This paper examines recent writings from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in order to highlight major themes and evolution in concepts of deterrence, strategic stability, and escalation control, particularly between 2017 and 2022.
PRC writings during this period display growing concern that innovations in military technology over the past several decades undermine strategic stability. Many PRC authors argue that the balance of military capabilities that enabled China to maintain a fairly small nuclear deterrent is becoming more fragile, and that as a result, Beijing can no longer be confident in its ability to deter other countries from attacking China with nuclear or other strategic weapons.
This paper provides a baseline for understanding, from a conceptual perspective, how PRC authors frame the challenges that these dynamics pose to China’s strategic deterrent and to strategic stability, and the implications they may have for Beijing’s approach to strategic capabilities.
Strategic stability, strategic deterrence, and strategic capabilities
PRC writings link the concepts of strategic stability, strategic deterrence, and strategic capabilities. Although PRC authors do not explicitly employ an ends-ways-means construct, based on their discussions we may think of strategic stability as the ends, strategic deterrence as the ways, and strategic capabilities as the means.
- PRC writings argue that the goal of deterrent activities is not just to contain crisis or war in the immediate term, but to establish longer-term strategic stability conducive to China’s national security and development.
- PRC writings (similar to Western writings) usually define strategic stability as a situation in which potential adversaries have no incentive to escalate a conflict to nuclear war or to engage in arms racing.
- Strategic stability is established and maintained through strategic deterrence. Historically, this usually meant nuclear deterrence.
- Strategic deterrence, in turn, is achieved through having sufficient strategic capabilities (particularly military capabilities) to deter strategic attack.
PRC writings characterize the PRC’s relationship with the United States as one of asymmetric strategic stability.
- Asymmetric strategic stability is a state in which two sides with differing levels of overall strategic capabilities are nonetheless “mutually vulnerable” to counterattack by the other, in that neither side can prevent a retaliatory nuclear strike by the other.
- Countries in a state of mutual vulnerability have diminished incentives to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against one another.
- Mutual vulnerability generally requires that countries have a survivable second-strike nuclear capability, which acts as a strategic deterrent.
PRC writings assert that asymmetric strategic stability can only be maintained if all sides refrain from actions that undermine one another’s strategic deterrent and erode mutual vulnerability.
- Maintaining mutual vulnerability requires that the stronger side refrains from disruptive actions that undermine the weaker side’s second strike capability.
- If it does not refrain from such actions, then the weaker side must upgrade its own capabilities to keep up, leading to arms racing.
Most PRC authors argue that as a “medium” nuclear power, China does not need to seek parity with “great” nuclear powers such as the US, so long as mutual vulnerability is maintained.
- Many PRC authors historically believed that China could achieve this status with a lean nuclear stockpile.
- According to PRC authors, asymmetric strategic stability achieved through mutual vulnerability has enabled China to maintain a no first use (NFU) policy.
Dynamics of deterrence in a changing world
Recent PRC writings argue that technological evolution since the Cold War results in the need to define strategic capabilities more broadly than in the past. They assert that some non-nuclear capabilities have the potential to create strategic effects either by undermining the other side’s nuclear deterrent, or by generating large-scale effects that are as devastating as a nuclear strike.
- Emerging non-nuclear strategic capabilities identified in recent PRC writings include conventional precision strike weapons, missile defense systems, and cyber and space capabilities that could destroy or undermine another country’s second-strike capacity.
- PRC writings argue that while nuclear weapons remain at the core of China’s strategic deterrence capability, they now comprise just one part of China’s “strategic deterrence system,” which also includes high-end conventional capability (e.g., hypersonics), cyber capabilities, and space capabilities.
PRC authors argue that these changes disrupt asymmetric strategic stability and deterrence dynamics between China and the US. Specific concerns that they express include the following.
- Crossing the nuclear threshold. The line between conventional and nuclear war has been blurred by non-nuclear capabilities with strategic effects, and by nuclear capabilities with tactical effects. These changes undercut the significance of crossing the nuclear threshold.
- Undermining second strike capability. US missile defense, prompt strike capabilities, cross- or multi-domain deterrence, and offensive operations in space and cyber could weaken China’s second-strike capability and undermine its strategic deterrent.
- First mover advantage. Offense-dominant domains like space and cyber, as well as “use it or lose it” assets like submarine-launched nuclear weapons, grant a greater advantage to the first mover in a nuclear conflict and increase the incentive for preemptive attack.
- Escalation control. New technologies and cross-domain deterrence may make escalation control more difficult, because it can be hard to ascertain what constitutes a first strike vs. a retaliatory one and therefore which side is responsible for escalation.
Many PRC authors argue that new technologies and geostrategic dynamics mean that the PRC’s previous approach to nuclear deterrence is not sustainable if the PRC wishes to maintain asymmetric strategic stability with the US. They argue that technological evolution and US actions are undermining China’s second-strike capability and require a reassessment of how asymmetric strategic stability may be restored.
- What China considers to be a “stable” strategic balance is not limited to a balance of nuclear capabilities.
- PRC analysts will take nuclear, conventional, space, cyber—and possibly other—capabilities into account when assessing the US-China strategic balance.
Viewed in this context, some recent PLA force modernization decisions could be understood as an attempt to restore asymmetric strategic stability, which they depict as being eroded by US actions. Some actions that PRC authors say or imply may help restore the strategic balance with the United States include the following.
- Upgrading China’s nuclear capability, to include increasing stockpiles of deliverable nuclear warheads and diversifying the land-, sea-, or air-based carriers of nuclear weapons.
- Building up China’s missile defense capability so that it is less vulnerable to nuclear strike.
- Developing space and cyber capabilities to undermine the US nuclear deterrent, provide early warning of attacks, and potentially support preemptive attacks.
- Reconsidering China’s no first use nuclear weapons policy.
PRC subject matter experts assert that the vast majority of PRC scholars and policy makers remain committed to China’s NFU nuclear weapons policy.
- However, PRC writings also acknowledge the existence of a small-scale but persistent debate on whether NFU will always remain sufficient for maintaining strategic deterrence in light of growing technological and geostrategic disruptors.
None of the writings we surveyed for this study advocated that the PRC should seek to match the US in terms of overall nuclear capability, but they strongly suggest that Beijing will continue to increase its nuclear stockpile and diversify its delivery platforms.
- The appropriate size and composition of a nuclear arsenal to achieve effective asymmetric strategic deterrence appears to be a source of significant debate among PRC scholars.
DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited.
- Pages: 68
- Document Number: DOP-2022-U-032923-2Rev
- Publication Date: 2/17/2023