Can China and the US Neutralize the Ring of Gyges?
Image Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Can China and the US Neutralize the Ring of Gyges?


We shall have to share out the fruits of technology among the whole of mankind. The notion that the direct and immediate producers of the fruits of technology have a proprietary right to these fruits will have to be forgotten.

Arnold Toynbee

Media commentaries about the U.S.-China accord on limiting carbon emissions have been almost dithyrambic, with some justification. The world’s two superpowers have agreed for the first time in modern history to work together to manage a global problem that no nation state can resolve alone. However important this agreement is, strategic distrust between China and the U.S. remains the single most significant risk to peace in our time and neutralizing it will demand much more than an emissions reduction agreement. At the center of this dangerous forma mentis is an ever-accelerating competition between Beijing and Washington for science & innovation, technological supremacy, and “full spectrum dominance.” A strategic initiative like the AirSea battle dogma, together with hypersonic weapons and China’s anticipation of a century of sustained intellectual warfare, only exacerbates a securitization game that if left unchecked could confirm Thucydides’ ominous prediction about the perils of hegemonic transition.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The Nuclear Age

The destabilization of great power relations by relentless, qualitative improvements in military equipment has become a central concern for IR; it is almost the defining issue of Strategic Studies”.

Barry Buzan & George Lawson

In early September 1939, the White House’s most important occupant received a mysterious letter. It was signed not by military specialists, political supporters, businessmen, or any other of the usual correspondents, but was rather written by two of the world’s leading atomic scientists: Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard. Both men had been German immigrants to the United States, fleeing Nazi Germany in the early 30s to escape rising anti-Semitism. In the letter, they argued that the “bomb” was technically feasible and that uranium could be enriched to fission levels sufficient for a chain reaction. On reading the letter, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered his staff to go out at once “to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.” By 1942 the Manhattan project, the biggest techno-industrial project in history, was underway. In about two years, the ultimate weapon of the 20th century was ready to rewrite the rules of the game.

The splitting of the atom and the awesome amount of lethal energy it released reshaped war and conflict, for it altered the imperatives of strategic communities around the world. As Bernard Brodie realized: While winning a war had hitherto been the sole and ultimate end of militaries, with the invention of the atomic bomb the new imperative was to ensure that war, at least among atomic powers, would never be fought. Brodie’s recognition recalled Sun Tzu’s famous stratagem that the acme of skill is to win a war without a fight. Nuclear weapons turned war – at least between nuclear armed states – into a strictly “peacetime” endeavor, with implications for socioeconomic structures and the role of government intervention in R&D projects. It was understood that deterrence would only be possible as long as both Cold War adversaries, the Soviet Union and the United States, had second strike capability; that is, that they could both retaliate sufficiently after a first strike and inflict a heavy cost on their adversary.

Yet nuclear deterrence and the consequent balance of terror was never as stable as is often perceived, for it was highly susceptible to technological disruptions and innovation. When in 1959 the Soviets set Sputnik into orbit, a massive hysteria swept the United States. Elites became obsessed with science and technology and a comprehensive reform of the educational system was accompanied with increased funding to science education, basic research, and a space program. The Department of Defense Advanced Research Agency Project (DARPA), which according to one researcher has contributed to 95 percent of the iPhone’s patents, was created to promote basic research and close the perceived gap with the Soviets. Sputnik was viewed as a decisive technological breakthrough that would allow the Soviets to achieve a successful first strike. In the 60s, together with the space race, both superpowers engaged in anti-ballistic missile defense research. They gradually understood that no side could achieve a clear first strike advantage but that misperceptions about the other side’s capabilities could prompt one side to attack first, preempting a perceived imminent strike by the other (a use-it-or lose-it situation). The anti-ballistic treaty was signed along with SALT and later START in the early 1970s, a pause in technological competition and the drive for frontier military innovation.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan broke almost two decades of atomic modus operandi with the Soviets when his Strategic Defense Initiative created new impetus for technological disruptions. For some analysts this was a fatal blow to the bureaucratic and heavily centralized Soviet system, which lacked the economic resources to compete with the U.S. in “Star Wars.” The United States demonstrated Sun Tzu’s acme of skill, winning the Cold War without turning it hot. The U.S. strategic community not only followed Brodie’s advice to ensure that war would never be fought; it also found a way to undermine its adversary and eventually build a Pax Americana, at least for a while. China today is no USSR. Its open and interconnected economy ensures that it commands the economic resources to compete with the United States in a race for disruptive innovation. Tsinghua professor Hu Angang, an influential economist in China’s elite circles, sees the revolution in science and technology as the shaper of both economic and military affairs. According to Hu, by 2030 China is likely to be outspending the EU and the U.S. combined on R&D. At the same time, President Xi Jinping’s frequent public statements on the matter make clear that innovation has a prime role to play in the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. History is back with a vengeance.

