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

Published by International Security

Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel

Whether China will abandon its long-standing nuclear strategy of assured retaliation for a more offensive strategy is a critical factor in U.S.-China strategic stability and the future of East Asian security. Since testing its first nuclear device in 1964, China has sought to develop a nuclear force that could survive a first strike and then inflict unacceptable damage on an adversary. The goal of such a force has been limited to deterring nuclear coercion and the use of nuclear weapons against China. With the deployment of road-mobile, solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the mid-2000s, China appeared to be on the cusp of achieving this goal.

Advances in U.S. strategic capabilities, however, could weaken China’s deterrent. Although President Barack Obama emphasized strategic stability with China and Russia during his first term, the United States has continued the George W. Bush administration’s pursuit of strategic superiority through the development of a “new triad.” The United States is maintaining a prominent role for nuclear weapons in its strategic posture, strengthening the submarine, land-based missile, and bomber delivery systems that make up the “old” nuclear triad. At the same time, it is developing both its missile defenses and counterforce capabilities, which would include the use of conventional weapons, such as those associated with the Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) program.1 Taken together, these U.S. capabilities could reduce or eliminate China’s ability to launch a retaliatory strike. As a result, they may create strong pressures on China to expand its force structure to ensure survivability under its existing strategy or abandon assured retaliation for a first-use posture, such as launch-on-warning, or a limited war fighting strategy envisaging attacks on an adversary’s nuclear arsenal or conventional forces.

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