Welcome to China and America's Nuclear Nightmare

Nuclear weapons will come to loom larger—and perhaps much larger—than they have since the Cold War over U.S. and Chinese military planning.

January-February 2015

FOR ALL the focus on maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas, there is an even greater peril in Asia that deserves attention. It is the rising salience of nuclear weapons in the region. China’s military buildup—in particular its growing capabilities to blunt America’s ability to project effective force in the western Pacific—is threatening to change the military balance in the area. This will lead to a cascade of strategic shifts that will make nuclear weapons more central in both American and Chinese national-security plans, while increasing the danger that other regional states will seek nuclear arsenals of their own. Like it or not, nuclear weapons in Asia are back.

For seventy years, the United States has militarily dominated maritime Asia. During this era, U.S. forces could, generally speaking, defeat any challenger in the waters of the western Pacific or in the skies over them. Washington established this preeminence and has retained it in the service of a strategy motivated both by parochial interests such as protecting American territory and commerce as well as by more high-minded aspirations to foster the growth and development of prosperous, liberal societies within the region. Military primacy has been the crucial underwriter, the predicate of broader American strategy.

This primacy is now coming into question. China’s advancing “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities as well as its expanding strike and power-projection capabilities will present a mounting challenge to the U.S. force posture in the Pacific region—and thus to America’s strategy for the Asia-Pacific as a whole. Beijing appears to be seeking to create a zone in the western Pacific within which the military power of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will be able to ensure that Chinese strategic interests are held paramount—in effect, to supplant the United States as the military primate in the region. The oft-cited DF-21D “carrier-killer” ballistic missile is only one small facet of this much broader Chinese effort, which encompasses the fielding of a whole network that integrates a range of increasingly high-quality platforms, weapons, sensors, and command, control and communications systems. Because of this effort, U.S. forces attempting to operate in maritime Asia will now have to struggle for dominance rather than simply assume it.

Indeed, anxiety about the relative military balance between the United States and China is building among the defense officials charged with monitoring it. As Frank Kendall, the Pentagon official with chief responsibility for developing and acquiring new military systems, wrote in a recent paper focused on the implications of China’s military buildup:

While the U.S. still has significant military advantages, U.S. superiority in some key warfare domains is at risk . . . U.S. Navy ships and western Pacific bases are vulnerable to missile strikes from missiles already in the inventory in China . . . The net impact is that China is developing a capability to push our operating areas farther from a potential fight, thereby reducing our offensive and defensive capacity . . . The Chinese are developing an integrated air defense system that puts U.S. air dominance in question, and in some regions, air superiority is challenged by 2020.

Kendall summarized his assessment with the judgment that

China is rapidly modernizing its forces and is developing and fielding strategically chosen capabilities that are designed to defeat power projection capabilities the U.S. depends upon. Technological superiority the U.S. demonstrated over 20 years ago, and which we have relied upon ever since, is being actively challenged.

Nor is Kendall an outlier in this assessment—rather, his view represents something like the evolving baseline understanding among defense officials and experts. Comparably informed and thoughtful defense leaders like Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work have said very similar things.

As a result, the United States is beginning to mount an effort to respond to China’s growing capabilities—for instance, through the Defense Department’s recently announced “Offset Strategy” initiative. The Pentagon rightly appears to be focused on maintaining American advantages in the effective projection of conventional military force even in the face of a resolute and highly capable opponent like Beijing. This goal stretches across procurement decisions, revisions to plans and doctrines, changes to deployment and basing, and attitudes toward the exploitation of technology. Outside commentators have tended to conflate this broad effort with the department’s laudable Air-Sea Battle initiative, which is clearly an important segment of the larger attempt to counter challenges to U.S. military superiority, but is still only a part of it. Ideally, this initiative will be successful and will allow the United States to maintain its traditional dominance in maritime Asia. But even if the Pentagon cannot wholly achieve this objective, maintaining even a partial edge in the military balance against China will give the United States valuable deterrent and coercive leverage in what will very likely be a fraught relationship with Beijing.

But achieving even this more modest aspiration is more a hope than a certainty. And the persistence of sequestration, the American political system’s unwillingness to decisively shift resources toward maintaining the military edge in Asia, and the abiding necessity or allure of involvement in other regions raise questions as to how reasonable this hope is. Thus, we cannot be sure how successful the United States will be in retaining its military edge in the region.