This essay is part of the report "Project Atom 2023: A Competitive Strategies Approach for U.S. Nuclear Posture through 2035," published by the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The volume addresses the question of how the United States should respond to deterring two peer competitors: Russia and China.
This paper’s main contention is that the nature of U.S.-China military competition from 2035 to 2050 will exhibit some unique characteristics compared to the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship that require new thinking on these topics. As such, this paper differs from others in this volume by focusing on what changes in Chinese military posture, doctrine, and modernization mean for U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy, modernization, reassurance of allies, and arms control efforts. The reason for focusing on China is to challenge the premise that the United States should treat Russia and China as similar peers, and because assumptions among nuclear experts about what modernization efforts in China mean for Chinese nuclear policy are limiting thinking on ideal policy responses. The details of force modernization are consistent with the idea that China is maintaining the same nuclear policy it has had since 1964. This is advantageous for the United States, and thus most of this paper’s recommendations revolve around discouraging deviations. Admittedly, this piece raises more questions than it answers, but understanding which components of U.S. thinking will also serve the United States well in the future, and which require additional consideration, is the first step to devising any useful responses. Each section lays out relevant Chinese approaches, U.S. assumptions, and key issues that color best responses. While this paper focuses on Chinese nuclear modernization, what it means for U.S. strategy, and how the United States should respond, it should not be interpreted as dismissing the challenges of responding to Russian nuclear aggression and expansion. Rather, it focuses on challenging the premise that the United States needs to make significant changes in posture or policy to deter China.