this, but you got all these nuclear complexities, it's against the backdrop of worsening political relationships and broader military competition in the conventional domain in many of these relationships as well. So it's really different, I think, from how it was two, three, four decades ago.

Mike Green: When I was in grad school, John Mearsheimer wrote that a multipolar proliferation future in Asia would be stable, right? You just extend a mutually assured destruction from a two player game to a three player game to a five, six, seven, eight player game, same dynamics hold, he argued. You clearly don't think that's right.

Caitlin Talmadge: Well, I would like to think it's right. I always want to believe the elegant things that John says, and sometimes I do. But I actually look at exactly this question in some forthcoming work, and I think the argument for why it would be more stable in a multipolar nuclear deterrent environment I certainly get, because I think in a three or more player nuclear war, the way to be a winner is to actually sit out the war and let your two adversaries fight a nuclear war and be the residual nuclear power. Which should really, really strongly caution any rational state against starting a nuclear crisis, because it's just much, much harder to come out ahead when you're dealing with these coalitional nuclear politics. So I think it's true that if every state is a totally rational actor, multiplayer nuclear deterrence should strengthen stability, which I think is the argument John was probably getting at, although I'll have to look up that piece because I'm not sure I've read that. But I would imagine that that's sort of the Waltzian logic.

Caitlin Talmadge: I think the problem though is that that sort of environment with multiple nuclear players could be a very tense peacetime environment, like it could really incentivize and supercharge the incentives for arms racing, precisely because of those kinds of coalitional nuclear politics. Like let's say you want a damage limitation capability, well now you need to have it against two potential adversaries, not one. It raises what the bar for survivability or even more ambitiously damage limitation would be. So you may have more competitive peacetime nuclear behavior, which increases the propensity for crises. And it also, I think, when you have multiplayers, just in general you may have more likelihood of crises because there's more ambiguity, there's more opportunity for miscalculation and misperception.

Caitlin Talmadge: And then when you're in a crisis, I think signaling is also going to be very hard. And imagine if you had two separate crises involving two different dyads with some overlap occurring at the same time. So like India and China at the same time that China and the US are in a crisis. So is China going to deescalate in the crisis versus India if that makes them more vulnerable in the ongoing crisis versus the US? If the US alerts its forces to try to send a signal to China does it inadvertently freak out the North Koreans? There's a rational story about why this all is very stabilizing, but of course nuclear deterrence should already be pretty stabilizing, so I feel like the effects are kind of marginal. Whereas the propensity to amp up peacetime nuclear competition, to have more crises, and to have those crises be more escalatory is something that I worry about. I don't sleep super soundly contemplating this future.

Mike Green: You have a cheery disposition given that. So what is the triangles? And you mentioned the US, India, China triangle, but of course that then has a collateral effect on Pakistan's calculations.

Caitlin Talmadge: Yes.

Mike Green: And what you're describing when you have these expanding triangles is you're talking about states, because eventually you get to North Korea and you get to Pakistan, you're talking about states with less transparency, where we have less confidence in civilian control, where we have less confidence in proliferation control, outward and inward, we have less confidence in rational actor. So you're describing a situation where we're not talking as sort of establishment Japan or South Korea, the more this dynamic unfolds, the more it starts to spill over to states that are less predictable, it sounds like.

Caitlin Talmadge: Yeah, I think that's right. And I would just note that I think even your standard rational actor type states, the US and the Soviet Union, had some scary episodes with this. I think neither side wanted crises in the Cold War, but they still stumbled into them sometimes. Crises did still happen, in part because even in that two player situation, there were instances of ambiguity. If you think about how the Berlin crisis started, if you think about the Cuban Missile Crisis and really look into the origins of those, and I'd be happy to go off on a long tangent about this if you want to, but I think both sides would say, "Well, I didn't really start this crisis," or, "I didn't go into this deliberately selecting into," and to use political science language, "a crisis with a nuclear armed opponent.” “I kind of stumbled into it and then when it was on it spiraled a little bit, until we were able to arrest the spiral."

