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Nuclear Confidence and Strategic Uncertainty: Ally and Partner Reactions to China’s Nuclear Modernization

A picture of Abraham Denmark in front of green foliage

On June 10, 2021, Asia Program Director Abraham M. Denmark testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on how U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific view China’s nuclear modernization initiative. The following is a summary of his testimony – you can read his full testimony here.


Commissioners: I am honored to testify before you today. I would like to offer a summary of my written testimony by focusing on three points: the state of the U.S.-China nuclear relationship; allied and partner views of China’s nuclear modernization; and my recommendations for U.S. policy given these assessments.

As the Department of Defense has detailed, Beijing is clearly embarking on a major initiative to develop a significantly larger and more sophisticated nuclear arsenal. Yet while these developments are certainly worrisome, they have not fundamentally altered the ability of the United States to deter China at the strategic level.

The United States will maintain nuclear escalation dominance across all rungs of the escalation ladder, which will undermine the credibility of any effort by Beijing to employ nuclear coercion or ignore threats by the United States. With a large, survivable, and effective nuclear triad that is being modernized, there should be no doubt in the credibility of U.S. nuclear capabilities or the deterrent they convey.

Yet while these developments are certainly worrisome, they have not fundamentally altered the ability of the United States to deter China at the strategic level.

The primary challenge in the U.S.-China military dynamic lies not in the nuclear dimension, but rather in diminishing American conventional military advantages. As the PLA continues to refine and advance its conventional military capability, the United States faces increasing risks and potential costs in a conventional conflict with China. Nuclear weapons may therefore become more salient to U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific if the regional balance of conventional military power were to become unfavorable to U.S. interests.

These dynamics have profound implications for U.S. allies and partners.With the exception of India, U.S. allies and partners in East Asia generally view the significance of China’s nuclear modernization through the lens of how it effects the ability and will of the United States to support its extended deterrence commitments.

While China’s nuclear modernization will not substantially undermine U.S. nuclear deterrence capabilities, it will potentially raise the costs and risks associated with those commitments. It is therefore not U.S. capabilities that concern U.S. allies and partners, per se, but concerns about the resolve of the United States to risk potentially devastating costs in the defense of an ally or partner.

The significant advantages the United States enjoys over China in terms of raw nuclear capability means that concerns about U.S. extended deterrence capabilities are limited – even in the face of China’s nuclear modernization initiative. Absent dramatic changes to the nuclear balance or a collapse in confidence in American resolve, I expect allies and partner will continue to value U.S. extended deterrence commitments.

To various degrees, East Asian allies and partners fear abandonment by the United States and entrapment into a U.S.-China conflict. Specifically, most U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific fear that China may attack them and/or the U.S. military bases they host with conventional or nuclear weapons, or that they may be pulled into U.S.-China conflict without their prior approval.

...most U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific fear that China may attack them and/or the U.S. military bases they host with conventional or nuclear weapons, or that they may be pulled into U.S.-China conflict without their prior approval.

While concerns about the reliability of U.S. extended deterrence commitments have certainly intensified in recent years, this reflects a deeper apprehension among our allies and partners regarding their perceptions of declining American economic power and vitality, concerns about the predictability and future direction of American domestic politics, inconsistent U.S. foreign and national security policies (especially regarding allies and partners), and persistent questions about the long-term intentions of the United States to support its allies and lead the international community.

With the exception of India, each U.S. ally and partner in the Indo-Pacific is developing limited conventional counterforce and/or countervalue deterrent capabilities as a hedge against the possibility of abandonment by the United States. Each U.S. ally and partner in the Indo-Pacific possesses some degree of a latent nuclear capability, and (except of course, India) may pursue such a capability should confidence in U.S. extended deterrent commitments suffer an unlikely catastrophic collapse. Yet despite ongoing debates on the subject in some country’s foreign policy communities, no U.S. ally or partner in the Indo-Pacific is seriously considering the development of an indigenous nuclear capability at this time (except, of course, for India – which is the outlier in this analysis.

Unlike other U.S. allies and partners in the region, New Delhi views nuclear issues with China as a direct challenge – in fact, China has become India’s pacing challenge for its nuclear capabilities. Yet India’s nuclear calculations are more complex, in that it must also contend with Pakistan which, as one scholar wrote “places India in the unusual position of needing to deter a more powerful nuclear adversary, while intimidating a weaker opponent.”

I will conclude my remarks with a summary of my three policy recommendations to address ally and partner concerns.

1: Maintain U.S. and Allied Conventional Military Advantages

Reestablishing expectations that the United States will maintain its conventional military advantages in the defense of its allies and partners would have a dramatic effect in improving confidence in American nuclear commitments. Indeed, maintaining the credibility of U.S. conventional deterrence would significantly reduce the risk of conflict in general, and nuclear use in particular.

2: Increase Risk Tolerance

The United States has an opportunity to be tactically active in response to pressure from China, which would send a signal of resolve to U.S. allies, partners, and adversaries alike. Operating within the guidelines of their own policies, the United States and its allies and partners should pre-plan peaceful military operations – such as multilateral exercises or combined maritime and air patrols – that can be executed quickly in response to a Chinese provocation.

3: Enhance Allied Deterrence Cooperation

The United States should accelerate efforts to empower its allies and partners to contribute more to regional conventional deterrence by establishing regular multilateral engagements examining conventional deterrence, and exploring possible revisions to joint regional force posture and distributed concepts of operations to account for emerging challenges and opportunities. This should include the deployment of U.S. conventional ground-based intermediate-range anti-ship cruise missiles.

Concurrently, the United States should consider a significant upgrade to its efforts to engage and reassure its Indo-Pacific allies on regional nuclear deterrence by broadening existing deterrence dialogues both geographically and substantively, turning them into a high-level mechanism for the United States and its allies to discuss deterrence and identify ways ahead.

Thank you again for inviting me, and I look forward to your questions.


Follow Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program, on Twitter @AbeDenmark.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

A picture of Abraham Denmark in front of green foliage

Abraham Denmark

Director, Asia Program; Acting Director, Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy
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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more