A war between the United States and China would have catastrophic global consequences. Thus, deterring Chinese revisionism must be the sine qua non of U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific. While war has been avoided to date, China’s behavior is increasingly assertive as it seeks to become the dominant global power. China has shown itself adept at utilizing political coercion to achieve its goals. It uses a wide variety of statecraft tools and tactics to achieve its goals, from hybrid warfare to “comprehensive national power” (CNP) to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s “Three Warfares” framework to “gray zone tactics.”
China’s revisionist efforts typically occur below the level of outright violence, but are nevertheless illegal under international law or violate the norms and expectations that make up the liberal international order, incomplete though it is. Similarly, China does not appear to distinguish between peacetime and wartime conflict, again giving it an advantage in perpetual struggle.
The one tool of statecraft that China has avoided is nuclear weapons. China has not threatened other states with nuclear weapons and its declaratory policy is “no first use.” Many believe China will continue its no-first-use policy, even after it reaches parity with the United States. But this thinking finds its root in China’s traditional position as an inferior nuclear power and simply projects straight-line into the future. China’s approach to achieving its strategic goals since at least 2008 reveals another possibility: Beijing may incorporate nuclear weapons into its framework of political threats, intimidation, and even the use of force to achieve its international goals. After all, nuclear weapons are another element of CNP.
Note I am not arguing that China will use its nuclear forces as political instruments; rather I am arguing that we should examine the possibility more carefully, given China’s willingness to incorporate all elements of statecraft into its geopolitical strategy.
China is revisionist in nature and willing to violate international law, norms, and expectations. Moreover, China has been willing to walk up to, and sometimes cross, the line of violence in achieving its international goals. Examples of China’s increasingly assertive behavior abound, from its Himalayan border with India, to the East and South China Sea.
Gray Zone Tactics: The South China Sea and Beyond
China effectively maneuvers at levels just below violent conflict to achieve its goals. For example, in the South China Sea, China deploys fleets of fishing vessels (maritime militias), backed by heavily armed coast guard ships, themselves supported over the horizon by warships. Using these ostensibly civilian assets, China encroaches upon the legal rights of the surrounding states, which are stipulated under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. When these states try to protect their rights, China often escalates, such as by ramming and sinking the smaller state’s vessels, preventing resupply to local outposts, or employing its myriad other tools of statecraft. China has, in essence, conventional escalation dominance.
At the same time, China produces a never-ending onslaught of propaganda and regulations to underscore its version of reality. Beijing created the nine-dash line claim and now insists that maps worldwide depict it. It has created new administrative regions and capitals (Sansha City, Woody Island) to administer its claimed territory. It enacted fishing laws over the entire region and the Chinese Coast Guard enforces these extraterritorial applications of law.
China thus demonstrates a willingness to undermine the status quo through political coercion and threats of violence. Examples proliferate beyond the South China Sea: China cut off trade relations with Lithuania after the country failed to use the name “Taipei” rather than Taiwan with regard to its representative office. Similarly, China imposed punitive tariffs against Australian wine, barley, beef, and other exports after Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Not only has China interacted violently with the Philippines in the South China Sea, but it has also punished the Philippines economically. Japan lost access to rare earth minerals when it detained a Chinese fishing boat captain who had trespassed in Japanese administered waters around the Senkaku Islands (claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands).
China’s intimidation, especially in the Indo-Pacific, is often successful because it carries the very real possibility of overt violence. Given the integration of non-violent coercion, threats of violence, and violence via the application of CNP (something Carl Von Clausewitz would be familiar with), it is reasonable to ask how China might integrate nuclear weapons into its strategy, once it achieves parity with the United States.
Compellence With Nuclear Weapons
There is debate over whether a state can compel action with nuclear weapons. Thomas Schelling argued that compellence was possible, though he acknowledged deterrence was far easier. But given a willingness to breach expectations and take risks, compellence becomes more plausible. Schelling famously used the example of two drivers speeding toward a head-on collision. The most effective strategy to win this game of chicken would be to toss the steering wheel out of the window. China has shown a willingness to take risks during geopolitical competition. Moreover, since China does not seem to acknowledge a clear distinction between the threat of violence and violence itself, it may be that it likewise sees less of a firewall between conventional weapons and nuclear weapons.
This view is a radical departure from mainstream thinking, which emphasizes China’s no-first-use strategy and the implied clear separation of nuclear weapons from other tools of state. But China’s behavior in the South China Sea and elsewhere belies this assumption. The evidence is that China sees no such lines, as demonstrated by gray zone tactics and Sun Tzu’s philosophy that strategy is a continuum rather than a set of discrete options. In this view, then, the only reason Beijing has walled off nuclear weapons is that China has traditionally been a weak nuclear state with very few weapons. But that is changing rapidly as China builds out its nuclear forces.
There are at least two disruptive ways nuclear parity may impact a crisis. First, China may be willing to use nuclear weapons to intimidate other actors. This is not so much the case with small states such as the Philippines or Vietnam, as these states are already intimidated by China’s conventional superiority. Rather, a near-peer state such as Japan might find itself facing an implicit or even explicit nuclear threat from China. China’s parity with the United States means that China has a greater capability to threaten other states with nuclear weapons during a crisis because these states rely on the U.S. extended deterrent, which always faces credibility challenges.
Second, nuclear parity means that there is no longer a strategic backstop of U.S. nuclear superiority in any crisis. To date, every crisis that has occurred between the two states has occurred in an environment of significant U.S. nuclear superiority. China had to remain cognizant that any crisis could wind up going nuclear, which would threaten its existence. To be sure, the existence of overwhelming superiority did not necessarily make U.S. threats likely or credible. Nonetheless, that nuclear differential existed in the past and implicitly influenced crises. It is about to disappear. Thus, the environment in which a future great power crisis occurs will be fundamentally different than it has been in the past.
This is especially troublesome given that China has sought to use risk as a means of maneuvering for political advantage, while the United States has primarily sought to avoid miscalculation. This willingness to take risks was evident recently in the PLA Navy’s near collision with the USS Chung-Hoon as it transited the Taiwan Straits along with a Canadian frigate. Similarly, only days before that, a Chinese fighter aggressively maneuvered in front of a patrolling U.S. RC-135. U.S. government sources say this aggressive behavior has become more common in recent years. After these incidents, the United States sought to communicate in order to reduce the chances of miscalculation, while China refused such discussions, apparently willing to accept the risk of miscalculation and escalation.
These two disruptive impacts of nuclear parity can be examined through the lens of a hypothetical Taiwan crisis.
Taiwan and Nuclear Escalation
Acknowledging China’s willingness to take risks to undermine the status quo illuminates the current standoff over Taiwan. In a future crisis, China will likely use all of its tools to attempt to eliminate the de facto independent Taiwan, from non-violent to violent methods. In the case of an initially non-violent attempt such as a blockade, China would likely be willing to risk collisions and other dangerous interactions that are just below the threshold of war, such as occurred in the recent RC-135 and Chung-Hoon incidents. Any state attempting to breach the blockade would face intense harassment from China and forcing the blockade would likely require, or inadvertently result in, escalation to violence and presumably, war.
Although notions of an escalation ladder (a la Herman Kahn) have fallen out of favor, it is still helpful to view any such crisis as a set of escalatory interactions whereby each side prefers to avoid war, but one side is willing to take greater risks. China’s preference would be using “operations other than war” (e.g., the blockade) to force Taiwan’s capitulation. But given China’s willingness to take risks and to engage in coercion up to and including violence, China would have an advantage over states seeking to force the blockade. Ultimately, the actors trying to breach the blockade would have to engage in overt violence or to back down.
In the case of Taiwan, any violent engagement would take place well within the range of China’s vast anti-access and area denial arsenal. China would have local escalation dominance. If the United States tried to force the blockade, China could not only sink the ships present, but launch missile assaults on Anderson Air Force base in Guam and numerous other U.S. or allied facilities. It is true that the United States might horizontally escalate into another geographical area or by blockading China, but given that Taiwan has more limited stores than does China, these options are not likely to be successful. The United States would be forced to back down or escalate into a larger war, which itself could escalate to a nuclear exchange.
If limited nuclear escalation was threatened, Schelling’s game of chicken would become central. Which state could more credibly threaten nuclear use? Two factors would be important: willingness and capability. Given that an independent Taiwan represents an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s existence, it is likely that China places greater value on Taiwan than does the United States. Therefore, China is likely willing to take greater risks, up to and including the plausible threat of using nuclear weapons. Put another way, China’s political interest in Taiwan, and therefore willingness to escalate, is greater than the United States’ interest. This willingness to escalate is enhanced by China’s longstanding willingness to take greater risks than its opponents.
Consequently, the only thing stopping China from making successful nuclear threats would be superior U.S. capabilities. This is why China’s move to nuclear parity is so important. It removes the final barrier to China enforcing its will in Taiwan and probably other high value areas such as the South China Sea. Facing a China that in the near future has nuclear parity, if not superiority, the United States would have to ask itself whether Taiwan was worth risking nuclear conflict, especially given China’s ability and willingness to escalate at each opportunity. On the other hand, if China does not have nuclear parity, the United States would retain strategic escalation dominance, and might manage any crisis from a position of strength (though the impact of lesser political interests could still cause the United States to back down).
Although the logic of strategic behavior is consistent across time and space, the cultural expectations and the lessons learned over time differ. While China uses all its tools of statecraft to achieve political goals, the West has placed greater emphasis on avoiding unintended conflict, perhaps due to how World War I started and how close the world came to nuclear war in 1962. These differences did not manifest so long as China was in a position of nuclear inferiority. However, as China approaches nuclear parity with the United States, its willingness to use all tools of statecraft may give it an advantage over the U.S. during crises. Washington would do well to consider how this gap in appetites for risk may affect a future crisis in the Indo-Pacific.