Caitlin Talmadge: And so I would say, even the history of the Cold War makes me not feel great about the assumption that rational states will not enter nuclear crisis because of the fear of escalation. I hope that's true, but I think exactly as you said, as you have more and more states and also more and more states that may have even less restraint on military control over nuclear weapons or more propensity for accidents or mistakes because of all kinds of organizational pathologies that you can imagine. Just all of these sorts of concerns amplify, I think, as you look out across more and more players with more and more diverse politics. So yeah, that would be my answer to John, I think.

Mike Green: So the consequences of increasing nuclear arsenal buildup on a multipolar basis, you described really well, where do you think it comes from? And maybe focus in for a minute on China's, well what appears to be very significant upgrading of its strategic nuclear forces. Why would China be incentivized to do that? What does it mean for the dynamic you're talking about? And what do you think is going on?

Caitlin Talmadge: Sure. Well I should start by saying, I do think what's going on with China is very significant, but I think we have to be careful not to overstate it and sort of not get ahead of the evidence. Because the US has been predicting that China's arsenal is going to double every year for the last 30 years that the estimates come out. But I will certainly say, it's very clear that they are increasing their arsenal. And I think the most recent estimate is they're on track to double it roughly within the next years, so going from about 200 warheads to maybe 400, which of course would still only be about a third the size of the deployed US strategic arsenal. So it's small but not as small as it used to be. And as I mentioned a bit earlier, the changes are both qualitative and quantitative. And I think it's important to pay attention to those because it gets to your question about what's really the motivation here?

Caitlin Talmadge: The quantitative changes, as I mentioned, are significant, but not enormous. They are significant though. But qualitatively, they're doing a bunch of stuff too. So they're improving the mobility of their forces, which actually has not helped by these silo fields that they built. Silos are actually very vulnerable. But they're doing other stuff like pursuing air launched nuclear weapons, investing in nuclear ballistic missile launching submarines. So diversifying the platforms that they can launch nuclear weapons from, improving the accuracy of their missiles, and they've got some capabilities which to me look quite different from what they've developed in the past. So the silos, China's always had silos. Land based long ranged nuclear weapons are kind of the bread and butter of the Chinese nuclear arsenal and have been for years and years. But they've got new stuff, like they have this intermediate range missile, the DF-26, which has apparently a so called hot swapping capability where it can rapidly switch between nuclear conventional warheads ejected from the same launcher and which also appear to be pretty long range, like they can reach Guam and they're very precise.

Caitlin Talmadge: So it kind of looks like a theater nuclear war fighting capability, certainly much more than a counter city or counter value second strike capability, which doesn't really need to be very accurate. It might need to be longer range to reach the US. But that sort of stuff against the backdrop of massive Chines growth in conventional forces, Chinese regional activities that I think are increasingly concerning and threatening to China's neighbors. It's the context for all of this that I think matters.

Caitlin Talmadge: And to get to your question, so why are they doing this? What's going on? I don't think China is doing this because they intend to wake up some day and launch a bolt from the blue nuclear strike on Los Angeles, which is kind of the headline scenario that you sometimes hear about. I think what they might like to do though is be able to launch a conventional coercion campaign against Taiwan and stalemate the US ability to escalate to the nuclear level or make nuclear threats to get China to back down. They're basically trying to, in my view, entrench the United States in a deeper state of nuclear vulnerability, mutual nuclear vulnerability, which of course will then make the conventional balance of power a lot more dispositive in the outcome of a crisis. And of course at the conventional level, that is not a good new story for the United States and its friends the region. China's conventional military capabilities are increasing, and I think it doesn't want to get in the situation where it's using those capabilities and it gets checkmated by US nuclear weapons.

Caitlin Talmadge: And to be clear, and kind of going back to the point I began with, China's nuclear arsenal is still not that capable compared to the US arsenal. Comparing arsenal size I think misses some of the point because it's not just like oh China has this many nuclear weapons and America has this many. It's that the US also has an incredibly impressive suite of counterforce capabilities that can render a small Chinese nuclear arsenal very vulnerable. So the United States has the ability to engage in strikes against China's nuclear forces, but also to use electronic warfare, cyber capabilities, long range conventional precision strike, to really neuter China's nuclear arsenal. And so I think it's interesting that it's not clear China's actually moving away from its no first use pledge, for instance, I think that's a separate conversation and we could talk about that. But even if all they wanted to do was have a secure second strike retaliatory capability, given the advances in US nuclear capabilities and especially US counterforce capabilities, they would probably have to have a more robust nuclear arsenal than they have now. And so I think that's some of what's going on, and they want to have that nuclear stalemate. I just want to be careful not to say that I think this is all defensively motivated, because I think the reason they care about that stuff is because they may be revisionist at the conventional level.