The Ring of Gyges & The Technological Imperative

The atomic era has made war among nuclear powers suicidal. It has created the risk that a conventional clash between nuclear powers could lead to catastrophic escalation and has thus enabled the world to avoid another great war. However the atomic era has not drained humanity of its inherent tendency to compete for supremacy. As great theorists (Waltz, Gilpin, Schelling, Yan Xuetong) have argued convincingly, states cannot trust intentions and thus look to assess the capabilities of their adversaries. As a former U.S. Secretary of Defense noted in a Tsinghua university speech, no state can be certain about the exact capabilities of its competitors and thus it must plan for worst-case scenarios and “think the unthinkable.”

This concept of strategic mistrust, first found in Thucydides, was at the core of Clausewitz’s* theorizing and has featured in subsequent eras of strategic thought. Today, the technological imperative exists in the sense that “decision makers have to consider how to respond to actual and potential technological change.” This is not merely a deterministic phenomenon. Decisions on which technologies states choose to pursue are shaped by a continuous process of reciprocal responses and by the security imperatives of their competitors. In the industrial era, every major economy has latent military potential, which feeds the “imperative of technology” due to “the linking and indeed blurring of the civilian and military spheres of technology.”

The technological imperative is thus the outcome of industrial economic systems that base their economic vibrancy and perpetual growth on technology and R&D. Even if R&D projects are located within the civilian sector, the dual use of their inventions ensures that “recessed deterrence” will follow a rising trend. In that sense, great powers cannot remain indifferent to economic and technological progress of other states and thus competition is unabated and fierce.

The Ring of Gyges is perhaps the most relevant and concise theoretical example of the interaction between unbalanced power and ethical behavior. In the Republic, Plato introduces a parable that has long captured the attention of political philosophers and psychologists around the world. A poor and innocent shepherd is out in the countryside with his sheep when an earthquake reveals an entrance to a mountainside. The shepherd enters the cave where he finds an unusually large male corpse and a bronze horse. The corpse carries a golden ring. The shepherd discovers that the ring can turn him invisible at will. He goes on to use the power of the ring to seduce the queen and together assassinate the king of Lydia. He then sets up his own dynasty.

The Ring of Gyges can be seen as the ultimate disruptive technology, a source of technological power that turns a state into a perhaps perpetual global hegemon. The Ring of Gyges metaphor fully exemplifies the role of S&T in the operational code of the strategic community of both China and the United States. Full spectrum dominance has long been at the core of the Pentagon’s strategy while China’s strategic thought is marvelously summarized in Sun Tzu’s Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?”**

A case study that highlights the continuous and accelerating struggle between the United States and China for a Ring of Gyges is the Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) matched with a national Anti Ballistic Defense system (NABD). If the United States were to develop both a very advanced Anti-Ballistic System with directed energy capabilities and further grow its CPGS then it could achieve a first strike capacity against major rivals and dictate the rules of the global order.

