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China, the U.S., and a New Era of Great Power Politics

By Holly Lindamood


The end of the Cold War ushered in a new era for global relations. Where the international arena was shaped by great power competition between the U.S. and Soviet Union for the preceding forty years, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the world experienced a trend of internationalism, characterized by U.S. dominance, liberalism, and cooperation. That period may be coming to an end now, with China emerging as a rising power. China has maintained a nuclear arsenal for over fifty years, but in the past two decades, it has been quietly modernizing and expanding both its nuclear and conventional capabilities. Coupled with the economic dominance of China, one must ask—are we witnessing a return to the great power politics of decades past?


Why is China’s military capability modernization so concerning?


China has been a nuclear weapons power since the late 1960s, but their nuclear posture always made it very clear that their arsenal was for deterrence purposes only. Until recently, China maintained only a small nuclear arsenal, approximately 250 nuclear weapons, kept in a state of low readiness. There was no development of technologies consistent with a launch on warning posture, such as an early warning network. They only had a land based delivery system and no counterforce capabilities or tactical nuclear weapons. It was many years before they developed ICBMs capable of reaching the U.S. Their declaratory policy clearly stated a no first use (NFU) policy.


With the dawn of the new millennium, however, China accelerated its military expansion and modernization program. The U.S. anticipates their arsenal will double over the next 10 years. China now has roughly 290 warheads, and has developed alternate delivery systems to include sea-based ballistic missiles and bombers. Additional changes include developing MiRV and MaRV ballistic missile systems, which can reduce the effectiveness of U.S. missile defense systems, as well as modernizing command and control systems. MiRV missiles have multiple warheads that each hit a different target, while MaRV missiles are guided upon reentry, enabling them to change direction.


While China publicly maintains its NFU policy, ambiguity in their nuclear posture, when taken with the changes to their nuclear weapons program, has led to heightened concern in the U.S. about China’s intentions. In its 2018 nuclear posture review (NPR), the U.S. indicates that China poses a growing threat to the U.S.

China, too, is modernizing and expanding its already considerable nuclear forces. Like Russia, China is pursuing entirely new nuclear capabilities tailored to achieve particular national security objectives while also modernizing its conventional military, challenging traditional U.S. military superiority in the Western Pacific.


So, what does all of this mean for U.S.-China relations?


A key change has occurred in the U.S. nuclear posture in response to China’s nuclear modernization. In the past, the U.S. has not been too concerned about China’s nuclear arsenal posing a security threat to the U.S. The 2018 NPR indicates a shift in U.S. nuclear policy to focus on strengthening deterrence by modernizing the existing arsenal and associated command and control structures, and developing new weapons and delivery systems. By doing so, the U.S. hopes to send a message to China that, regardless of their modernization and expansion, they will not have an advantage over the U.S. In the event of a nuclear exchange, the U.S. will be better able to limit potential damage than China will, thus weighting any cost-benefit analysis in the U.S.’s favor and deterring China from incorporating nuclear threats or use into their foreign policy objectives.


One of the most pressing concerns in U.S.-China relations is the potential for a new arms race, which inherently leads to a less stable and secure world. Part and parcel with nuclear weapons competition comes the distinct possibility of nuclear war, or accident, or miscalculation. In 1979, U.S. warning systems indicted that the Soviet Union had launched a full scale attack. What really happened is that someone had mistakenly put a training tape in the computer, which contained a large-scale nuclear attack scenario. In 1995, Russian early warning systems detected a missile launch that appeared to be a U.S. submarine launched ballistic missile; it turned out to be a Norwegian rocket on a science mission. These are just two examples of countless close calls that occurred during the Cold War. Weapons kept in a high state of readiness, as the U.S. does, increase the chances of an accident or miscalculation leading to nuclear exchange.


The U.S.’s damage limitation policy may also actually reduce, rather than enhance, the ability of the U.S. to limit damage, or even China’s perception of such abilities, which in turn could make China more likely to initiate conflict. Just think for a moment about the implications—the U.S., in response to China, expands its counter capabilities; China responds by doing the same and it becomes a game of tit for tat, or chicken. Look at what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A game of one-upmanship almost led to nuclear war when the U.S. responded to Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba with a blockade.


In a great power competition, major powers seek to to increase their influence in the international system. If China takes a revisionist stance, where they move to become a regional hegemon, the U.S. could be drawn into war, due to the security assurances extended to regional allies, or extended deterrence could be weakened, thus weakening the U.S.’s overall global influence. Other states in the region, such as Japan or South Korea, may decide to increase their own military capabilities in an effort to ensure their security. Consider Japan, who has relied on U.S. extended nuclear deterrence since the end of WWII. Although Japan has long been opposed to nuclear weapons, from time to time, a national debate arises over whether Japan should maintain this policy. In a world where Japan can no longer reliably depend on U.S. security assurances, they may in fact be inclined to more seriously consider developing nuclear capabilities.


Is a return to great power competition inevitable?


The short answer is no. Perception is a key issue here, however, which can have an outsized impact on international relations, particularly when it comes to military power. Regardless of China’s intent, the U.S. perceives their actions as a challenge. Imagine a scenario where you are walking down the street and suddenly someone comes out of their house with a gun, because they perceive you to be a threat. Although that person’s intent is to defend their home, you now feel threatened and will likely take action to protect yourself. It is a mutually reinforcing scenario that is likely to escalate and end in violence.


The same idea applies to China’s MiRV and MaRV ballistic missile systems. One of the concerns over the missile defense system is that the U.S. could initiate a nuclear attack and use missile defense as a way to eliminate China’s second strike capability, which has been a major concern to Russia as well. So the development of new ballistic missile systems that can counter missile defense could in fact simply be a way to strengthen China’s nuclear deterrent, having no effect on their NFU policy. But if the U.S. continues to perceive China’s actions and policies as threatening, they will continue to take corresponding action, leading to an unending loop of misperceived actions and responses.


Under the existing China and U.S. nuclear policies, a return to an era of great power politics seems likely. This is unfortunate, as a bipolar power competition will likely reduce international cooperation in a number of areas, particularly in the realm of security cooperation. It also potentially impedes the progress on a nuclear weapons free world that we have made in the past thirty years.


With the Biden administration’s upcoming nuclear policy review, this may change. President Biden has already signaled a commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament by extending New START. To prevent a resurgence of great power competition, the U.S. must engage in meaningful dialogue with China, to minimize the effects of perception and reduce uncertainty.

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