As China’s power has grown in recent years, so, too, has the risk of war with the United States. Under President Xi Jinping, China has increased its political and economic pressure on Taiwan and built military installations on coral reefs in the South China Sea, fueling Washington’s fears that Chinese expansionism will threaten U.S. allies and influence in the region. U.S. destroyers have transited the Taiwan Strait, to loud protests from Beijing. American policymakers have wondered aloud whether they should send an aircraft carrier through the strait as well. Chinese fighter jets have intercepted U.S. aircraft in the skies above the South China Sea. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has brought long-simmering economic disputes to a rolling boil.
A war between the two countries remains unlikely, but the prospect of a military confrontation—resulting, for example, from a Chinese campaign against Taiwan—no longer seems as implausible as it once did. And the odds of such a confrontation going nuclear are higher than most policymakers and analysts think.
Members of China’s strategic community tend to dismiss such concerns. Likewise, U.S. studies of a potential war with China often exclude nuclear weapons from the analysis entirely, treating them as basically irrelevant to the course of a conflict. Asked about the issue in 2015, Dennis Blair, the former commander of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, estimated the likelihood of a U.S.-Chinese nuclear crisis as “somewhere between nil and zero.”
This assurance is misguided. If deployed against China, the Pentagon’s preferred style of conventional warfare would be a potential recipe for nuclear escalation. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States’ signature approach to war has been simple: punch deep into enemy territory in order to rapidly knock out the opponent’s key military assets at minimal cost. But the Pentagon developed this formula in wars against Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Serbia, none of which was a nuclear power.
China, by contrast, not only has nuclear weapons; it has also intermingled them with its conventional military forces, making it difficult to attack one without attacking the other. This means that a major U.S. military campaign targeting China’s conventional forces would likely also threaten its nuclear arsenal. Faced with such a threat, Chinese leaders could decide to use their nuclear weapons while they were still able to.
As U.S. and Chinese leaders navigate a relationship fraught with mutual suspicion, they must come to grips with the fact that a conventional war could skid into a nuclear confrontation. Although this risk is not high in absolute terms, its consequences for the region and the world would be devastating. As long as the United States and China continue to pursue their current grand strategies, the risk is likely to endure. This means that leaders on both sides should dispense with the illusion that they can easily fight a limited war. They should focus instead on managing or resolving the political, economic, and military tensions that might lead to a conflict in the first place.
A NEW KIND OF THREAT
There are some reasons for optimism. For one, China has long stood out for its nonaggressive nuclear doctrine. After its first nuclear test, in 1964, China largely avoided the Cold War arms race, building a much smaller and simpler nuclear arsenal than its resources would have allowed. Chinese leaders have consistently characterized nuclear weapons as useful only for deterring nuclear aggression and coercion. Historically, this narrow purpose required only a handful of nuclear weapons that could ensure Chinese retaliation in the event of an attack. To this day, China maintains a “no first use” pledge, promising that it will never be the first to use nuclear weapons.
The prospect of a nuclear conflict can also seem like a relic of the Cold War. Back then, the United States and its allies lived in fear of a Warsaw Pact offensive rapidly overrunning Europe. NATO stood ready to use nuclear weapons first to stalemate such an attack. Both Washington and Moscow also consistently worried that their nuclear forces could be taken out in a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear strike by the other side. This mutual fear increased the risk that one superpower might rush to launch in the erroneous belief that it was already under attack. Initially, the danger of unauthorized strikes also loomed large. In the 1950s, lax safety procedures for U.S. nuclear weapons stationed on NATO soil, as well as minimal civilian oversight of U.S. military commanders, raised a serious risk that nuclear escalation could have occurred without explicit orders from the U.S. president.
The good news is that these Cold War worries have little bearing on U.S.-Chinese relations today. Neither country could rapidly overrun the other’s territory in a conventional war. Neither seems worried about a nuclear bolt from the blue. And civilian political control of nuclear weapons is relatively strong in both countries. What remains, in theory, is the comforting logic of mutual deterrence: in a war between two nuclear powers, neither side will launch a nuclear strike for fear that its enemy will respond in kind.