Mike Green: Well, it's about survivability of their deterrent, which is understandable. But as you say, it matters because they want that deterrent to be effective in, as you say, checkmating the US and our allies should they decide to use force, not just against Taiwan, Japan and the Senkakus, the South China Sea, Australia. So this nuclear debate ties directly to the larger strategic goal which I think China has, which is to peacefully, peacefully but through a combination of coercion and bribery, become the hegemonic power in Asia and end 100 years of shame.

Mike Green: So the No First Use Doctrine. China's had a No First Use Doctrine, won't be the first to use nuclear weapons. Beginning in the late '90s in the years of churn and debate after the Taiwan Missile Crisis, Taiwan Straits Crisis, the open source literature in China started to tease out the war fighting utility of tactical nuclear weapons in Taiwan and East Asian scenarios. So that's over 20 years now that people in the PLA system writing about doctrine have talked about the utility of nuclear weapons in theater campaigns, not retaliation against US nuclear weapons. So I personally have never believed that China really has an NFU, a no first use policy. I think it's rhetorical, and China's had rhetorical policies on human rights too and autonomy for Hong Kong and autonomy for Tibet and the long, long list I will spare you. So do you really believe we should be believing that China has an NFU? Is it worth trying to maintain that myth or should we just not let it slow us down or deter us?

Caitlin Talmadge: My take on this is actually very similar to yours, and I have a larger project that I'm doing right now with Vipin Narang and one of our superb master students here at Georgetown, Lisa Michelini, where we look at adversary perceptions of no first use pledges in all the cases where they've been made, and that includes China's. And I would say one of the takeaways from our paper is the best way to figure out if a country's going to use nuclear weapons first or not is to look at your political relationship with that country and look at that country's military capabilities. And the rhetoric, honestly, is just that, it's rhetoric. And it's used instrumentally for all kinds of other purposes. And I would say up to the early 2000s, yeah I thought China's no first use pledge was pretty credible, not because they had made a pledge but because of all the things I just told you about how fragile and nascent their arsenal was. I just didn't see their forces postured to engage in nuclear first use, certainly not for purposes of counterforce, they had no ability to do a sort of big preemptive counterforce first strike like we worried about with the Soviets.

Caitlin Talmadge: But also, not for asymmetric coercive purposes, like the type of nuclear use we worry about with North Korea or with Pakistan or with the Russians today. They just were not postured for it, their arsenal was really recessed, would have taken them a long time to gear up for a strike during which they would have been vulnerable. They didn't have precise theater nuclear war fighting capability, all the things we were just talking about.

Caitlin Talmadge: So my view of their lack of likelihood of using nuclear weapons first had very little to do with their rhetoric and everything to do with their posture and the fact that like a lot of people at that time I looked at the US/China overall relationship and I said, "This would be nuts. Why would either country even get into a conventional war? They're so economically intertwined, there's so many powerful interests in favor of engagement and peace. They're separated by an ocean. I think we all know these arguments. And I do think that my view of this has changed somewhat as developments have progressed over the last 10 or 20 years. Again, not even just because of some of the rumblings that you mentioned where you do hear certain Chinese elites unofficially, off the record, because this still has never been changed officially in any way, the official posture is China does have a no first use pledge and that has not loosened officially or publicly at all. But yes, there's lots of chatter that makes you think, "Gee, they might be reconsidering this."

Caitlin Talmadge: But it's when you actually just look at the political and the military factors that you start to have doubts. First of all, the overall relationship is a lot more competitive and you can actually imagine scenarios where the two countries could get into a conflict. I mentioned Taiwan, you mentioned East China Sea, South China Sea, this is not as crazy as it once sounded. But secondly, there's the military dimension, which is to say that China definitely is trying to ensure that the US cannot coerce it with nuclear weapons, but it also has a growing capability to actually engage in a limited nuclear first use or at least it is clearly kind of moving in that direction. I'm going to be very interested to see this China military power report that the Pentagon has, we've all been waiting every day for the last several months for this report to come out, and I think there's going to probably be some words about this. So no, I don't find their pledge super credible. But I also just don't find it super relevant. I look at other indicators, and our research shows that states pretty much always look at these other indicators in trying to figure out if these pledges are credible.

