Project for a new cold war
A new report that overstates China's nuclear capabilities and intentions shows that US neocons haven't gone away
Robert Farley guardian.co.uk, Monday December 1 2008 15.00 GMT In early October, the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) released a report touting the dangers of Chinese military expansion. Chaired by Paul Wolfowitz, the ISAB is part of the US state department, and reports directly to Condoleezza Rice. The report warned of the dangers of Chinese nuclear weapons, and called on the United States to revitalise its nuclear deterrent, continue construction of a missile defence shield, and pursue conventional military programmes designed to ensure dominance over China. In alarmist tones, the report describes a military effort dedicated to making the US vulnerable enough to Chinese nuclear attack to deter the US from intervention in a Taiwan-China war. To call this claim deceptive is an understatement – it depends on ignorance of 40 years of Chinese military history and of the basics of deterrence theory.
Since the 1950s, Chinese nuclear policy has consistently focused on the goal of developing a second strike capability. Initially, the Chinese feared war with the US, but they later included the Soviet Union as a potential foe. The Chinese have never made an effort to match the nuclear arsenals of the US or Russia. In short, Chinese nuclear policy hasn't changed, and the essentials of the deterrent relationship are the same whether China has 20 missiles capable of striking the west coast or 100 missiles capable of striking anywhere on the continental US. As no American president is likely to consider the destruction of major population centres on the west coast an acceptable cost for preventing a Chinese conquest of Taiwan, the deterrent relationship is no different today than it was 30 years ago.
Indeed, the ISAB report overlooks the central purpose of the Chinese nuclear expansion, which is an effort to restore the nuclear balance that existed in the 70s and 80s. Advanced US military capabilities have, it is generally agreed, substantially eroded the deterrent relationship that existed between the US and its nuclear competitors during the cold war.
Daryl Press and Keir Lieber argued in Foreign Affairs that the US holds first-strike dominance over both China and Russia, in large part because due to stealth and precision-guidance capabilities. The development of a credible missile defence system (one that could knock out a high percentage of incoming missiles) would further erode the deterrent relationship. The Chinese are hardly ignorant of these developments. They recognise that the drive for missile defence on the part of the US means that they need to expand their nuclear capabilities in order to stay in the same place. It ends up being a good trade for the Chinese, because additional ballistic missiles (and eventually MIRVs, or multiple independent re-entry vehicles) are considerably cheaper than the missile defence system. Nevertheless, the expansion of the Chinese nuclear programme is an effort to maintain the status quo, and not to shift the military balance in China's favour.
We've been here before. Wolfowitz participated in the infamous Team B project, which was an effort to radically overstate Soviet capabilities and radically misstate Soviet intentions in the 1970s. Like the Team B project, the ISAB report relies on claims about Chinese capabilities that current intelligence cannot verify, such as the existence of tactical nuclear weapons and a vast espionage network inside the US. Also like the Team B project, the report characterises efforts to maintain the status quo as threatening. The alarmism is familiar. Once again, Wolfowitz is claiming that the strategic balance is beginning to tip against the US, and that therefore the US ought to engage in a major effort at revitalising its own capabilities.
President Bush leaves office in two months, and Wolfowitz will be out of a job. In the neoconservative world, however, no one stays unemployed for long. This ISAB report will serve as a template for the neoconservative approach to China and provide the foundation for critiques of Barack Obama's China policy. It is highly unlikely that Obama will pursue the "revitalisation" of the US nuclear force, as he has already logged his opposition to the Reliable Replacement Warhead programme. The report should be understood less as an internal effort to drive policy, and more as the opening shot in an effort to criticise Obama as soft on China.