Asan Plenum

Defining Strategic Stability – China Debates the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review

China is increasingly factored into U.S. nuclear strategy. When President Obama released the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in April 2010, China was named 36 times. By contrast, China was barely mentioned in the last NPR completed in 2002. In this newest document, the United States expressed its desire to enhance strategic stability with China, but first there needs to be a better understanding of how China perceives America’s nuclear posture. While there has been a debate within China on how to interpret the NPR, there is an overall consensus among Chinese experts that the United States’ current strategy lacks a complete definition of how “strategic stability” applies in the context of Sino-U.S. relations. This term – generally used in describing the U.S.-Russia relationship – signifies a balance between two roughly equal or balanced nuclear powers, but there is a considerable disparity in numbers and capabilities between China and the United States. Overall, Chinese experts voice both challenges and opportunities in moving toward strategic stability with the United States. The challenge is that Washington could use nuclear talks to force Beijing to become more transparent without any U.S. commitment to limit its own military ambitions in return. The opportunity is that the two powers could build a relationship based on mutual vulnerability, diminishing the possibility of either side using nuclear coercion or aggression. It is clear that Washington needs to match its rhetoric on nuclear stability and disarmament with concrete proposals and measures that will build confidence between the United States and China. And Beijing needs to become an active participant in shaping bilateral strategic relations. Without these steps, it will be nearly impossible for a nuclear relationship that is clearly defined by strategic ambiguity today to shift to one of strategic trust – and ultimately strategic stability. This presentation seeks to explore Chinese experts’ response to the NPR to better delineate the arenas of cooperation and tension that should be the focus of future bilateral strategic talks.