Mike Green: So the nuclear posture review is going to have to deal with all this. When Brad Roberts led this review in the Obama administration there were proposals within the administration from Congress among experts that, for example, the US should have its own no first use policy, the US should basically codify mutually assured destruction, euphemistically called strategic stability with China. You know who really hated that? Japan, especially. But many of our allies. And Brad prevailed and the allies were pretty contented with how that came out. What are you expecting this time? It's more complicated. Are there voices for that kind of arms control approach that are credible? Do they put out a case for arms control with China maybe in a post INF world, the deployment of our own capabilities might push them there? What do you expect and what would you recommend I guess for the NPR?

Caitlin Talmadge: So I do not expect in the NPR a move toward adoption of no first use, although I think that there will be serious debate over this, it may be formulated as a sole purpose, which is I think an important distinction. A sole purpose declaration would say something to the effect of the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack and respond to nuclear attacks. So we don't use nuclear weapons, in other words, against non-nuclear countries and to deter non-nuclear attacks, and we don't use them before the other side has used them. I think this will be debated because there very much is a push, I think, in the arms control community to consider these ideas. You've seen bills introduced in Congress by Elizabeth Warren, Adam Smith, others pushing for the US to adopt not just sole purpose but a very clear, unequivocal, categorical the US will not use nuclear weapons first stance. And I think that there are definitely some in the Biden administration who really believe that that's an important direction for US declaratory policy to go, that it would be stabilizing, that it would help improve US credibility on arms control measures, that it would help us in arms control with China.

Caitlin Talmadge: My concern about doing that and also the reason that I think that they will probably not ultimately be successful goes back to the allies point that you made in asking the question. And I think it also relates to the findings from the paper that I mentioned, which is to say no first use pledges tend to be believed by allies and not be believed by adversaries. And to me, that's kind of the worst of all worlds, where you've made this change to your declaratory policy that makes the allies under your nuclear umbrella freak out. It makes South Korea worry, "We're going to get attacked by North Korea and we have to ride out and attack with nuclear weapons before the US is going to do something." It makes Taiwan worry, "We're going to be attacked by China." And of course, Taiwan's not a treaty ally, but everyone knows that this question is still relevant there. Japan worries about these same things. And they will, I think, if there is a no first use pledge, want to see major compensatory demonstrations of US resolve in order to feel secure and stay in those alliances. So is that greater forward deployed conventional forces on their soil? What does that look like to reassure them? Because I think that they are going to worry that yeah, no first use means no first use.

Caitlin Talmadge: I could even see it going as far as, "We have to get our own nuclear weapons because given that the US is weakening the nuclear umbrella, we, at a time when the threats to us are increasing, we really have to go our own way." And although I think there's a lot of obstacles to that in Japan, but like in South Korea like 70% I think in recent polls say sure.

Mike Green: Over 70%.

Caitlin Talmadge: Yeah, like, "Sure, let's get our own nuclear weapons." So my question to those who advocate these changes in US declaratory policy would be, are you ready to do these other things that are I think the downstream consequences? And then on the flip side, as far as what the benefits are of no first use, as I said I think the real conundrum is the allies believe it but I still don't think our adversaries would be likely to take this credible absent radical changes in US force posture. Because I think that they will look at our force posture and say, "You are still postured with the total capability to engage in multiple types of nuclear first use, so why should we believe your rhetoric?"

Mike Green: Right, so I like the way you put it, the worst of both worlds. I think you put a stake through the heart of that one pretty well, and I'm with you. Where are you on the conventional and nuclear missile deployments by the US in Asia? This came up first in the context of North Korean proliferation, but increasingly with China, and you have quite prominent Koreans and Japanese and Americans saying we should deploy tactical nuclear weapons. We pulled them all out in 1991 of course after the Cold War, but saying we should reintroduce them. Some Japanese officials, former officials have said maybe just change Japan's nonnuclear principles to allow transit after withdrawal from the INF treaty, in theory we have more portions, the politics are complicated. Would deployment of tactical nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles, cruise missiles capable of dual use capable, change the equation in a positive way? Wouldn't make a difference? More dangerous than good?

