Can China and The U.S. Speak ‘Nuclear’?
Image Credit: U.S. State Department (Flickr)

Can China and The U.S. Speak ‘Nuclear’?


Dennis Wilder, Senior Director for East Asian Affairs in the US National Security Council had said in 2009, “Chinese nuclear strategy and doctrine is really a black box.”  Over the years, as China’s strategic capabilities have grown, so have the American complaints on lack of transparency on its nuclear strategy and intentions.

The fact that both nations do not share the same nuclear terminology to designate the same connotation has often resulted in a bilateral dialogue that has been graphically described as a case of “chickens talking with ducks”. In fact, both have expressed frustration and disappointment and accused each other of lack of mutual respect for the beliefs of the other side.

For instance, the most used term in nuclear strategy, deterrence, is interpreted differently in Chinese from its meaning in English. In Western nuclear literature, deterrence is seen as dissuading an opponent from acting in a particular way or following a particular course of action. It is to stop his action by the threat of the cost that would follow. But, the PLA Encyclopedia describes deterrence as “the display of military power, or the threat of use of military power, in order to compel an opponent to submit”. Therefore, for the Chinese, deterrence is both dissuasion and compulsion.

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Such differences in interpretation of commonly used nuclear terminology can be a source of fatal misunderstandings and miscommunication. After all, nuclear deterrence is essentially a mind game that is largely dependent on communication. If the signals are misread by the adversary, it could result in responses of capability build up or use of force, leading to deterrence breakdown as the unwanted result.

It is for this reason that the recent news that China will be taking the lead to initiate a dialogue on promoting an understanding of nuclear arms control terminologies is significant and a welcome change. This is indeed the first time that China has shown not just the inclination to bring clarity on nuclear concepts but also a desire to ‘lead’ a nuclear initiative on understanding vocabulary related to nuclear arms control. Since China has traditionally believed in relying on ambiguity and deception on matters nuclear and has mostly stayed clear of arms control issues—maintaining that it was an issue for the U.S. and Russia to sort out, given that they hold a large share of the global nuclear stockpile—this is a huge leap.

So, what has brought about this change in China’s approach of encouraging change from absolute opacity to relative transparency on a range of strategic issues? Three explanations can be offered. 

First, the Chinese move appears to be emanating as a result of China’s general sense of confidence in its increasing weight in the international system as reflected in the ambit of issues and global organizations where China is becoming an active participant in rule making.  It indicates a perception that the country knows it has the clout to be able to hold its own in a gathering of nuclear weapon states.

Second, as China rises to power, there is a desire to showcase itself as a responsible international player that is willing to contribute to international security. China’s role in trying to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue is one manifestation of this. Similarly, the recent Chinese move could also be seen as one way in which China is seeking to demonstrate that it is willing to live up to the international obligation bestowed upon the P-5 by the NPT Review Conference 2010 which had recommended steps towards disarmament.

Third, China’s decision can also be seen as a result of China’s increasing faith in its nuclear capability. With the kind of modernization that has been undertaken in the last decade or so, the country is far more amenable to ‘showing its hand’.

Whatever the motivations for China’s decision to shoulder the responsibility on arriving at a common language or at least a common understanding of arms control terminologies, it is necessary to monitor its actions in making something worthwhile of the exercise. The U.S. has welcomed the Chinese move as a “good sign of their interest of developing more mutual cooperation of this kind, leading to greater predictability and greater mutual confidence”. However, if the aim of the group is to reduce confusion and bring down risks, then the forum must not degenerate into a ploy to buy time and respectability. 

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