Foreign Policy Essay

The Foreign Policy Essay: A Nuclear Asia?

By Elbridge Colby
Sunday, February 15, 2015, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Fears about nuclear weapons and concerns about East Asia typically reside in separate worlds. But one risk of a rising China that is usually ignored is how it affects the risk of nuclear war. Elbridge Colby of the Center for a New American Security contends that the changing military balance in East Asia has profound implications for the salience of nuclear weapons. The good news is that both the United States and China can at least mitigate—though not eliminate—the danger.

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For all the focus on maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas, there is an even greater peril in Asia that deserves attention: the rising salience of nuclear weapons. China’s military buildup—in particular its growing capabilities to blunt America’s ability to project effective force in the western Pacific—is threatening to change the military balance in the region. This will lead to a cascade of strategic shifts that will make nuclear weapons more central in both American and Chinese national-security plans, while increasing the danger that other regional states will seek nuclear arsenals of their own. Like it or not, nuclear weapons in Asia are back.

This is true for four reasons.

Colby photoFirst, the conventional military balance in the region is becoming more competitive in ways that will make the possibility of nuclear escalation in the event of conflict more likely. After three quarters of a century of unquestioned supremacy in maritime Asia, the U.S. military is now facing an increasingly severe challenge from China’s military buildup. No longer can U.S. forces in maritime Asia operate decisively and with impunity; rather, key U.S. facilities and assets, such as aircraft carriers and vital bases on Okinawa and Guam, are now increasingly vulnerable to China’s strike forces even as the United States’ own strike assets face a more and more capable Chinese air defense network. Because of this, U.S. forces attempting to operate in maritime Asia will now have to struggle for dominance rather than simply assume it.

A war in the region between the United States and China under such circumstances would be more susceptible to nuclear escalation. In any contingency in the region, the growing sophistication of China’s large military would mean that the United States would have a much more difficult time overcoming it, since Chinese systems that have longer range, are more accurate, are smarter, and are more effectively netted together require more work, creativity, and skill to defeat. Put more directly, the United States and its allies would have to fight harder, quicker, nastier, deeper, for longer, with less deliberation, and over a wider battlefield than was the case in the past in order to defeat Chinese forces in maritime Asia.

Even without anyone really wanting to introduce nuclear weapons into the equation, these trends raise classic “inadvertent escalation” risks. This line of analysis points to the dangers of escalation that can arise due to the way even a conventional war can unfold. In particular, if one needs to fight harder against an opponent in order to prevail, it also becomes harder to limit the war—including in ways that might entangle nuclear weapons. 

Second, China’s nuclear arsenal is becoming somewhat larger and considerably more sophisticated. While China continues to exhibit restraint regarding the size of its nuclear arsenal and in how it appears to think about the role of nuclear weapons in its military strategy, China is nevertheless substantially modernizing its nuclear forces. It is fielding more modern road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) possibly capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) while also making progress on the development of a serious ballistic missile submarine capability. At the same time, its command and control systems and the professionalism of its nuclear warriors are also improving. Whether deliberately pursued or not, these advances will by necessity give Beijing more and better options for employing its nuclear weapons, especially in more limited and controlled ways. Instead of only, practically speaking, having the option of striking at a major American or Japanese city, China will increasingly gain the ability to employ its nuclear forces in more tailored fashion—for example, against military facilities or forces, including those in the region. This ability to use nuclear weapons in more limited and tailored ways will make China’s threats—explicit or implicit—to use nuclear forces more credible. The consequence of this is that China’s nuclear force will cast a darker shadow over Sino-American competition in the Pacific.

Third, the conventional balance is not fixed and the United States might actually lose the conventional advantage in the western Pacific—or important portions of it. A loss of U.S. conventional advantages in maritime Asia could come about because of a U.S. lack of resolve or inattention, because of the scale and effectiveness of China’s substantial and ongoing military buildup, or because of some malign combination of both. In this case, Washington might seek to rely more on its nuclear weapons to compensate for this conventional weakness in extending deterrence to its allies in the region. In particular, Washington would likely seek to exploit its superior ability to conduct a limited nuclear war to deter China from taking advantage of its conventional lead.

This course will seem unappealing to many, not least in the United States. But this disquiet points to the fourth and final reason: the prospect of further nuclear proliferation in the region. If, as China grows stronger and more assertive, its conventional military power begins to outweigh that of the United States in maritime Asia, and if that shift is not met by a greater U.S. reliance on its nuclear forces or some other effective countervailing steps, then those countries of Asia traditionally allied to Washington—countries that cannot hope to match China’s strength at the conventional level—may ultimately see getting their own nuclear weapons as essential to deterring China’s exploitation of its growing strength.

None of these four trends pushing toward the greater salience of nuclear weapons in the Asia-Pacific should—or will—be welcomed in Washington or in allied capitals. But hoping they will not materialize will not be sufficient to stave them off. Rather, the most effective step Washington—and, importantly, its Asian allies—can take is to strive relentlessly to maintain the U.S. and allied military edge in maritime Asia. As Clausewitz pithily put it, “The best strategy is always to be very strong.” But keeping this margin will require profound changes in how the United States invests its defense resources and in how it commits them. It means shifting away from the model of a “balanced force” designed to cover all bases and toward one concentrated first and foremost on prevailing in the most consequential forms of military conflict. And it means committing those forces less to elective interventions serving peripheral interests while husbanding them for use in deterring and, if necessary, defeating our most formidable potential adversaries, of which the most daunting is China.

But neither, it must be emphasized, should these trends be welcomed in Beijing. In fact, China stands to suffer as much and perhaps more than its neighbors should these trends fully unfold. Beijing should therefore be very careful lest its military buildup—conventional and nuclear—lead to a far more menacing, less stable, and more proliferated regional environment. Beijing is the player in the regional equation best positioned to prevent such a future from coming to be. Let us hope that this encourages Chinese decision-makers to look upon greater restraint in their military investments and deployments and modesty in their regional ambitions not as favors to Washington and other Asian capitals, but as serving China’s own vital interests.

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Elbridge Colby is the Robert M. Gates Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. This piece is based on a longer article that appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of The National Interest.