Sunday, November 10, 2019

U.S. policymakers are more confident than their Chinese counterparts that the use of nuclear weapons could remain limited; the contrasting views could make easier an escalation to unlimited nuclear war

Dangerous Confidence? Chinese Views on Nuclear Escalation. Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel. International Security, Volume 44, Issue 2, Fall 2019, p.61-109, October 28, 2019.

Abstract: Chinese views of nuclear escalation are key to assessing the potential for nuclear escalation in a crisis or armed conflict between the United States and China, but they have not been examined systematically. A review of original Chinese-language sources and interviews with members of China's strategic community suggest that China is skeptical that nuclear escalation could be controlled once nuclear weapons are used and, thus, leaders would be restrained from pursuing even limited use. These views are reflected in China's nuclear operational doctrine (which outlines plans for retaliatory strikes only and lacks any clear plans for limited nuclear use) and its force structure (which lacks tactical nuclear weapons). The long-standing decoupling of Chinese nuclear and conventional strategy, organizational biases within China's strategic community, and the availability of space, cyber, and conventional missile weapons as alternative sources of strategic leverage best explain Chinese views toward nuclear escalation. China's confidence that a U.S.-China conflict would not escalate to the use of nuclear weapons may hamper its ability to identify nuclear escalation risks in such a scenario. Meanwhile, U.S. scholars and policymakers emphasize the risk of inadvertent escalation in a conflict with China, but they are more confident than their Chinese counterparts that the use of nuclear weapons could remain limited. When combined, these contrasting views could create pressure for a U.S.-China conflict to escalate rapidly into an unlimited nuclear war.


