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Draft Report Urges Accepting Mutual Nuclear Vulnerability With China

Posted on July 25, 2012
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The United States should declare that mutual nuclear vulnerability with China is a "fact of life" for both countries rather than investing in strategic offensive and defensive capabilities designed to negate China's nuclear forces, according to a draft report prepared by a federal advisory panel led by former Defense Secretary William Perry.

Inside the Pentagon obtained a copy of the May 23 draft report, a product of the State Department's International Security Advisory Board. Last year, then-Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher commissioned the report on "maintaining U.S.-China strategic stability." The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review report called for pursuing "strategic stability" with China, but whether the U.S. government should declare mutual nuclear vulnerability has been a subject of debate.

The draft report states that China's efforts to build a "survivable second-generation sea-based and mobile land-based nuclear force" are advancing and will in time produce a "larger and less vulnerable force with more (from 25 to about 100) [intercontinental ballistic missiles] capable of striking the United States." Chinese perceptions of U.S. intentions, missile defenses and nuclear and precision conventional strike capabilities will likely steer decisions about China's nuclear force posture, the panel writes. Chinese leaders have "been determined to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent regardless of U.S. choices and will almost certainly have the necessary financial and technological resources to continue to do so," the draft report argues.

"Accordingly, mutual nuclear vulnerability should be considered as a fact of life for both sides," the report adds. "However, neither the U.S. ability to use conventional forces to protect our interests in the region nor the U.S. 'nuclear umbrella' require the ability to negate China's nuclear forces. Nuclear deterrence rests as much on perceptions, confidence, credibility and rhetoric as on technical military capabilities."

That finding directly contradicts what a previous incarnation of the board, led by former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, concluded in 2008 during the twilight of former President George W. Bush's administration.

"Washington should also make clear that it will not accept a mutual vulnerability relationship with China -- something Beijing seeks through its expansion of offensive nuclear capabilities," the Wolfowitz-led panel wrote. "To avoid the emerging creep toward a Chinese assured destruction capability, the United States will need to pursue new missile defense capabilities, including taking full advantage of space. The United States must explore the potential that space provides for missile defenses across the spectrum of threats."

Although the new draft report takes a less hawkish approach, it argues U.S. officials must maintain a broad ranging dialogue with China and key regional allies on the role of nuclear weapons and the nature of U.S. deterrent policy and capacity. "Policy statements and the configuration of U.S. conventional and nuclear forces should convey that the United States has the means, will and intention to respond effectively to any contingency," the draft report states. "U.S. policymakers must send consistent messages to China, to key allies and to the U.S. public and Congress."

The report argues that in the U.S.-China context, strategic stability requires careful attention to the regional balance in Asia, the U.S.-China strategic nuclear force balance and the overall bilateral relationship with political, economic and values aspects. "All three levels are dynamic and intertwined," the panel writes. "This is especially true of less familiar elements such as space, cyber and anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities that can have strategic effects."

U.S. policy in Asia should include China as a component rather than making China the focus of the policy, the report states.

The panel urges the United States to do a better job than China in terms of fostering relationships with nearly every country in the region, but also notes U.S. officials need to recognize that countries in Asia "do not want to be forced to choose between the United States and China." Further, the panel notes, U.S. officials should seek to address Chinese concerns that the Obama administration's increasing emphasis on Asia is aimed at containing China. The study endorses broad talks with China to provide a positive foundation for future relations.

The report also notes that effective U.S. non-nuclear capabilities are a key part of regional stability. "As Chinese military modernization proceeds, these capabilities will be critical for maintaining the U.S. ability to operate effectively in support of friends or allies, despite Chinese anti-access/area-denial (A2AD), counter-space and cyber-attack capabilities," the panel writes. Further, the panel notes that "exploitation of U.S. military and commercial computer networks by actors in China is generating significant damage to the U.S. economy, undermining mutual trust and undercutting domestic political support for cooperation with China on a range of issues."

"The vulnerability of each side's critical infrastructure to cyber attack and Chinese military writings stressing the utility of early cyber attacks also raise [an] important question about the risk of escalation in conflict," the report states, adding that U.S. officials should use policy statements and bilateral talks to ensure China understands "the risk attendant to cyber-attacks against critical U.S. infrastructure or nuclear command and control systems and that the United States will judge such attacks by their effects, not how they are produced." The report calls for better cyber defenses that can counter intrusions and "make the intruding agent pay for his actions."

The draft report remains subject to change. A spokesman for the State Department had no comment on when the final version might be published. -- Christopher J. Castelli

Public Articles, Vol. 28, No. 30  
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