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Welcome to China and America’s Nuclear Nightmare

Elbridge Colby, The National Interest 

December 19, 2014

FOR ALL the focus on maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas, there is an even greater peril in Asia that deserves attention. It is the rising salience of nuclear weapons in the region. China’s military buildup—in particular its growing capabilities to blunt America’s ability to project effective force in the western Pacific—is threatening to change the military balance in the area. This will lead to a cascade of strategic shifts that will make nuclear weapons more central in both American and Chinese national-security plans, while increasing the danger that other regional states will seek nuclear arsenals of their own. Like it or not, nuclear weapons in Asia are back.

For seventy years, the United States has militarily dominated maritime Asia. During this era, U.S. forces could, generally speaking, defeat any challenger in the waters of the western Pacific or in the skies over them. Washington established this preeminence and has retained it in the service of a strategy motivated both by parochial interests such as protecting American territory and commerce as well as by more high-minded aspirations to foster the growth and development of prosperous, liberal societies within the region. Military primacy has been the crucial underwriter, the predicate of broader American strategy.

This primacy is now coming into question. China’s advancing “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities as well as its expanding strike and power-projection capabilities will present a mounting challenge to the U.S. force posture in the Pacific region—and thus to America’s strategy for the Asia-Pacific as a whole. Beijing appears to be seeking to create a zone in the western Pacific within which the military power of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will be able to ensure that Chinese strategic interests are held paramount—in effect, to supplant the United States as the military primate in the region. The oft-cited DF-21D “carrier-killer” ballistic missile is only one small facet of this much broader Chinese effort, which encompasses the fielding of a whole network that integrates a range of increasingly high-quality platforms, weapons, sensors, and command, control and communications systems. Because of this effort, U.S. forces attempting to operate in maritime Asia will now have to struggle for dominance rather than simply assume it.

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