The bad news is that one other trigger remains: a conventional war that threatens China’s nuclear arsenal. Conventional forces can threaten nuclear forces in ways that generate pressures to escalate—especially when ever more capable U.S. conventional forces face adversaries with relatively small and fragile nuclear arsenals, such as China. If U.S. operations endangered or damaged China’s nuclear forces, Chinese leaders might come to think that Washington had aims beyond winning the conventional war—that it might be seeking to disable or destroy China’s nuclear arsenal outright, perhaps as a prelude to regime change. In the fog of war, Beijing might reluctantly conclude that limited nuclear escalation—an initial strike small enough that it could avoid full-scale U.S. retaliation—was a viable option to defend itself.
The most worrisome flash point for a U.S.-Chinese war is Taiwan. Beijing’s long-term objective of reunifying the island with mainland China is clearly in conflict with Washington’s longstanding desire to maintain the status quo in the strait. It is not difficult to imagine how this might lead to war. For example, China could decide that the political or military window for regaining control over the island was closing and launch an attack, using air and naval forces to blockade Taiwanese harbors or bombard the island. Although U.S. law does not require Washington to intervene in such a scenario, the Taiwan Relations Act states that the United States will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” Were Washington to intervene on Taipei’s behalf, the world’s sole superpower and its rising competitor would find themselves in the first great-power war of the twenty-first century.
In the course of such a war, U.S. conventional military operations would likely threaten, disable, or outright eliminate some Chinese nuclear capabilities—whether doing so was Washington’s stated objective or not. In fact, if the United States engaged in the style of warfare it has practiced over the last 30 years, this outcome would be all but guaranteed.
Consider submarine warfare. China could use its conventionally armed attack submarines to blockade Taiwanese harbors or bomb the island, or to attack U.S. and allied forces in the region. If that happened, the U.S. Navy would almost certainly undertake an antisubmarine campaign, which would likely threaten China’s “boomers,” the four nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines that form its naval nuclear deterrent. China’s conventionally armed and nuclear-armed submarines share the same shore-based communications system; a U.S. attack on these transmitters would thus not only disrupt the activities of China’s attack submarine force but also cut off its boomers from contact with Beijing, leaving Chinese leaders unsure of the fate of their naval nuclear force. In addition, nuclear ballistic missile submarines depend on attack submarines for protection, just as lumbering bomber aircraft rely on nimble fighter jets. If the United States started sinking Chinese attack submarines, it would be sinking the very force that protects China’s ballistic missile submarines, leaving the latter dramatically more vulnerable.
Even more dangerous, U.S. forces hunting Chinese attack submarines could inadvertently sink a Chinese boomer instead. After all, at least some Chinese attack submarines might be escorting ballistic missile submarines, especially in wartime, when China might flush its boomers from their ports and try to send them within range of the continental United States. Since correctly identifying targets remains one of the trickiest challenges of undersea warfare, a U.S. submarine crew might come within shooting range of a Chinese submarine without being sure of its type, especially in a crowded, noisy environment like the Taiwan Strait. Platitudes about caution are easy in peacetime. In wartime, when Chinese attack submarines might already have launched deadly strikes, the U.S. crew might decide to shoot first and ask questions later.
Adding to China’s sense of vulnerability, the small size of its nuclear-armed submarine force means that just two such incidents would eliminate half of its sea-based deterrent. Meanwhile, any Chinese boomers that escaped this fate would likely be cut off from communication with onshore commanders, left without an escort force, and unable to return to destroyed ports. If that happened, China would essentially have no naval nuclear deterrent.
The situation is similar onshore, where any U.S. military campaign would have to contend with China’s growing land-based conventional ballistic missile force. Much of this force is within range of Taiwan, ready to launch ballistic missiles against the island or at any allies coming to its aid. Once again, U.S. victory would hinge on the ability to degrade this conventional ballistic missile force. And once again, it would be virtually impossible to do so while leaving China’s nuclear ballistic missile force unscathed. Chinese conventional and nuclear ballistic missiles are often attached to the same base headquarters, meaning that they likely share transportation and supply networks, patrol routes, and other supporting infrastructure. It is also possible that they share some command-and-control networks, or that the United States would be unable to distinguish between the conventional and nuclear networks even if they were physically separate.
