The Future of Sino-American Relations

The Future of Sino-American Relations

The United States is a superpower, and China is becoming one. But this does not make cold war, much less hot war, inevitable.


East Asia has again become a top priority for America following a decade of preoccupation with terrorism. Much has changed: China is now an economic, technological and military power second only to the United States. This ascendance poses new challenges for U.S. friends and interests in the region and raises the strategic stakes for the United States. Though its nuclear doctrine emphasizes deterrence and no first use, China is fielding second-generation nuclear forces that can overwhelm U.S. missile defenses and strike the United States. Of greater concern, China is developing capabilities to attack satellites and computer networks on which U.S. prosperity and security depend. For all its power, the United States is increasingly vulnerable to strategic attack.

Yet China likewise faces the paradox of power, whereby greater strength brings greater vulnerability. The main reason is that—in the three strategic domains of nuclear, space and cyberspace—technology favors strategic offensive capabilities over strategic defensive capabilities. As each power becomes more reliant on data flowing though space and cyberspace, there follows an increasing potential harm from attacks on satellites and networks, including Chinese satellites and networks. If the Chinese think that being more powerful makes them less vulnerable, they are wrong.


Technology is also reducing sharply the cost, in treasure and lives, of conducting strategic attacks. Compared to strategic bombing, the disabling of key satellites and computer networks is inexpensive and virtually nonviolent. Yet the effects of attacks in space or cyberspace on the U.S. and Chinese economies would be devastating. This combination of big effects at little cost could weaken inhibitions against using such weapons in a crisis.

Both the United States and China have the wherewithal to maintain strong strategic nuclear forces and to build anti satellite and cyber-war capabilities. Eying each other, they also have the motivation. Yet arms control is no more promising than defense as a way out of mutual strategic vulnerability. The disparity in their nuclear capabilities makes Sino-American nuclear-arms control unrealistic. Controlling antisatellite weaponry is unverifiable. The idea of arms control in cyberspace is absurd.

Mitigating the rising vulnerabilities of China and the United States to one another will require a different approach: mutual strategic restraint. In a nutshell, each country should agree not to be the first to launch a strategic attack against the other or its allies using nuclear, antisatellite or cyber weapons. For the United States, this would mean accepting China’s nuclear deterrent capability—a token concession, considering that we cannot deny China such a capability. In return—for it should be a package deal—the United States should insist on an exchange of pledges not to initiate attacks on satellites or strategic networks critical to our economies.

Confidence that such pledges would be honored, even in crisis, ultimately rests on the bedrock of mutual deterrence. Knowing that they cannot defend against retaliation (due to offense dominance), neither the United States nor China should be the first to employ nuclear, antisatellite or cyber weapons. The two should supplement strategic no-first-use understandings with confidence-building measures such as missile-launch notification, greater transparency about nuclear arsenals, and consultation and cooperation on cyber threats from other states and nonstate actors.

The devil lies in the details and definition of any proposed mutual strategic restraint. Would nonphysical interference with satellites be forbidden? Yes. Would cyber crime and cyber espionage be covered? No, only destructive attacks on critical networks. Would Chinese and U.S. armed forces be precluded from interfering with military computer networks during armed conflict? No, though tactical cyber war must be tightly controlled by political leaders to avoid escalation. Would allies, e.g., Japan and South Korea, be covered by the pledge not to initiate strategic attacks? Absolutely.

For all its benefits, Sino-American strategic restraint would raise serious issues. Lest the Chinese think they could use or threaten force in East Asia without risking escalation, the United States should improve its conventional military capabilities to strengthen deterrence. It should also state that if China were to attack U.S. allies with nuclear, antisatellite or cyber weapons, it would suffer retaliation in kind.

There is no better time than now for the United States to propose Sino-American strategic restraint. Chinese political leaders may be reluctant, especially given their military’s focus on antisatellite and cyber war as ways of neutralizing U.S. conventional advantages. Nevertheless, by laying out an integrated approach to mitigating strategic dangers and pursuing it patiently but persistently, the United States can convince China that growing mutual vulnerability demands mutual restraint.

The United States is a superpower, and China is becoming one. But this does not make cold war, much less hot war, inevitable. Rather, it gives both a special responsibility to manage judiciously their power to cause grave harm not only to each other but also to the region and the world.

David Gompert is a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence. Phillip Saunders directs the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. This piece is drawn from their new book, The Paradox of Power: Sino-American Mutual Restraint in an Age of Vulnerability, published by National Defense University Press. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.