America's Nuclear Military Dilemma with China

"Use attack as the tactic of defense."
      - Chinese proverb
A year from now China will be on its benevolent best conduct, two years from now that could all change. There is little to fear from China until the Olympics are over; what follows may be a different story altogether. Just as Ancient Greeks would recess their wars during the Olympic Games, China will keep the peace leading up to and during the games. But nationalism has not been entirely sidelined, as it is an essential device to preserve communist rule.

China's leadership has an inherent fear of losing power; this perpetual dread is what drives their political and strategic decisions. And Taiwan is the principal catalyst to preserving the Beijing government. Should the political system feel threatened, nationalism would come into play and Taiwan would be the scapegoat.

China sent an unambiguous message to the Pentagon on January 11, 2007 when it launched a four-stage solid fuel rocket carrying a kinetic kill vehicle into orbit to take out an obsolete weather satellite. That audacious accomplishment overturned American military strategy that previously focused on blinding, bewildering and paralyzing the enemy by using GPS guided missiles and rockets to disrupt the enemy's Command, Control, and Communications (C3).

Updating their armed forces strategy, the PLA has invested heavily in military assets for power projection to deter or counter a third-party intervention. The weaponry includes long-range submarines, ballistic and cruise missiles for area denial and anti-access, airborne C3 and long-range communications. The PLA has also trained their forces in long-range strike capability and in "no-notice" military measures. This clearly indicates it is developing a first strike strategy and plans to swiftly seize the initiative to keep an enemy off balance.

Their likely strategy would be to knock out America's imaging satellites so as to blind the Pentagon's military strategists long enough to seize and occupy Taiwan. With such a fait accompli they are calculating that America would think twice about re-taking the island. A Chinese general
told former Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles W. Freeman Jr.,
"...you do not have the strategic leverage that you had in the 1950’s when you threatened nuclear strikes on us. You were able to do that because we could not hit back. But if you hit us now, we can hit back. So you will not make those threats. In the end you care more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei.”
On the other hand, one of the most vulnerable aspects of China's war machine is its energy supply. To date China is not capable of protecting its foreign energy imports nor is able able to secure their transit. China is building up strategic reserves, but they still have a long way to go before they have adequate supplies, due to insufficient infrastructure facilities. Therefore, they would not wish to get involved in a protracted war.

There is no doubt about it: the United States has a distinct nuclear weapons advantage over China, especially with its counterforce capacity that translates into its ability to succeed in neutralizing the enemy's nuclear arsenal. However, America is very reluctant to revert to using nuclear weapons and Beijing knows this. Which leaves America with few acceptable counter-force options. The Chinese military strategists are also counting on America being unwilling to enter into another war over a foreign territorial dispute.

The innate reluctance to use nuclear weapons significantly limits a country's offensive and defensive options. The very nature of nuclear weapons creates an environment that makes the retaliation their use would bring uninthinkable to all but lunatics.  Their deterrence value promotes incentives to avoid military combat - the threat of retaliation outweighs any projected gain.

But all this implies an assumption of rational behavior, and warfare is more often an irrational process.   In affect, conventional warfare can be considered in terms of relative gains, but when nuclear weapons are in the equation, war must be perceived with the perspective of an unconditional loss. Consequently, nuclear weapons as a mechanism of state power establish a strategic environment of inter-state collaboration over aggression that actually constrains state power. As a result, those who think the possession of nuclear arms signifies a great power are wrong. In actual fact that great power is ultimately constrained by their possession. (Iran take note.)

What it amounts to is that the most powerful nation in the world is bridled by a complex dilemma over how to defend the interests of an ally without escalating a conflict out of all proportion, provoking a nuclear nightmare. This asymmetry naturally favors China, should it try and take control of Taiwan. Beijing knows this, and America knows it.

