America does not admit that it is vulnerable to China’s strategic nuclear forces. That’s the clear message of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. While the review was the subject of a voluminous body of commentary and analysis, little of it focused on this particular aspect. Perhaps no one was surprised because it was not new — after all, no previous U.S. strategy document has acknowledged mutual vulnerability with China.
But what is new in this Nuclear Posture Review, and in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy documents that preceded it, is the forthright identification of China as a major strategic rival and military threat. While questions have been raised before about the failure to acknowledge mutual nuclear vulnerability, this new context makes the issue much more important. The omission raises questions that go right to the heart of America’s strategic contest with China in Asia and risks fatally undermining the credibility of U.S. strategic commitments there.
Cold War Lessons
The only other time America and another country have been mutually vulnerable to one another’s nuclear forces was during the Cold War. Once the United States and the Soviet Union could target one another’s cities, the mutual acknowledgment, acceptance, and maintenance of their shared vulnerability came to be seen as important — even essential — to maintaining strategic stability between the two superpowers. Mutual vulnerability makes each side more confident that the other will not start a war, because both acknowledge that the costs of such a war to their own side would be devastating.
Of course, both sides did what they could to limit their vulnerability by minimizing the damage they would suffer in an all-out nuclear exchange, including through counterforce targeting and damage limitation measures. But they both clearly understood that trying to limit their vulnerability was very different from trying to eliminate it, and they accepted they still faced an inescapable risk of catastrophic damage on an unprecedented scale.
This is still true in relation to Russia, as the new Nuclear Posture Review makes clear, though the document is less clear on mutual vulnerability with Russia than past reviews. This is why Moscow’s talk of “escalate to de-escalate” needn’t be taken too seriously, except as a way of reminding Washington of the risk that any conventional war could turn into a nuclear one.
Importantly, however, acknowledging mutual vulnerability did not prevent Moscow and Washington from convincing one another that they were resolved to fight a nuclear war if necessary to defend their vital interests. The Cold War stayed cold in large part because both sides were convinced that the other side would fight a nuclear war to preserve the status quo between them, regardless of the cost. The simultaneous acknowledgment of vulnerability and willingness to fight a nuclear war was essential to reassuring allies that they could depend on Washington. Allies knew America could not defend them from the Soviets without running a very high risk of a nuclear war that could devastate U.S. cities. They had to be convinced that America would indeed be willing to accept that risk on their behalf. This could never be taken for granted, of course, but in the end, and for many decades, they were convinced of America’s commitment.
America’s success in convincing both the Soviets and its allies alike that, despite the awful implications of mutual vulnerability, it was willing to fight a nuclear war, was central to keeping the peace, sustaining its alliances, and deterring any serious Soviet challenge to the status quo. And central to that was Washington’s frank and open avowal of the costs it would face if war came. By acknowledging mutual vulnerability, America showed explicitly that it recognized the immense risks of defending its allies and was willing to accept them.
What does this mean for the Nuclear Posture Review and China? It is important first to establish that America and China are indeed mutually vulnerable to one another’s strategic nuclear forces. Both can inflict immense, unprecedented damage on the other.
This has not always been accepted on the American side. This is partly because their nuclear arsenals are so different. China’s is far smaller, of course. But, more importantly perhaps, it was not designed for the nuclear warfighting campaigns that drove the development of Soviet and U.S. forces in the Cold War, but rather simply as a minimum deterrent. This may have made it hard to take China seriously as a nuclear adversary.
For that reason, a strand of thinking in U.S. nuclear strategy circles has long held that America could and should seek nuclear primacy over China. The idea is that America could convince China that its nuclear arsenal could be effectively disarmed through U.S. conventional or nuclear preemptive strikes, along with missile defenses to deal with any Chinese missiles that survived those strikes.
But this scenario seems very unlikely indeed. U.S. decision makers could not be sufficiently confident that enough of China’s capacity to hit American targets would be eliminated. That is especially true because it would seem relatively easy for China to counter improvements in U.S. offensive and defensive capability by expanding and improving its own offensive forces — as it would surely have both the means and the resolve to do.
The most optimistic assessment would give America a decent chance of eliminating China’s offensive forces, and that is unlikely to be good enough. The residual threat of successful Chinese nuclear attacks even on just one or two cities would be unacceptable in any but the most extreme circumstances.
While debates about the possibility of disarming China will no doubt continue, it seems quixotic to imagine that this option provides a credible basis for U.S. policy towards Beijing. Nor does it seem credible that key audiences outside America — in particular its rivals and allies in Asia — would be convinced otherwise. Hence for all practical purposes we should conclude that that the two rivals are mutually vulnerable and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Of course, they are not equally vulnerable. America’s strategic nuclear forces are far bigger than China’s and could do a lot more damage to China than the other way around. But does it make much difference if China, with its modest forces, can nonetheless inflict unprecedented destruction and disruption on the United States? The question facing American decision-makers in a crisis with China would be whether the U.S. interests at stake were important enough to justify risking the devastation that America would suffer in a nuclear war. That decision is not much affected by whether China would suffer far worse.
