Avoiding the Unthinkable: Preventing a US-China Nuclear War

"The goal is to leave everyone in Asia believing that when it comes to solving regional problems, there are better answers than the force of arms."

Washington can't be complacent about its relationship with an antagonistic nuclear power. We’ve known that for more than thirty years, since the Pentagon sponsored a highly classified war game called Proud Prophet.

Conducted in 1983, the game was designed to test the strategy Washington had honed for more than a decade. The United States had always relied on deterrence to prevent war between the superpowers. But, if deterrence failed, the West needed a Plan B—and they had one. If NATO and the Warsaw Pact actually started to trade shots, the alliance strategy would be to manage the conflict: demonstrate resolve, hold its ground and de-escalate the confrontation. It sounded plausible—in theory.

Proud Prophet put Plan B to the test. It used a put-up or shut-up scenario, pitting Moscow against Washington in a mock shooting war. The results were terrifying. Tit-for-tat ended in an all-out nuclear exchange obliterating mankind.

Now, Beijing is not Moscow. And that’s what makes the lesson of Proud Prophet so scary when contemplating modern-day, nuclear-armed China. Managing escalation with the Soviet Union was easy compared to managing potential escalation with China. One reason for that is because the competition between the United States and U.S.S.R. was relatively symmetrical. In many ways, the hard-power strengths of the two powers mirrored each other.

Additionally, East and West lived in separate camps. There was scant economic interaction between the two sides. We mostly talked among ourselves. They (mostly) talked to themselves. Yet, in Proud Prophet’s relatively simple two-player competition, once escalation started, it quickly spun out of control.

The U.S.-Chinese relationship is the polar opposite. The economies and public spheres overlap in a complex, foot-tripping web. Both sides have looked at mastering asymmetrical advantages to constrain and manage the other. If they ever started actually shooting at each other, managing that messy relationship would become nearly impossible. Just like Proud Prophet, it would lead to a horror show.

An easy answer to the conundrum would be to adopt the same policy as the great powers did during the Cold War. After all, Proud Prophet never became a reality show. In fact, Proud Prophet confirmed what both sides already suspected: there was no good Plan B once the shooting started. As the global confrontation dragged on, both superpowers accepted as conventional wisdom that a direct military conflict—much less any exchange of nuclear weapons—was unacceptable.

Still, the fact that the Cold War stayed cold is small assurance for those responsible for managing the fate of humanity thirty years later. If any leader had made a strategic misjudgment, it would not have been pretty. Historians still debate, for example, how seriously Moscow took another U.S. exercise: Able Archer. That 1983 NATO exercise took the alliance to the brink of nuclear exchange. According to some accounts, the Kremlin pretended to freak out hoping to send a message to President Reagan that he shouldn't act too much like the cowboy he played in the movies. Others still hold that the Kremlin briefly feared the U.S. president was about to “go cowboy” and launch a preemptive nuclear attack.

Relying on deterrence alone, hoping everyone gets the memo that firing nuclear weapons is a no-no, is no way to run a planet. Conversely, we know that President Obama’s road to nuclear zero is going nowhere. There is no getting rid of nuclear weapons anytime soon. A credible, modernized nuclear arsenal paired with missile defenses will remain an essential part of protecting and defending the United States for many years to come. Still, in the end, all nuclear weapons are really good for is reminding others that fighting nuclear wars is a bad idea.

When the Reagan White House realized that, if deterrence failed, Plan B was no good either, the administration opted for a "cost-imposing strategy." It moved from managed competition to outracing the Soviet Union—counting on the wheels coming off when the Soviets tried to keep up with the full-court pressure of U.S. military upgrades, hardline diplomacy and a resurgent American economy.

The Soviet Union collapsed, and the world lived another day. That was then. But there is no reason to think that strategy can stave off Armageddon a second time. Washington needs to wake up. To avoid a scenario where the United States faces the prospect of a managed military conflict with China, Washington will have come up with a game changer now.

The Chinese are going to be no help here. It’s clear the Chinese want to see the day when the United States is no longer an Asia-Pacific power, and they are working to nudge the United States aside—sometimes not so gently. Meanwhile, Washington has no plans to stop being an Asia-Pacific power.

In the short term, the United States needs to come up with a regional strategy that makes China more cautious about thinking it can call the shots. Here the United States has some common cause with India, Australia and Japan. Working together, these powers could send China a message that would force Beijing to pause and consider.