To add to the challenge, some of China’s ballistic missiles can carry either a conventional or a nuclear warhead, and the two versions are virtually indistinguishable to U.S. aerial surveillance. In a war, targeting the conventional variants would likely mean destroying some nuclear ones in the process. Furthermore, sending manned aircraft to attack Chinese missile launch sites and bases would require at least partial control of the airspace over China, which in turn would require weakening Chinese air defenses. But degrading China’s coastal air defense network in order to fight a conventional war would also leave much of its nuclear force without protection.
Once China was under attack, its leaders might come to fear that even intercontinental ballistic missiles located deep in the country’s interior were vulnerable. For years, observers have pointed to the U.S. military’s failed attempts to locate and destroy Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1990–91 Gulf War as evidence that mobile missiles are virtually impervious to attack. Therefore, the thinking goes, China could retain a nuclear deterrent no matter what harm U.S. forces inflicted on its coastal areas. Yet recent research suggests otherwise. Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles are larger and less mobile than the Iraqi Scuds were, and they are harder to move without detection. The United States is also likely to have been tracking them much more closely in peacetime. As a result, China is unlikely to view a failed Scud hunt in Iraq nearly 30 years ago as reassurance that its residual nuclear force is safe today, especially during an ongoing, high-intensity conventional war.
China’s vehement criticism of a U.S. regional missile defense system designed to guard against a potential North Korean attack already reflects these latent fears. Beijing’s worry is that this system could help Washington block the handful of missiles China might launch in the aftermath of a U.S. attack on its arsenal. That sort of campaign might seem much more plausible in Beijing’s eyes if a conventional war had already begun to seriously undermine other parts of China’s nuclear deterrent. It does not help that China’s real-time awareness of the state of its forces would probably be limited, since blinding the adversary is a standard part of the U.S. military playbook.
Put simply, the favored U.S. strategy to ensure a conventional victory would likely endanger much of China’s nuclear arsenal in the process, at sea and on land. Whether the United States actually intended to target all of China’s nuclear weapons would be incidental. All that would matter is that Chinese leaders would consider them threatened.
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
At that point, the question becomes, How will China react? Will it practice restraint and uphold the “no first use” pledge once its nuclear forces appear to be under attack? Or will it use those weapons while it still can, gambling that limited escalation will either halt the U.S. campaign or intimidate Washington into backing down?
Chinese writings and statements remain deliberately ambiguous on this point. It is unclear which exact set of capabilities China considers part of its core nuclear deterrent and which it considers less crucial. For example, if China already recognizes that its sea-based nuclear deterrent is relatively small and weak, then losing some of its ballistic missile submarines in a war might not prompt any radical discontinuity in its calculus.
The danger lies in wartime developments that could shift China’s assumptions about U.S. intentions. If Beijing interprets the erosion of its sea- and land-based nuclear forces as a deliberate effort to destroy its nuclear deterrent, or perhaps even as a prelude to a nuclear attack, it might see limited nuclear escalation as a way to force an end to the conflict. For example, China could use nuclear weapons to instantaneously destroy the U.S. air bases that posed the biggest threat to its arsenal. It could also launch a nuclear strike with no direct military purpose—on an unpopulated area or at sea—as a way to signal that the United States had crossed a redline.
If such escalation appears far-fetched, China’s history suggests otherwise. In 1969, similar dynamics brought China to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In early March of that year, Chinese troops ambushed Soviet guards amid rising tensions over a disputed border area. Less than two weeks later, the two countries were fighting an undeclared border war with heavy artillery and aircraft. The conflict quickly escalated beyond what Chinese leaders had expected, and before the end of March, Moscow was making thinly veiled nuclear threats to pressure China to back down.