Global Prompt Strike and Hypersonic Cruise Missiles

When we read, say, of some new poison-gas by means of which one bomb from an aeroplane can exterminate a whole town, we have a thrill of what we fondly believe to be horror, but it is really delight in scientific skill. Science is our god; we say to it, “Though thou slay me, yet will I trust in thee.” And so it slays us.

Bertrand Russell

A potential technological disruption that calls for the rethinking of Cold War nuclear deterrence is in its infancy. The United States has led the way in developing the Conventional Global Prompt Strike (CGPS); that is, a missile system that can exceed seven times the speed of sound and hit any point of the earth under any conditions. This capability allows the United States to attack even the strategic forces of its adversaries conventionally and undermine second-strike capability. This ability, which could endow the United States with a “Ring of Gyges,” has not escaped the attention of Chinese strategists. As Lora Saalmaan, a Tsinghua university trained professor has argued; China has followed U.S. Prompt Strike development closely. The Chinese military has considered scenarios in which the U.S. attacks Chinese strategic forces conventionally and has directed its own R&D at developing similar weapons.

The January 2014 test of a glide vehicle should be seen in this context. China is conducting research to counter the U.S. and develop its own hypersonic high precision missiles. Saalman has reported a substantial increase of Chinese technical articles on CGPS, and a review of these papers reveals that the strategic aim of the systems described evolves through close observation of U.S. initiatives and technological capabilities. R&D in hypersonic technologies is not new, but a potentially disruptive technological breakthrough only became evident in the last three or four years with the successful testing of boost glide vehicles in both the United States and China, with Russia also following closely. These technologies have profound implications for military dogmas and strategic stability on both sides of the Pacific. Misperceptions about CGPS could lead to a new arms race. China is worried about the combined effect of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense and the Global Prompt Strike Capabilities on nuclear deterrence. A CGPS attack combed with an ABS defense could undermine Chinese second strike capabilities and turn the U.S. into an all-powerful “Gyges.”

Sharing the Fruits of Technology

While CGPS is an impressive case study of Ring of Gyges technologies, it remains nonetheless a needle in the ocean of full spectrum dominance and disruptive innovation. In the 21st century, the potential for technological disruption is so broad that great powers are engaged in an ever-accelerating competition for innovation. This is the mother of U.S.-China strategic distrust and the most difficult problem for strategists and theorists to resolve. It will take a lot more than climate change agreements or even “military trust” accords. The U.S. and China along with Russia should actively work on means to improve information about capabilities, agree on strategies, and most importantly agree on the verification of “DARPA type” disruptions.

In addition to building military technology, countries need to develop human institutions on the line of existing UN offices and reach verifiable agreements to manage disruptive technological capabilities. A more revolutionary change and perhaps the surest way to approach a Ring of Gyges would be a G-8 (EU, U.S., China, Japan, India, Brazil, Russia, South Africa) megaproject – say a space initiative to establish a human colony on Mars by mid century. Such an unprecedented techno-industrial project would demand sincere sharing of information and would ensure that disruptive innovation would not lead to an imbalance of power but to the empowerment of humanity, as the “fruits of technology” would indeed be shared among the multinational scientific communities.

It hardly takes great contemplation to understand that a Sino-U.S. race for technological supremacy has potentially catastrophic consequences for peace. Bringing the scientific communities of the world together and aiming to innovate for peace rather than war is perhaps a parallel path (along with verifiable agreements) in building Sino-U.S. trust and ensuring the survival of the human race. Plato himself believed that if human beings comprehend the true meaning of happiness and thus do not enslave themselves to their appetites, the Ring of Gyges could indeed be neutralized and bow before the ascendency of Man.

Vasilis Trigkas ([email protected]) is a research assistant in Sino-EU relations at Tsinghua University & a Non-Resident WSD Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. He is also a researcher at

*Corrected spelling. Thanks to commenter Malcolm Davis for pointing that out.

**A quote very widely attributed to Sun Tzu, but not one that appears in his Art of War. Thanks to commenter Bankotsu for pointing that out.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief