China and East Asia in the Global Nuclear Order 

Recent Features

Interviews | Security

China and East Asia in the Global Nuclear Order 

Insights from Francesca Giovannini.

China and East Asia in the Global Nuclear Order 
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Dr. Francesca Giovannini – executive director of Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School – is the 396th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

Identify current vulnerabilities in the global nuclear order. 

This specific historical nuclear age is characterized by three very specific vulnerabilities. 

First, the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world, the United States and the Russian Federation, are rapidly and deliberately dismantling the global nuclear security architecture on which strategic stability was based. In the past few years, the United States and the Russian Federation have abandoned treaties on which their strategic stability used to rely for decades. The U.S. withdrew from the ABM, the INF, and the Open Skies Treaty, while the Russian Federation has recently withdrawn from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty and suspended implementation of NEW START. 

The rejection of previously held agreements and commitments creates a dangerous institutional regulatory vacuum, which both countries exploit to reshape their nuclear and conventional forces. The U.S. is in the middle of a $1 trillion modernization. The Russian Federation, which concluded its modernization in 2015-2016, is, however, experimenting with new types of dual-use capable weapons and delivery systems. 

Second, the nuclear order is changing from a bipolar into a tripolar or multipolar world. Certainly, China’s military ascendancy is seen in the United States with great concern as an element of instability and unpredictability. 

Third, growing regional instabilities in Europe over Ukraine, in the Korean Peninsula, in the Gulf, and around the Taiwan Strait will bear unforeseen repercussions on the global nuclear order. These three vulnerabilities to the global order are intertwined in very complex ways, and they are challenging to disentangle. 

How are China’s developments in space and artificial intelligence bolstering its nuclear capabilities? 

China’s advancements in space and artificial intelligence enhance its nuclear capabilities through improved delivery systems, advanced surveillance and reconnaissance infrastructure, and robust defensive technologies. These technologies will act as important enabling systems for China’s nuclear forces along many dimensions. Yet, while critically important, these technologies can also be extraordinarily destabilizing. 

President Xi’s administration has shown an interest in cooperating with the United States to regulate AI in the nuclear domain. I think the U.S. should take up this opportunity and work earnestly with China to achieve a verifiable agreement on the safe use of AI in military applications. 

On space, I think an agreement will be very unlikely. China relies more and more on space assets and will seek to achieve a position of strength before potentially negotiating any regulatory framework. 

Is nuclear deterrence still effective amid conflicts in Ukraine and Israel and the looming threat from China in the Indo-Pacific? 

The art of deterrence has been around for a long time. Civilizations have always used deterrence tactics to discourage adversaries from conducting offensive operations on their territories. The arrival of nuclear weapons has made deterrence a more difficult and complex undertaking. Much more is at stake if deterrence fails in a world of nuclear weapons. 

Ukraine and Israel are two very distinct cases and provide very distinct lessons learned. In the case of Ukraine, conventional deterrence has failed, but nuclear deterrence is holding. Most specifically, NATO has failed to deter Putin from invading Ukraine but has succeeded in deterring a possible Russian attack against other European targets. Let me mention, for instance, that the Russians know very well all the ports of entry for weapons going into Ukraine. For instance, they know what train stations in Poland are receiving military aid to Ukraine and are tasked to deliver it. And yet, the Russians have not dared to strike against these targets in NATO territories. The only reason is the fact that NATO is a nuclear weapons-based alliance. 

Israel is a different case altogether. Nuclear deterrence loses meaning in asymmetric conflicts, especially against non-state actors. If Israel were to say to Hamas, “Don’t attack me, or I will use my nuclear weapons,” this threat would not be credible given the geographical proximity of Israel to Hamas-controlled territory. In other words, nuclear deterrence in the case of Israel is not under question. What is under question (and has been tested by Hamas) is the ability and willingness of Israel to fight an asymmetric war. 

Explain the impact of the Ukraine War on East Asian security and stability. 

The first question is: What lessons are countries in East Asia drawing from Ukraine? I bet different countries will draw different conclusions. For instance, North Korea will probably find confirmation in its belief that the only weapon that can protect a weak country from being invaded and destroyed is the nuclear one. 

To South Korea and Japan, Ukraine demonstrates the incredible importance of U.S. assurances and commitment to South Korea and Japan. U.S. deep involvement and ironclad commitment to Europe have made a Russian escalation of conflict beyond Ukraine highly unlikely (almost impossible). So, allies should feel reassured that the U.S. stands strong to protect allies’ security. 

But of course, the most exciting question is what lessons China draws from Ukraine. First, China has seen how costly and complex such a fight is. When the country you invade fights for its survival and fundamentally has nothing to lose, it becomes a very challenging enemy to defeat. The Ukrainians are fighting for their freedom, future, and land. For them, this is a war of survival. For the Russians, it’s a war of choice. Many Russians don’t understand why they must fight in Ukraine and to what end. The stakes are different for the two adversaries, and whoever has the most at stake typically prevails or is at least able to raise the costs of fighting for the opponent. 

Second, economically, the ability of the Europeans and Americans to cut off dependence on Russian gas and oil so speedily might suggest to Chinese observers that the European and American economies, although extraordinarily integrated into the global supply chain, are also extraordinarily resilient. This means these countries can cut off adversaries for a relatively long time without suffering catastrophic consequences.  

On the other hand, China might also learn other lessons. One is that many countries in the Global South are less willing to stand up against authoritarian regimes than previously assumed. The lukewarm opposition to Russia has shown that these countries will make choices more based on economic benefits than ideological reasons. 

Finally, China will rightly understand that in democratic countries, commitments to a specific cause can only last the political life of a specific government. New elections might bring different priorities and different foreign policy approaches. 

Assess the effectiveness of the U.S. and EU approach to maintaining a global nuclear balance. 

This is an important question, but I fear the answer to this question is that it depends on what perspective one uses to assess the effectiveness of the U.S. and Europe. Indeed, from the U.S. standpoint, the enduring importance and centrality of the NPT (despite growing tensions and disagreements) can be counted as a sign of practical and visionary leadership. One might point out that despite geopolitical crises and many attempts around the world, only nine countries today have nuclear weapons. The U.S. can certainly argue that the norm of nuclear nonproliferation remains solid and successful. 

On the other hand, the U.S. is also eager today to bring China and Russia to the negotiating table to achieve trilateral armed control (either to enhance transparency or achieve a reduction in nuclear forces). These efforts have proven fruitless thus far. Russia continues to experiment with new weapons, and China’s nuclear forces are expanding. In the realm of arms control and disarmament, the U.S. leadership is contested and highly disputed as many countries point to what they perceive to be American hypocrisy and double standards. 

The Europeans are highly divided over their position on nuclear weapons, and this division will only grow over time. France, in particular, remains one of the staunchest supporters of nuclear deterrence. Within the European group, however, France has to work with Austria and Ireland, two leading nations on nuclear disarmament issues. These divisions have hampered the EU’s ability to provide policy solutions or to act as a mediator In nuclear-related crises.