Caitlin Talmadge: So, I have to confess that I think this is one of those issues where both the dangers and the benefits I think can be overstated and a lot of the impact would depend on the specifics and the context. Let me back up one step before I elaborate on that and just say that my biggest question whenever I hear this issue raised is, so who specifically is going to host these things? That's even true for conventional.

Mike Green: And that doesn't mean who, which country, but which neighborhood in Japan wants these tactical nukes? It’s a democracy, it's not an easy thing, right?

Caitlin Talmadge: Exactly, exactly. And so I hear people paint the picture of deterrence and also ring the alarm bells, and I'm sort of always like, "Back up again and tell me who's going to host these." You mentioned the transit point and yeah, you hear people talking about well maybe it will be sort of like the TLAM-N, the nuclear tomahawks, where they come in to port but we look the other way. So I always wonder about that when I hear this, and I really I have not heard a good answer to that question. But if we could put that aside, even so, I'm not convinced that they're strategically essential, but I'm also not convinced that they will ignite some regional arms race. I think that the reason we might deploy forces like that is to try to strengthen the credibility of our extended deterrence, but there's other ways that we do that. We could do that with other types of conventional forces. We've already done that in some ways with things like the Japanese and South Korean extended deterrence dialogues, where we didn't designate a certain class of nuclear weapons as, "These are your nuclear weapons, we're going to put them on your territory so that you know that they belong to you and they will be used to defend you."

Caitlin Talmadge: But we just had more interchanges with them to try to, and even bringing them to the United States, showing them CONUS-based nuclear weapons and just saying, "Look, if you get threatened, here they are. Reach out and touch them, they are just as much for the defense of our commitments to you as nuclear weapons that we would forward deploy in a region or on your territory and so forth."

Caitlin Talmadge: And so sure, would country that really wanted to host them feel reassured that those nuclear weapons were for their defense? Or even conventional weapons? Sure, but there's other ways that you could reassure them probably as well. And likewise, on the flip side, I think some people really worry that, "Oh, if we deploy this class of weapons and we start a regional arms race with INF range forces, that's going to really tank regional security." And I'm sort of like, "Have you looked at everything else going on in the region right now?" Like the bulk of China's missile forces are already INF range capabilities. I'm not trying to be grim about it, but it's sort of like a drop in the bucket. And so I just have a hard time getting too excited about that issue either way.

Mike Green: Yeah, the theory of the case is it's sort of Europe in the 1980s and the deployment of Pershings and so forth pushes the Soviets into arms control and we win the game of chicken. I don't see the Chinese doing that, to be honest, I don't know if you do. I don't see us deploying INF forces or allies doing it getting China any closer to arms control. I think the Chinese are going to resist arms control, frankly until there's a crisis that's existential for them, until they become scared of the possibility of nuclear war. Because the whole history of China's, of the PLA really, but also China's rocket forces is to mask weaknesses, project strength, keep us guessing. There's nothing in the culture of the PLA that would lead us to arms control, unless there's a Cuban Missile Crisis that scares them as human beings. That may be too pessimistic, but since you've been so pessimistic today, maybe you agree.

Caitlin Talmadge: Yeah, I think this question of how do nuclear arm states learn to be afraid enough is a really important one. And unfortunately, your idea that experience is part of it I think is right. One of the things that's most concerning to me in speaking with Chinese colleagues is that I think they often don't study their past crisis that kind of was a Cuban Missile Crisis, which was the 1969 border dispute with the Soviet's that acquired a strong nuclear dimension. And it's a little odd to me, because I think that that is an episode from their own nuclear history that might caution them, and yet I think it's an episode that American analysts probably study more than it appears Chinese do sometimes. And so it kind of goes to your point about not discussing these issues.

