Dangerous Confidence? | 2019 | Publications

Dangerous Confidence? Chinese Views on Nuclear Escalation

Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel

International Security, Vol. 4, Nol. 2, Fall 2019 pp.61-109

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Abstract:

Chinese views of nuclear escalation are key to assessing the potential for nuclear escalation in a crisis or armed conflict between the United States and China, but they have not been examined systematically. A review of original Chinese-language sources and interviews with members of China's strategic community suggest that China is skeptical that nuclear escalation could be controlled once nuclear weapons are used and, thus, leaders would be restrained from pursuing even limited use. These views are reflected in China's nuclear operational doctrine (which outlines plans for retaliatory strikes only and lacks any clear plans for limited nuclear use) and its force structure (which lacks tactical nuclear weapons). The long-standing decoupling of Chinese nuclear and conventional strategy, organizational biases within China's strategic community, and the availability of space, cyber, and conventional missile weapons as alternative sources of strategic leverage best explain Chinese views toward nuclear escalation. China's confidence that a U.S.-China conflict would not escalate to the use of nuclear weapons may hamper its ability to identify nuclear escalation risks in such a scenario. Meanwhile, U.S. scholars and policymakers emphasize the risk of inadvertent escalation in a conflict with China, but they are more confident than their Chinese counterparts that the use of nuclear weapons could remain limited. When combined, these contrasting views could create pressure for a U.S.-China conflict to escalate rapidly into an unlimited nuclear war.