Officials from the United States and NATO are limiting their military involvement in Ukraine. They worry their Russian counterparts may use nuclear weapons to forestall a conventional defeat. US officials often criticize Russian statements about this possibility. A US deputy secretary of defense and a vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff once called it “playing with fire.”
Yet, US and Japanese officials routinely discuss threatening to use US nuclear weapons to stop Chinese leaders from starting a conventional war in East Asia. When it comes to nuclear weapons policy, it seems US officials believe what is prudent for the US goose is reckless for the Russian gander.
Communist Chinese leaders used to call threats to use nuclear weapons to stop a conventional war “nuclear blackmail.” It’s not hard to understand why. US President Harry Truman threatened to attack communist China with nuclear weapons if it did not withdraw its forces from Korea. President Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons to stop communist Chinese attacks on Jinmen Island during the Taiwan Strait Crisis.
Unlike the US and NATO leaders confronted with Russian nuclear threats in Ukraine, Chinese leaders called the bluff and kept fighting. But the terror of those two experiences also led them to build their own nuclear arsenal. They felt a credible ability to retaliate would give them more confidence to prosecute a conventional war without fear of a nuclear attack.
Russia and China are different
Russia changed its nuclear policy at the turn of the century to allow for limited nuclear use in local or regional wars, like the one in Ukraine, after it became clear Russian conventional military forces could no longer keep pace with NATO and the United States. The current war exposed just how deficient Russian conventional military forces are.
Chinese conventional forces were far inferior to US forces in the 1950s. According to a comprehensive comparison completed in 2015, the Chinese military “continues to lag far behind.” But during the past forty years a rapidly modernizing economy provided the resources to steadily improve China’s conventional military capabilities. The 2015 comparison concluded those improvements may be enough to overcome US conventional military superiority in conflicts close to China’s borders, including a conflict over Taiwan. China’s conventional military capabilities continued to improve over the last seven years.
This important difference in the relative strength of Russian and Chinese conventional forces–when matched up against the United States and its regional allies in some scenarios–is why US decision makers are simultaneously a victim of nuclear blackmail in Ukraine and a nuclear blackmailer in East Asia.
The Pentagon’s dissociative nuclear policy disorder does not seem to trouble US policymakers. It does, however, explain why they believe threatening to use US nuclear weapons can prevent a conventional Chinese military attack. US decision-makers are deterred by Russian nuclear threats in Ukraine, so they assume, despite the historical evidence to the contrary, that Chinese leaders would be deterred by US nuclear threats in East Asia.
It also explains the questionable US assumption, repeated in a recent statement to Congress by the commander of the US Strategic Command, that China’s leaders are preparing to employ the threat of nuclear use to coerce US decision makers to limit military assistance to Taiwan, just like a nuclear NATO limits military assistance to Ukraine. Here again, US officials mistakenly assume that because US policymakers believe nuclear weapons can be used as an instrument of blackmail, the Chinese must believe that too.
The perceived strategic benefit of No First Use
China’s unconditional no first use policy purposefully takes the threat of nuclear first use off the table. It’s not a public relations ploy. Chinese troops are trained to “fight a conventional war under conditions of nuclear deterrence.” Chinese leaders believe a credible no first use policy helps enable the use of conventional military force against a nuclear-armed adversary. They want the other side to know China will never be the first to use nuclear weapons.
The strategic purpose of China’s nuclear force, as it has been since Chairman Mao decided to build it in the early 1950s, is to free Chinese decision makers from the fear of a nuclear attack. They believe a credible ability to retaliate allows them to prosecute a major conventional war with a nuclear-armed adversary without worrying about a nuclear attack. Chinese leaders feel they can comfortably ignore any US threat of nuclear first use, just as they very uncomfortably ignored similar US threats in the 1950s. In the idiom of that older generation of Chinese peasant revolutionaries, China won’t be bullied into not using conventional military force if it feels it must.
If the leaders of the United States and NATO thought about nuclear weapons the same way Chinese leaders do, they might be more willing to offer Ukraine more military assistance against Russian aggression. They would not be so easily blackmailed by Putin’s nuclear threats.
One risk Chinese leaders dangerously discount is that an unstable, impulsive, or otherwise irrational leader of a nuclear-armed state might act unpredictably. Another is how quickly things can spin out of control in the fog of war. But no nuclear strategy or posture can eliminate those risks.
The only way to preclude a nuclear holocaust is to abolish nuclear weapons. Thoughtful observers understood this from the beginning of the nuclear age. In a 1946 telegram to prominent Americans, Albert Einstein warned,
“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
Sadly, as the situations in Ukraine and in East Asia reveal, our political leaders still think about war and international relations as they always have. It is uncertain how long we can continue to drift until catastrophe arrives.