For the United States and its allies and partners in Asia, China’s aggressive efforts to assert questionable claims in the South and East China Sea, enforce a disputed Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), build the rocket/missile and naval capabilities needed to invade Taiwan, and build a substantial ballistic missile capability all work to create a situation where conflict between the U.S. and the PRC could occur and rapidly escalate. Given that American political and military leaders have a poor understanding of Chinese ambitions and particularly their opaque nuclear thinking, there is ample reason to be concerned that a future conflict could escalate to a limited nuclear conflict.
Thus, it is worth taking a look at the PRC with an eye toward offering insight into Chinese motivation and thinking when it comes to how a possible crisis over Taiwan could escalate to the use of nuclear weapons.
In their latest estimate, Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris assess that the Second Artillery Corps possesses forty long-range nuclear missiles that can strike the United States if fired from China’s eastern seaboard and an additional twenty that could hit Hawaii and Alaska. The challenge for China, is reaching the East Coast – home to the nation’s capital and largest economic centers.
To overcome this challenge China is also developing its JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) which is a sea-based variant of the DF-31 land-mobile long-range missile that will go to sea on Jin-class submarines. China may also be developing a new mobile missile, the DF-41, which will carry multiple warheads, giving the Chinese a way to potentially defeat an American ballistic missile defense system. It is worth noting that the quantity, though not the quality, of China’s nuclear arsenal is only limited by its dwindling stock of weapons grade plutonium.
This raises the question; to what end is China developing and deploying its nuclear arsenal?
The textbook answer is straightforward. China seeks a secure second (retaliatory) strike capability that will serve to deter an American first strike. As China argues, it has a “no-nuclear-first policy” which makes its arsenal purely defensive – while its other capabilities such as cyber are offensive.
Potential nuclear adversaries including Russia, India, and the United States are fully aware that China’s investment in advanced warheads and ballistic missile delivery systems bring Delhi, Moscow, and, soon, Washington within reach of the “East Wind.” While not a nuclear peer competitor to either Russia or the U.S., China is rapidly catching up as it builds an estimated 30-50 new nuclear warheads each year.
While American leaders may find such a sentiment unfounded, the PRC has a strong fear that the United States will use its nuclear arsenal as a tool to blackmail (coerce) China into taking or not taking a number of actions that are against its interests. China’s fears are not unfounded. Unlike China, the United States maintains an ambiguous use-policy in order to provide maximum flexibility.
As declassified government documents from the 1970s clearly show, the United States certainly planned to use overwhelming nuclear force early in a European conflict with the Soviet Union. Given American nuclear superiority and its positioning of ballistic missile defenses in Asia, ostensibly to defend against a North Korean attack, China sees its position and ability to deter the United States as vulnerable.
While there are several scenarios where conflict between the United States and China is possible, some analysts believe that a conflict over Taiwan remains the most likely place where the PRC and the U.S. would come to blows. Beijing is aware that any coercive action on its part to force Taiwan to accept its political domination could incur the wrath of the United States. To prevent the U.S. from intervening in the region, China will certainly turn to its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy, beginning with non-lethal means and non-lethal threats to discourage the American public from supporting the use of force in support of Taiwan.
If thwarted in its initial efforts to stop Chinese aggression against Taiwan, the United States may be tempted to resort to stronger measures and attack mainland China. A kinetic response to a cyber-attack, for example, although an option, would very likely lead to escalation on the part of the Chinese. Given the regime’s relative weakness and the probability that American attacks (cyber and conventional) on China will include strikes against PLA command and control (C2) nodes, which mingle conventional and nuclear C2, the Chinese may escalate to the use of a nuclear weapon (against a U.S. carrier in China’s self-declared waters for example) as a means of forcing de-escalation.
In the view of China, such a strike would not be a violation of its no-first-use policy because the strike would occur in sovereign Chinese waters, thus making the use of nuclear weapons a defensive act. Since Taiwan is a domestic matter, any U.S. intervention would be viewed as an act of aggression. This, in the minds of the Chinese, makes the United States an outside aggressor, not China.
It is also important to remember that nuclear weapons are an asymmetric response to American conventional superiority. Given that China is incapable of executing and sustaining a conventional military campaign against the continental United States, China would clearly have an asymmetry of interest and capability with the United States – far more is at stake for China than it is for the United States.
In essence, the only effective option in retaliation for a successful U.S. conventional campaign on Chinese soil is the nuclear one. Without making too crude a point, the nuclear option provides more bang for the buck, or yuan. Given that mutually assured destruction (MAD) is not part of China’s strategic thinking – in fact it is explicitly rejected – the PRC will see the situation very differently than the United States.
China likely has no desire to become a nuclear peer of the United States. It does not need to be in order to achieve its geopolitical objectives. However, China does have specific goals that are a part of its stated core security interests, including reunification with Taiwan. Reunification is necessary for China to reach its unstated goal of becoming a regional hegemon. As long as Taiwan maintains its de facto independence of China it acts as a literal and symbolic barrier to China’s power projection beyond the East China Sea. Without Taiwan, China cannot gain military hegemony in its own neighborhood.
China’s maritime land reclamation strategy for Southeast Asia pales in scope and significance with the historical and political value of Taiwan. With Taiwan returned to its rightful place, the relevance to China of the U.S. military presence in Japan and South Korea is greatly diminished. China’s relationship with the Philippines, which lies just to the south of Taiwan, would also change dramatically.
Although China criticizes the United States for playing the role of global hegemon, it is actively seeking to supplant the United States in Asia so that it can play a similar role in the region. While Beijing may take a longer view toward geopolitical issues than Washington does, Chinese political leaders must still be responsive to a domestic audience that demands ever higher levels of prosperity.
Central to China’s ability to guarantee that prosperity is the return of Taiwan, and control of the sea lines of commerce and communication upon which it relies. Unfortunately, too many Americans underestimate the importance of these core interests to China and the lengths to which China will ultimately go in order to guarantee them – even the use of nuclear weapons.
Should China succeed it pushing the United States back, the PRC can deal with regional territorial disputes bilaterally and without U.S. involvement. After all, Washington invariably takes the non-Chinese side.
China sees the U.S. as a direct competitor and obstacle to its geopolitical ambitions. As such it is preparing for the next step in a crisis that it will likely instigate, control, and conclude in the Taiwan Straits. China will likely use the election or statement of a pro-independence high-ranking official as the impetus for action. This is the same method it used when it fired missiles in the Straits in response to remarks by then-President Lee Teng-hui, ushering in the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis. The U.S. brought an end to the mainland’s antics when the U.S.S Nimitz and six additional ships sailed into the Straits.
Despite the pro-China presidency of Ma Ying-jeou, China continues to expand its missile force targeting Taiwan and undertakes annual war games that simulate an attack on Taiwan.
China has not forgotten the humiliation it faced in 1996 and will be certain no U.S. carrier groups have access to the Strait during the next crisis. The Second Artillery Corps’ nuclear capabilities exist to help secure the results China seeks when the U.S. is caught off-guard, overwhelmed, and forced to either escalate a crisis or capitulate.
While the scenario described is certainly not inevitable, the fact than many American readers will see it as implausible if not impossible is an example of the mirror-imaging that often occurs when attempting to understand an adversary. China is not the United States nor do Chinese leaders think like their counterparts in the United States. Unless we give serious thought to possible scenarios where nuclear conflict could occur, the United States may be unprepared for a situation that escalates beyond its ability to prevent a catastrophe.
Dr. Adam Lowther is Director, School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies, Air Force Global Strike Command. Alex Littlefield is a professor at Feng Chia University.