Chinese leaders initially dismissed these warnings, only to radically upgrade their threat assessment once they learned that the Soviets had privately discussed nuclear attack plans with other countries. Moscow never intended to follow through on its nuclear threat, archives would later reveal, but Chinese leaders believed otherwise. On three separate occasions, they were convinced that a Soviet nuclear attack was imminent. Once, when Moscow sent representatives to talks in Beijing, China suspected that the plane transporting the delegation was in fact carrying nuclear weapons. Increasingly fearful, China test-fired a thermonuclear weapon in the Lop Nur desert and put its rudimentary nuclear forces on alert—a dangerous step in itself, as it increased the risk of an unauthorized or accidental launch. Only after numerous preparations for Soviet nuclear attacks that never came did Beijing finally agree to negotiations.
China is a different country today than it was in the time of Mao Zedong, but the 1969 conflict offers important lessons. China started a war in which it believed nuclear weapons would be irrelevant, even though the Soviet arsenal was several orders of magnitude larger than China’s, just as the U.S. arsenal dwarfs China’s today. Once the conventional war did not go as planned, the Chinese reversed their assessment of the possibility of a nuclear attack to a degree bordering on paranoia. Most worrying, China signaled that it was actually considering using its nuclear weapons, even though it had to expect devastating retaliation. Ambiguous wartime information and worst-case thinking led it to take nuclear risks it would have considered unthinkable only months earlier. This pattern could unfold again today.
KEEP THEM GUESSING
Both the United States and China can take some basic measures to reduce these dangers. More extensive dialogue and exchange—formal and informal, high level and working level, military and political—could help build relationships that might allow for backchannel de-escalation during a conflict. The two countries already have a formal military hot line in place, although it does not connect political leaders. A dedicated and tested infrastructure for senior military and political leaders to reliably and easily communicate during wartime would provide at least one off-ramp in the event of a crisis.
But better communication can only do so much for a problem that ultimately stems from military doctrine and grand strategy. Some analysts have proposed coercing China through a distant naval blockade, and others have suggested confining any U.S. campaign to air and naval operations off China’s coast. The goal in both cases would be to avoid attacks on the Chinese mainland, where the bulk of Chinese nuclear forces reside.
The problem with these alternatives is that the mainland is also where the bulk of Chinese conventional capabilities are located. The United States is unlikely to voluntarily leave these capabilities intact, given its predilection for reducing its own casualties and rapidly destroying enemy forces. If China is using its mainland bases to lob ballistic missiles at U.S. troops and allies, it is hard to imagine a U.S. president ordering the military to hold back in the interest of de-escalation. U.S. allies are particularly unlikely to accept a cautious approach, as they will be more exposed to Chinese military power the longer it is left intact. No one wants a U.S.-Chinese war to go nuclear, but a U.S. campaign that avoids escalation while letting China’s conventional forces turn Taiwan—not to mention Japan or South Korea—into a smoking ruin would not seem like much of a victory either.
Of course, Beijing could also take steps to ameliorate the problem, but this is just as unlikely. China has chosen to mount both conventional and nuclear warheads on the same missiles and to attach both conventional and nuclear launch brigades to the same bases. It likely sees some strategic advantage in these linkages. Precisely because these entanglements raise the prospect of nuclear escalation, Beijing may believe that they contribute to deterrence—that they will make the United States less likely to go to war in the first place.
But just as China benefits if the United States believes there is no safe way to fight a war, the United States benefits if China believes that war would result not only in China’s conventional defeat but also in its nuclear disarmament. In fact, the United States might believe that this fear could give it greater leverage during a conflict and perhaps deter China from starting one at all.
In short, neither side may see much value in peacetime reassurance. Quite the opposite: they may be courting instability. If this is the case, however, then U.S. and Chinese leaders should recognize the tradeoffs inherent in their chosen policies. The threat of escalation may make war less likely, but it also makes war radically more dangerous if it does break out. This sobering reality should encourage leaders on both sides to find ways of resolving political, economic, and military disputes without resorting to a war that could rapidly turn catastrophic for the region and the world.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine and on ForeignAffairs.com.