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China now understands what nuclear competition looks like

Other than think tanks, intelligence agencies, and general dormitories, the outlook for nuclear war has received little attention lately. The collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago has diminished the nuclear nightmare of the Cold War in the world. At the Mutually Assured Destruction Contest, they look like relics of the Cuban missile crisis — a dark memory from a bygone era.

But the danger remains, not just because of the current conflict with Russia over the fate of Ukraine. China, an old but relatively minor player of nuclear weapons, seems to have significantly expanded its arsenal size. Arsenal China’s latest assessment of military power predicts that by 2030, China will nearly triple its current warhead inventory to 1,000. Perhaps the United States and China are deteriorating, and how much could that trend endanger US national security and world peace? China is content with relatively modest weapons for its entire nuclear history dating back to the 1960s. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that China has 350 nuclear weapons. Warheads are small compared to 6,257 in Russia and 5,600 in the United States. Characteristic accumulation changes China’s strategic policy.

That does not mean that Beijing is preparing to use nuclear weapons, and Chinese leadership has not clarified its ultimate intentions. Officially, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry has denied embarking on a significant expansion of its nuclear arsenal.

The potential dangers of China’s nuclear pivot are much clearer, and new nuclear weapons could weigh on Beijing’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy and influence Washington’s reaction. China’s expansion also increases the risk that traditional wars (eg, over Taiwan) will escalate into a nuclear conflict. And on a global scale, China’s accumulation was last seen before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which could accelerate its descent into chaotic superpower competition.

Half a century of American foreign policy was designed to avoid this very consequence. The main purpose of President Richard Nixon’s meeting with the founder of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong, in 1972 was to bring Communist China into the orbit of the United States and reinforce its annoying divisions. By the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Chinese capitalism seemed to substantiate that approach. Perhaps it even announced the ultimate victory of American democracy against an authoritative threat and even led a “flat” and prosperous world.

Unfortunately, 2022 is undergoing a rewrite of the Cold War, with an unfortunate ending. Hostile changes in China’s overall stance, coupled with President Xi Jinping’s clear willingness to tolerate Russia’s continued invasion in Europe, could put the United States in great distress. Avoided decades ago: The confrontation with the nuclear-armed authoritative nation’s tag team was devoted to the retreat of American power. Relations with Moscow are arguably more friendly than since the 1950s, as relations between Beijing and Washington have deteriorated. The two dictators who have lost the opportunity of the Cold War support each other in a US-led attack on the world order.

The United States may not be ready to counter this dual threat. “This is a truly unprecedented challenge and a threat to the competitors of two peer or near-peer nuclear superpowers,” the Atlantic Council told me, “We are always the Soviet Union, and later Russia, and China. , North Korea, was able to build a nuclear weapon to deal with Iran. ” Questions about the US nuclear strategy. “

Cold War comparisons to understand Sino-US relations today are usually misguided, but probably not so much when it comes to nuclear weapons. Both sides may be doing what the United States and the Soviet Union did in the early stages of the Cold War. Safety net. “On the old Cold War calendar, it’s like the 1960s,” John Culver, a former CIA analyst who was once a top East Asian expert in US intelligence, told me. But, at least for the United States, a coherent strategy has yet to emerge. At some point, a bilateral crisis broke out between us and China, at which point we could both look into the abyss or achieve dialogue, just as the Cuban missile crisis forced both sides. However, there is a risk of rapid escalation and the possibility of war between the two nuclear powers. “

Beijing’s nuclear ambitions will encourage criticism in Washington Did American naive help enable the enemy the US was trying to deter? For a new era of superpower competition.

The big question is why now. Xi is probably reacting to what he considers to be the more dangerous United States. “They looked at the trajectory of bilateral relations and decided that a major nuclear deterrent was needed now,” he said.

Still, Beijing’s nuclear expansion, whether economic, technical, diplomatic, or ideological, with Xi’s broader agenda for projecting China’s power in and beyond his region. Cannot be seen separately. The time to bid our time and hide our abilities is over.It’s time for a coming out party“Kronich said. China’s PLA said, “It will be a world-class army. To do so, it needs world-class nuclear power.”

China’s nuclear accumulation may not immediately change the particular dynamics of its current strategic situation. The United States will still have far more warheads. And China can already attack the heart of America.

Measuring threats depends in part on understanding the purpose of Xi. He may be striving to achieve a closer balance with the United States in the hope of achieving greater deterrence, the nuclear stalemate that prevailed during the Cold War. He prepares China for a potential US attack. In strengthening its intercontinental capabilities, Xi said, “We guarantee that China will withstand the first attack from the United States and that China’s nuclear weapons will survive and invade US missile defense.” One James Acton-Carnegie International Peace Fund policy program told me that he described aspects of its accumulation as “defensive modernization” that would not change the status quo.

However, it cannot be denied that Xi has a more ominous intent. Unlike the United States, China has officially declared that it will not use nuclear weapons first in any conflict. The number of missile silos that the Pentagon says China is building is not necessarily the best investment for a pure defense strategy. These fixed sites can be easily targeted and destroyed by US missiles. Mr Kloenig said these capabilities would make more sense if China were to become a “superpower.”

But so far, the biggest impact of Xi’s nuclear accumulation could be in Asia, where Beijing’s foreign policy interests are most concentrated. “I think the development of China’s regional forces is far more concerned to me and is potentially offensive,” Acton said. “I think China wants an option to fight a limited nuclear war, which is a new element of its strategy.”

Apart from that, Beijing promotes foreign policy goals by limiting how the United States and its allies respond to China’s actions against Taiwan and other regions simply by possessing more muscular nuclear weapons. May help you. “No more,” said Hans Christensen, head of the American Federation of Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project.

In the long run, China’s accumulation may encourage neighboring countries to respond in kind. US allies protected by US nuclear umbrellas, such as Japan and South Korea, could force Washington to develop and deploy regional nuclear capabilities to counter China. India, which is also controversial with China, may decide at some point to expand its small nuclear weapons.

Obviously, Washington needs a new strategy. Experts say that simply increasing nuclear weapons is not the answer, but perhaps only necessary to respond to China’s expansion. In a recent paper, Kroenig of the Scowcroft Center emphasized that the United States “must remain in a favorable position,” Kronich said as a continuous deterrent to China’s military action, “at each stage of the escalation ladder.” “Balance of power over China” was suggested. Now I have an advantage.

Perhaps the most urgent need is to discuss with both parties. Unlike Washington, Beijing has no history of agreeing to limit nuclear weapons and has avoided negotiations. But the two countries are talking about what to talk about. Jake Sullivan, US National Security Adviser, said. At the November Virtual Summit, Xi and President Joe Biden agreed that they “aimed to begin discussions on strategic stability.” This is not a firm commitment.

However, even if negotiations are rarely achieved in the short term, they can lead to arms control negotiations that can stabilize the nuclear threat, as they did during the Cold War. But more diplomacy to rebuild all the tools of national technology, especially strategic dialogue, and set up some guardrails, “said former CIA analyst Culver. Not surprisingly, the worst case is from scratch. “

But the Cold War has another lesson. Avoiding a nuclear war requires not only steady diplomacy, but also a clear strategy. The United States is already a major nuclear power. The trick is to convince both the enemy and the allies to continue to protect their interests. “If China uses nuclear weapons, it’s not the ability of the United States, but the determination of the United States,” Acton said.

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