Caitlin Talmadge: I think as to whether there's a way to pressure China into arms control, I go back and forth on this question, you can't really predict it. I think the argument in favor of the INF deployments in the region would be exactly what you just said, it would be like dual track redux. And for listeners who may not have followed that episode, this is the US play in the Carter administration to basically tell the Soviets we're going to deploy a new class of pretty threatening missiles, the Pershing II and the Griffin Missiles in Europe, at the same time that we're going to pursue arms control negotiations with you. So it's the carrot and the stick. We're going to deploy this, but we're also going to be open to arms control. And I think the argument for that in Asia is that yeah, China does have so many of its missile forces in the INF range, and so if the US is competing in that area, it might be able to push China towards some sort of larger agreement framework that would just regulate the number of launchers. So the US might have more strategic range, but they have more INF range.

Caitlin Talmadge: But again, from China's perspective, and China's made this clear, to your point, they're sort of like, "what's in it for us? We're way behind in this arms competition, why would we lock ourselves into this lower level of forces with you, the United States, which has the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world and has conventional forces all up and down the first island chain?" So I get that, and I think if the two sides are to pursue arms control, I think they're going to have to start with measures that are way, way short of those ambitions.

Mike Green: We absolutely should try, absolutely should try. We shouldn't bet a lot on it, but we absolutely should try. The allies will want that, both for reassurance that we're trying to control this race, but also because we're spotlighting the threat and showing we take it seriously. So we need to try, but I'm skeptical that we'll get the Chinese to the table successfully any time soon. Last quick question, you mentioned Japan's standoff strike capability development, South Korea's and their SOBM, of course Australia with its nuclear-powered sub plan, AUKUS, and their own quite substantial plans for developing production of Tomahawks and LRASMs and other precision strike systems in Australia. So where are you on the allies developing more ability to reach out and touch China or North Korea?

Caitlin Talmadge: Well, I think if you're remaining committed to the project you mentioned a few moments ago, which is the project, the grand strategic project of preventing China from dominating its region as a hegemon, if that's an outcome you don't want to see then I think yeah, allies definitely have to do more, certainly in the conventional domain to defend themselves and to be difficult to coerce and difficult certainly to conquer. I personally, one of the things I find most puzzling about everything China's been doing, especially in the last five or so years, is I think they really have provoked almost a premature balancing coalition against them. I think that's really what you're seeing, where if I were China and I were my rational actor self and I were reading Waltz and I was an IR theory student, I would kind of, to use the old cliché, I would hide and bide. I would just be chilling out, building up my military, but I wouldn't be doing trade embargoes on Australian products and I wouldn't be doing all these incursions into the Air Defense Identification Zone of Taiwan. I just wouldn't be picking fights in South China Sea. I'd just kind of chill and let the US have to do all the heavy lifting on trying to balance me.

Caitlin Talmadge: And instead, China's I think provoking a lot of counterbalancing, and you're seeing it in the examples that you mentioned. And I think given some of the signals that we're seeing about potential Chinese intentions, if you want to stop a bid for Chinese hegemony, yeah you're probably going to have to get allies to do more and they are doing more because I think they're alarmed.

Mike Green: That's a whole longer discussion of course, why is China doing this? And it's possibly because they can, it's possibly because the feedback loop is not working under Xi Jinping and they're not processing this. And it's possible because they think it doesn't matter. And any of those explanations, our allies are doing the right thing. What we need to do, I think, in the US is catch up to that debate. Our dialogue bilaterally and collectively with our allies on extended deterrence on missile defense is much more robust than it used to be. When I went to Tokyo University in the 80s, there was one professor in Japan who taught nuclear strategy, and they were constantly trying to fire him. Now they're everywhere. There are Caitlin Talmadge wannabees all over Australia, Japan, Korea, because it's so important to their country's future. But we have a lot of work to do, government, scholars, civil society, expanding our discussion with allies in this because it's moving so quickly. And you really, Caitlin, did a terrific job in 35-40 minutes in sort of capturing the essence of what we need to be talking about. So thank you, and thanks for all the work you're doing on this.

Caitlin Talmadge: Yeah, thank you. It's great to be here. Great question, I always learn from you and from your work. I'm just a big fan, and I really, really appreciate the opportunity. Thanks so much.

Mike Green: Excellent, thank you.

Andrew Schwartz: Thanks for listening. For more on strategy and the Asia Program's work, visit the CSIS website at and click on the Asia Program page.