Nuclear Weapons and U.S.-China Relations

A Way Forward

This report addresses the increasingly important set of issues surrounding the nuclear forces of the United States and China. It focuses on a series of policy and posture recommendations for the United States, but it does so with an eye toward U.S. allies in the region and Chinese audiences. The report also includes two appendixes—one detailing the Working Group’s assessment of China’s nuclear strategy, policy, decisionmaking, posture, and capabilities, and one summarizing the Working Group’s discussions in Beijing in September 2012.

For over a century, the United States has maintained a strong and enduring presence in the Asia-Pacific region, buttressed by a number of alliances and partnerships and undergirded by a robust military capability, ultimately including U.S. nuclear forces. It remains committed to this approach to the Asia-Pacific region and has redoubled its focus through its recent “rebalance” toward the region. The United States has long seen China as a central factor in its strategy in Asia. Since the 1970s, U.S. policy has sought to encourage China’s economic reforms and development and to integrate China into the existing international political and economic order. While hopeful that China will develop into a constructive stakeholder, the United States and much of the Asia-Pacific region share continuing concerns about some aspects of China’s behavior that, it is feared, could undermine regional stability and U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific.

Unfortunately, significant sources of tension and disagreement between the United States and its allies, on the one hand, and China, on the other, remain. These sources of discord could, in the worst case, lead to conflict. Needless to say, a large-scale conventional war between the United States and China would be incredibly dangerous and likely tremendously damaging. Nuclear war between the two would be devastating for all involved. Even though a conventional war between the two nations currently seems unlikely and nuclear war even more so, the possibility that war could break out, posing dramatic dangers and damage, clearly indicates that active steps should be taken to avoid conflict and successfully manage U.S.-China nuclear dynamics.

Elbridge A. Colby and Abraham M. Denmark, cochairs; John K. Warden, executive director

PONI Working Group on U.S.-China Nuclear Issues