29 April, 2016
The Liberal Art University in Hong Kong
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In recent months the United States has been sending out warships on a number of freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea and, in the process, ratcheting up tensions with China, which claims sovereignty over several disputed islands in the area.

China’s response has been to build up its military presence, including strengthening its nuclear capabilities and deploying surface-to-air missiles and warplanes to Woody Island, or Yongxing Island. 

Why is this happening, and what are the consequences if both sides continue to assert themselves? More importantly, is there a solution that will defuse the possibility of a devastating nuclear war?

Power transition and rising instability

According to Prof Zhang Baohui, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies, the increasingly strained relations between the two great powers should come as no surprise. In his new book, China’s Assertive Nuclear Posture, Prof Zhang explains how China’s rise to power has been perceived as a threat by the United States, which since the fall of the Soviet Union just over 20 years ago has become the dominant world power.

“Powerful countries want more power in order to feel secure. But you can only have one dominant country. If China thinks there is a danger to its security, they might use nuclear weapons, even though it has always professed that it firmly adheres to the “no-first use” principle.”

China’s ability to counter threats, perceived or otherwise, has been growing rapidly over the past few years. Traditionally, China relied on a small offensive nuclear capability to deter external threats to its national survival. But lately, it has been expanding its offensive capabilities, including the development of a new generation of nuclear submarines, deployment of multiple warheads on its intercontinental nuclear missiles, and pursuit of the ability to wage space war. As Prof Zhang points out in the introduction of his book, this “new emerging nuclear posture represents a major departure from the old posture that rests exclusively on a small offensive capability, characterised by the minimum deterrence doctrine.”

Prof Zhang goes on to say that “China may be rising, but the United States still possesses overwhelming military superiority in conventional weapons and that could, ironically, trigger a dangerous crisis situation in that the US may be inclined to confront China in order to demonstrate its resolve to push back Beijing’s assertiveness.”

A harsh but practical solution

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States enjoyed a stable if decidedly uneasy relationship due to their parity in nuclear weapons. “Nuclear deterrence has a very strong pacifying effect,” says Prof Zhang.

Even today, this situation of mutual deterrence continues. “Russia is far more aggressive than China, but has very good strategic stability with the US. This is because of Russia’s massive nuclear capabilities and its first-use doctrine. As a result, the US has been trying to avoid confrontation with Russia in Ukraine, the Crimea and, more recently, in Syria.” 

In the last chapter of his book, Prof Zhang explores how to maintain strategic stability in East Asia. He believes that the US will find it difficult to share power with China and is shifting from a position of engagement to containment. The potential for conflict, he says, will only increase.

Some feel economic interdependence will eliminate conflict, given the range of common interests both countries share not only from an economic perspective but also over concerns about North Korea and its growing nuclear ambitions.

Yet Prof Zhang, as a neorealist, believes this is overly optimistic. “A declining power is unlikely to cede its dominant position, and a rising power is typically very eager to grab that position.”

Ultimately, he says, security can only be resolved by nuclear mutual deterrence where both sides recognise that such a war is unwinnable. “It’s ugly but necessary — that is the main message of my book.”

A new role for China

China’s rise also has positive implications. As a growing power, China has a new identity as a global player with global responsibility. Prof Zhang says that this is motivating China to provide public good, not just to protect their own interests but those of other countries as well. Examples include China’s creation of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is a new multilateral institution designed to help developing countries. More than 50 countries have joined the AIIB.

“The US does the world a great favour by maintaining global order,” he says. “But now China believes it has contributions to make in ensuring the world is a safer place.”

If the United States is willing to share power with China as it emerges on the world stage, the prospects for peace could be long lasting.