The row over China’s surveillance balloon could, once the dust settles, present a chance to begin lessening the risk of nuclear war between the two superpowers.
While the United States is right to charge China with violating its airspace in an apparent attempt to spy on America’s strategic missile systems in Montana, this episode reminds us that the two nations have no mechanism to exchange views and clear up misconceptions on the purpose of their respective nuclear arsenal.
Consequently, suspicions abound.
It is understandable that this infamous spy balloon has riled up the American body politic. Yet, it is important to keep the strategic situation in mind. The United States and China are in a stable state of mutual deterrence, meaning that neither power could launch a nuclear first strike on the other without inviting devastating retaliation. That said, the greater the mutual suspicions about intent, the greater the danger that this stability could fail.
The absence of a way to build mutual confidence between the United States and China regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear war is potentially dangerous. The United States is unsure what to make of China’s build-up of its nuclear arsenal, and China is fearful that the United States seeks the capability to deny China a credible deterrent. What makes this situation increasingly perilous are the rising tensions in Sino-U.S. relations in the Pacific and the growing risks of escalating crises and even war there.
In an article in the journal Survival to be published soon, we spell out the case and agenda for a process whereby the superpowers could clarify why they have nuclear weapons and the doctrines governing their use.
Specifically, we recommend direct and candid bilateral strategic stability talks on nuclear doctrines, forces, intentions, and worries. This would be coupled with confidence-building measures such as providing prior notifications of missile testing, clarifying the purpose of new weapons, and managing disconcerting intelligence. This could reduce suspicions, such as Chinese fears that the United States aspires to have a first-strike capability and American fears that China will relentlessly expand its capability to target U.S. deterrent forces. Each nation would of course continue independent intelligence-gathering. But “worst-case” interpretation of intelligence could be mitigated by dialogue.
These strategic stability talks might include implementing a bold concept: a bilateral US-Chinese pledge not to use nuclear weapons first against each other or against the other nation’s treaty allies.
This bilateral no-first-use pledge would not apply to other nations such as Russia or North Korea. China has always said that the sole purpose of its nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack – that it would never use them first. For its part, the United States finds that its superiority in non-nuclear military technology and forces has reduced dramatically the need to initiate nuclear war. Therefore, despite – or because of – the angst over China’s surveillance balloon, both powers might take a deep breath and consider how to allay misperceptions, build confidence, and reduce the risk of world-threatening mistakes. The stakes could not be higher.
The Pacific region is fraught with Sino-American tension, stemming mainly from China’s goals of diminishing American presence and influence there. An intense dialogue on nuclear weapons and war will not eliminate this problem. However, the process we recommend would help assure that such differences, even armed incidents, would not end in nuclear Armageddon. In essence, the United States and China would converge on the view that no Pacific dispute would justify crossing the nuclear threshold.
With such an understanding, the United States and China could turn their joint attention to truly acute dangers to nuclear security in the Pacific. Foremost of these is North Korea’s growing reliance on nuclear weapons and threats of untold destruction on its enemies. We daresay that nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea’s reckless leader pose a greater danger than an unwelcome Chinese surveillance balloon. The United States and China should together pursue denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The United States is committed to and increasingly reliant on its allies in the region – Japan above all. For the United States to signal that it is reducing its reliance on the threat to use nuclear weapons first would surely get Tokyo’s attention. Indeed, any effort to engage China on how to reduce the danger of nuclear war would require Japanese support. Given that the Japanese are now embarked with the United States on an effort to significantly improve their non-nuclear military capabilities, and given Japan’s history, one can infer that Japan should be receptive to reducing reliance on nuclear weapons.
Crises may contain seeds of opportunity. While the mood in American today is hardly conducive to exchanging olive branches with China, it is not too soon to consider how to reduce misperceptions and risks for the sake of averting nuclear war between superpowers.
David C. Gompert is a distinguished visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He previously served as the acting director of national intelligence, special assistant to the U.S. president, deputy undersecretary of state, and vice president of the RAND Corporation.
Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as special assistant to the U.S. president for defense policy, acting director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and vice president of the National Defense University.