What the future holds after the games is all-too-difficult to assess at this juncture, but the fact that Taiwan is a major investor in China might be its saving grace. Economics rather than politics might finally secure the peace.
"Use attack as the tactic of defense."
      - Chinese proverb
A year from now China will be on its benevolent best conduct, two years from now that could all change. There is little to fear from China until the Olympics are over; what follows may be a different story altogether. Just as Ancient Greeks would recess their wars during the Olympic Games, China will keep the peace leading up to and during the games. But nationalism has not been entirely sidelined, as it is an essential device to preserve communist rule.

China's leadership has an inherent fear of losing power; this perpetual dread is what drives their political and strategic decisions. And Taiwan is the principal catalyst to preserving the Beijing government. Should the political system feel threatened, nationalism would come into play and Taiwan would be the scapegoat.

China sent an unambiguous message to the Pentagon on January 11, 2007 when it launched a four-stage solid fuel rocket carrying a kinetic kill vehicle into orbit to take out an obsolete weather satellite. That audacious accomplishment overturned American military strategy that previously focused on blinding, bewildering and paralyzing the enemy by using GPS guided missiles and rockets to disrupt the enemy's Command, Control, and Communications (C3).

Updating their armed forces strategy, the PLA has invested heavily in military assets for power projection to deter or counter a third-party intervention. The weaponry includes long-range submarines, ballistic and cruise missiles for area denial and anti-access, airborne C3 and long-range communications. The PLA has also trained their forces in long-range strike capability and in "no-notice" military measures. This clearly indicates it is developing a first strike strategy and plans to swiftly seize the initiative to keep an enemy off balance.

Their likely strategy would be to knock out America's imaging satellites so as to blind the Pentagon's military strategists long enough to seize and occupy Taiwan. With such a fait accompli they are calculating that America would think twice about re-taking the island. A Chinese general
told former Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles W. Freeman Jr.,
"...you do not have the strategic leverage that you had in the 1950’s when you threatened nuclear strikes on us. You were able to do that because we could not hit back. But if you hit us now, we can hit back. So you will not make those threats. In the end you care more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei.”
On the other hand, one of the most vulnerable aspects of China's war machine is its energy supply. To date China is not capable of protecting its foreign energy imports nor is able able to secure their transit. China is building up strategic reserves, but they still have a long way to go before they have adequate supplies, due to insufficient infrastructure facilities. Therefore, they would not wish to get involved in a protracted war.

There is no doubt about it: the United States has a distinct nuclear weapons advantage over China, especially with its counterforce capacity that translates into its ability to succeed in neutralizing the enemy's nuclear arsenal. However, America is very reluctant to revert to using nuclear weapons and Beijing knows this. Which leaves America with few acceptable counter-force options. The Chinese military strategists are also counting on America being unwilling to enter into another war over a foreign territorial dispute.

The innate reluctance to use nuclear weapons significantly limits a country's offensive and defensive options. The very nature of nuclear weapons creates an environment that makes the retaliation their use would bring uninthinkable to all but lunatics.  Their deterrence value promotes incentives to avoid military combat - the threat of retaliation outweighs any projected gain.

But all this implies an assumption of rational behavior, and warfare is more often an irrational process.   In affect, conventional warfare can be considered in terms of relative gains, but when nuclear weapons are in the equation, war must be perceived with the perspective of an unconditional loss. Consequently, nuclear weapons as a mechanism of state power establish a strategic environment of inter-state collaboration over aggression that actually constrains state power. As a result, those who think the possession of nuclear arms signifies a great power are wrong. In actual fact that great power is ultimately constrained by their possession. (Iran take note.)

What it amounts to is that the most powerful nation in the world is bridled by a complex dilemma over how to defend the interests of an ally without escalating a conflict out of all proportion, provoking a nuclear nightmare. This asymmetry naturally favors China, should it try and take control of Taiwan. Beijing knows this, and America knows it.

What the future holds after the games is all-too-difficult to assess at this juncture, but the fact that Taiwan is a major investor in China might be its saving grace. Economics rather than politics might finally secure the peace.