For example, any president facing a decision about whether to start a war with China over Taiwan — which could clearly go nuclear — would need to ask whether the U.S. interests involved justified a significant risk that, say, half a million Americans might die. The fact that ten times that many Chinese could die would not detract from the cost that America would bear if the worst happened. Mutual vulnerability, however unequal, still plays a role in deterring a nuclear war.
Of course, the asymmetry in vulnerability could significantly affect how a crisis unfolded, and the probability that it would end in a nuclear exchange, because it could tip the balance of resolve in Washington’s favor. Thus, China might be less willing to accept the danger of nuclear war, and thus more likely to back off from a confrontation, because it risks greater losses. That would give Washington a vital edge in crisis-management gamesmanship, making an armed clash and subsequent escalation to nuclear war less likely.
But that analysis assumes the two sides are equally committed to prevailing, and hence equally ready to accept the costs and risks of doing so. This is almost certainly not the case in the contest between America and China over strategic primacy in East Asia. Intuitively, for reasons of sheer geography, China cares more about East Asia than America does, and might well be more willing to accept 5 million dead than America would be to accept one-tenth that number.
The Art of Commitment
Failing to acknowledge the reality of U.S. vulnerability undermines the credibility of America’s commitment to supporting its East Asian allies, and more broadly, to maintaining America’s strategic position in Asia. It deprives Washington of the opportunity to argue that it is committed to defending its allies and to its role in Asia even if this means incurring the risk of nuclear attack on America itself.
That is a major mistake. China’s strategic nuclear forces means that U.S. commitments vis-a-vis China can only be credible if adversaries and allies alike believe that America is willing to fight a nuclear war to fulfill them. Like in the Cold War, mutual vulnerability means that only commitments that pass this test can reassure allies and deter adversaries. To sustain its place in Asia, America must convince both audiences that it is willing to endure attacks on its homeland.
It appears the authors of the Nuclear Posture Review may have turned this argument on its head. They perhaps thought that acknowledging U.S. vulnerability to Chinese nuclear attack would undermine the credibility of its commitments in Asia because allies like Japan and South Korea would not believe America was willing to defend them at risk of direct nuclear attack on itself. Per this logic, acknowledging the risk of such an attack would undermine the allies’ confidence in guarantees.
Certainly, that’s a widespread view from the Asian side of the Pacific, and it would not be surprising if allies like Japan for that reason eagerly urged the drafters of the review not to acknowledge mutual vulnerability. But that is just whistling past the graveyard when mutual vulnerability is so evidently a reality.
In the face of that reality, American commitments can only be made credible to rivals and allies alike with clear and compelling arguments that the United States will uphold these commitments despite the risk of nuclear attack. Those arguments cannot be presented when Washington refuses to acknowledge that risk. On the contrary, by refusing to acknowledge its vulnerability, the United States reinforces the impression that it is not willing to accept these risks. That undermines America’s alliances. Even more importantly, it emboldens its adversaries.
This matters enormously to the future of America’s strategic engagement in Asia. Recent U.S. strategy documents and polices — including President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia — have increasingly identified China as a strategic competitor. But the Trump administration has broken new ground in acknowledging China as a classic great power rival. The scale and intensity of the strategic contest, and the significance of nuclear threats to that contest, have only now become apparent.
The clear identification of China as a strategic rival and military threat is an important if long overdue step. But the Nuclear Posture Review’s failure to acknowledge American vulnerability to China’s nuclear forces raises real doubts about America’s resolve in confronting China’s ambitions in Asia. And that matters because, as I have argued elsewhere, the question of U.S. resolve has become the key issue in its contest with China. Moreover, this failure is destabilizing, because it will only encourage those in Beijing who would argue that China’s capacity to hit the United States means Washington can be deterred from resisting Chinese assertiveness or aggression in Asia.
China poses a very serious challenge indeed to American leadership in Asia today. To respond effectively, Washington must do more than identify the problem. It must produce a credible plan to respond to China, with a realistic assessment of the costs and risks involved and clear evidence that those costs and risks are understood and accepted by U.S. political leaders and by the electorate. This must include a frank assessment of the nuclear risks, which is why the Nuclear Posture Review was a big missed opportunity. And time is not on America’s side.
Hugh White is professor of Strategic Studies at ANU in Canberra, and a former senior Australian Defense official. He is the author of The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power  and a recent Quarterly Essay, “Without America: Australia’s Future in the New Asia.”