In this article, we have argued that China’s strategic community is relatively confident about the ability of China to avoid nuclear escalation in a conflict with the United States. The most important reason is that the members of this community believe that once nuclear weapons are used, subsequent use by either side cannot be controlled. Thus, they do not believe that a limited nuclear warwouldstaylimited. Instead, it would likely escalate into an unlimite done. Chinese experts expect that these features of nuclear war will lead U.S. and Chinese decisionmakers to avoid any nuclear use and resolve any conflict at the conventional level. They also believe that the United States will exercise sufficient control over a crisis involving a U.S. ally or partner so that the use of nuclear weapons is not considered.
China’s operational doctrine for the use of its nuclear weapons and its nuclear force structure are consistent with these views about the difficulty of controlling escalation. That is, China’s operational doctrine does not contain plans to wage a limited nuclear war, which China might pursue if it believed nuclear escalation could be controlled. The focus of China’s nuclear operations remains on how to retaliate after China is attacked with nuclear weapons to deter such attacks in the first place. Similarly, although China’s nuclear arsenal is expanding, China is not developing forces that would be optimized for use in a limited nuclear war, especially tactical nuclear weapons. The long-standing decoupling of conventional and nuclear strategy, theavailabilityofnonnuclear strategic weapons such as cyberweapons, and the organizational biases of nuclear experts and the PLA’s missile commanders explain this relative confidence about avoiding escalation. Chinese experts likely overestimate their leaders’ ability to control escalation, because they underplay the pressures to escalate to a nuclear war that their leaders could not control—for example, if an adversary overreacts or misperceives Chinese signaling with nuclear or nonnuclear strategic weapons.
Several implications follow from our analysis, all of which raise concerns about crisis stability and the ability of the United States and China to prevent nuclear escalation in a crisis between the two states. First, China’s approach to deterrence may be suboptimal—at least from the perspective of deterring either U.S. conventional strikes against its nuclear infrastructure or limited U.S. nuclear strikes against its nuclear arsenal. Although China maintains some ambiguity over whether it would respond to a conventional strike on its nuclear forces with nuclear weapons, China’s overall confidence that a U.S.China conventional conflict would not escalate to nuclear war may reduce the effectiveness of its deterrent against this kind of attack by persuading an adversary that such strikes would not elicit nuclear retaliation. China’s confidence could even embolden an adversary to gamble that a limited nuclear first strike against China would not elicit nuclear retaliation. This, in turn, would increase the odds of such U.S. attacks and create strong pressure for China to retaliate to deter further attacks on its nuclear forces, resulting in nuclear escalation.
Our research, however, does not indicate how the small size of China’s arsenal compared with that of the United States would affect its response to U.S. limited nuclear strikes. China could respond with limited nuclear retaliatory strikes; it could threaten or pursue unlimited nuclear retaliation; it could respond with nonnuclear forces; or it could respond in another way, including terminating the conflict. More research is needed to explore the relationship between the size and vulnerability of China’s arsenal and its views of nuclear escalation control.
Second, the United States and China hold opposing beliefs about escalation above and below the nuclear threshold that may also contribute to instability. U.S. experts worry more than Chinese experts that the two countries might not be able to control the escalation of a conventional war to high levels of intensity, which could push a conflict over the nuclear threshold, but are more sanguineabout(oratleastaredividedaboutthepossibilityof)controllingnuclear escalation after nuclear weapons have been used.174 This likely reflects the overwhelming superiority of U.S. nuclear forces (especially against a smaller nuclear power), decades of nuclear planning for a range of scenarios (including limited nuclear warfighting), and an emphasis on achieving dominance in conventional operations.
As this article demonstrates, however, Chinese experts hold an opposing perspective. They are quite pessimistic about controlling nuclear escalation once the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons has been crossed. By contrast, however, they are quite confident (perhaps overly confident) about controlling conventional escalation before the nuclear threshold is crossed. As noted earlier, almost all of the available literature from Chinese military sources on escalation examines conventional escalation and not nuclear escalation. At least in the post–Cold War era, U.S. conventional operations against other militaries have emphasized seizing and exploiting air superiority, meaning that control of conventional escalation was not a concern for the United States because it had the luxury of fighting adversaries with no plausible means to escalate. Although China has not fought a war since 1979, it has engaged mostly in limited uses of force in local conflicts or displays of force and has certainly not achieved conventional dominance over an adversary to the same extent as the United States.
These contrasting beliefs about the feasibility of controlling conventional and nuclear escalation suggest that a conventional conflict is more likely to escalate to high levels of intensity, increasing the chances of nuclear escalation. China, for example, could take actions it believes will deter the United States at the conventional level, only to be confronted with a U.S. desire to overmatch China in response and establish the same extent of conventional dominance that the United States has enjoyed for several decades against other adversaries.175 Yet, such actions could include steps to degrade China’s nuclear forces, either inadvertently by targeting China’s conventional missiles or intentionally to force China to either surrender or escalate to nuclear war. Those U.S. attacks might create strong pressures on China to engage in nuclear signaling or mobilization of its land-based nuclear missiles and ballistic missile submarines to protect its deterrent or even threaten nuclear use to deter further attacks on its nuclear arsenal. In response, the United States may attempt a large-scale nuclear strike to try to eliminate China’s nuclear forces or at least limit damage from China’s use of nuclear weapons. If the two countries have different views about when the natural firebreaks in a conflict will occur, they may focus on negotiating an end to the conflict at different times in this escalatory spiral and therefore miss opportunities to negotiate an end to the conflict altogether.176 In short, based on differing views about controlling escalation, escalation at both the conventional and nuclear levels may be more likely.
The flip side, however, might be enhanced caution. China may anticipate U.S. efforts to escalate a conventional war to achieve conventional dominance while the United States may anticipate a disproportionate Chinese nuclear response if it were to conduct limited nuclear strikes in a conflict. Both countries may therefore be extremely cautious in a crisis or low-intensity conflict. Further, despite the views outlined above, the two countries have not always acted on their confidence about controlling conventional or nuclear escalation. Historically, China has exercised more caution (most of the time) when facing a superior adversary, based on the imperative of conserving its forces. Despite models that show U.S. nuclear superiority and the ability to limit damage using a nuclear first strike,177 U.S. leaders have appeared reluctant to accept significant nuclear risk, especially in the post–Cold War era.178
Ironically, one factor that contributes to these opposing views is China’s no-first-use policy. Many U.S. analysts do not believe that it is a credible pledge, because China has not stated how it plans to end a conventional war it is losing.179 China perhaps does not feel a need to reveal such plans, either because of its experience in fighting and ending limited wars without achieving its initial ambitions (in Korea and perhaps in Vietnam) or because it would not want to reveal such plans to a stronger adversary that could then exploit them. On the other hand, Chinese experts view the pledge as the guiding principle for the role of Chinese nuclear weapons in any future conflict with the United States. As they do not plan to use nuclear weapons first, even when losing, they may not explore this point in their writings. Chinese experts may also discount the likelihood that its actions in a crisis or conflict could be mistaken by the United States as preparations to use nuclear weapons first.
Third, greater attention to nuclear escalation is needed in China. The gap between its strategic community and the PLARocket Force needs to be bridged. Looking forward, the new Strategic Planning Office under the CMC may endeavor to pursue greater coordination between China’s overall strategy and the role of nuclear weapons in crises and conflicts. A fourth implication of Chinese views of nuclear escalation for U.S.-China crisis stability concerns whether these views may change in the future. We suggest that China’s strategic community is unlikely to change its view that further nuclear escalation cannot be controlled once it is engaged in a crisis or conventional conflict with the United States. Nevertheless, several possibilities should be considered. First, Chinese experts may revise their views about the ability of the United States to control its allies and avoid a nuclear confrontation with China, points on which China’s views currently diverge with the arguments of the Cold War skeptics. The realization in a crisis or conflict that the United States may be unable or unwilling to control its allies, or willing to run the risk of a nuclear war with China to defend them, could deter China from engaging in a highintensity conventional conflict with a U.S. ally. It could also prompt China to engage in nuclear signaling to try to deter a U.S. first strike, which could in turn be misperceived by Washington.
A second possibility is that proponents of nuclear escalation control and limited use, who may exist within the PLA Rocket Force, increase the force’s historically limited influence over nuclear strategy formulation within China, thus changing Chinese views toward escalation control. The availability of precise theater capabilities and tactical delivery systems, currently deployed with conventional payloads only, would allow China to develop options for limited war with relative ease, if a political decision to do so is made.180
A final possibility is that Chinese views could change without a crisis or a conflict as a catalyst. China may change its views that nuclear escalation would not be controlled if current U.S. attention to limited nuclear war leads Chinese experts to agree that preparing for limited retaliatory nuclear strikes is the best way to deter U.S. limited nuclear use and further nuclear use. Any U.S. actions that would encourage China to consider limited nuclear use, whether to deter the United States or to de-escalate a conventional conflict, would likely increase regional instability and risks to the United States and its allies.

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