Assuring Assured Retaliation: China's Nuclear Posture and U.S.-China Strategic Stability

Published in International Security, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Fall 2015), pp. 7–50

MIT Political Science Department Research Paper No. 2015-27

49 Pages Posted: 9 Dec 2015

See all articles by Fiona Cunningham

Fiona Cunningham

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science

M. Taylor Fravel

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science

Date Written: October 17, 2015

Abstract

Whether China will abandon its long-standing nuclear strategy of assured retaliation for a first-use posture will be a critical factor in the future of U.S.-China strategic stability. In the past decade, advances in U.S. strategic capabilities, especially missile defenses and enhanced long-range conventional strike, could undermine China’s nuclear retaliatory capability, which is based on a relatively small force and second-strike posture. An exhaustive review of Chinese writings on military affairs indicates, however, that China is unlikely to abandon its current nuclear strategy of assured retaliation. Instead, China will modestly expand its arsenal, increase the sophistication of its forces, and allow limited ambiguity over its pledge not to use nuclear weapons first. This limited ambiguity allows China to use the threat of nuclear retaliation to deter a conventional attack on its nuclear arsenal, without significantly increasing the size of its nuclear forces and triggering a costly arms race. Nevertheless, China's effort to assure its strategy of assured retaliation while avoiding an arms race could backfire. Those efforts increase the risk that nuclear weapons could be used in a crisis between the United States and China, even though China views this possibility as much less likely than the United States does.

Keywords: retaliation, china, nuclear, posture, U.S.-China, stability, strategy, international, relations

Suggested Citation

Cunningham, Fiona and Fravel, M. Taylor, Assuring Assured Retaliation: China's Nuclear Posture and U.S.-China Strategic Stability (October 17, 2015). Published in International Security, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Fall 2015), pp. 7–50; MIT Political Science Department Research Paper No. 2015-27. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2697161

Fiona Cunningham (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
United States

M. Taylor Fravel

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
United States

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