From this analysis of the nuclear, space, and cyberspace domains of Sino-American strategic relations, possible terms for mutual restraint have emerged:
Analysis of general U.S. and Chinese attitudes concerning national security, strategy, and Sino-U.S. relations indicates that both countries could be favorably predisposed toward some aspects of mutual restraint but skeptical about others. The Chinese would be warmer to such restraint in the nuclear domain, while the United States would see greater advantages in restraint in space and cyberspace. Overall, the United States may be more inclined to establish a comprehensive regime of mutual strategic restraint, while it could take China more time—and greater appreciation of growing vulnerabilities and the emerging reality of deterrence—to reach the same conclusion.
Against this backdrop, this chapter will analyze how the two powers might view the particular terms of strategic restraint stated above and, from that analysis, how the terms should be packaged. It will then examine the implications of mutual restraint along these lines for military contingencies, regional stability, reactions of other states, and Sino-American relations in general. It will conclude with a look at how best to organize the Sino-American strategic relationship to reduce vulnerabilities with high confidence and low risk of unwanted effects, taking both countries’ views into account.
Explicit U.S. acceptance of Sino-American mutual nuclear deterrence would be a formal concession to China. Although the United States will in any case not be able, and will not try, to deny China a survivable and effective retaliatory capability, stated U.S. acceptance of such a capability would serve Chinese interests on several levels. Strategically, to the extent credible, it would mitigate China’s vulnerability to a U.S. nuclear first strike and—of more concern to the Chinese—to nuclear blackmail. Militarily, it would provide relief from whatever fear the Chinese have that hostilities with U.S. forces could lead to nuclear war. Economically, it would largely obviate the need for huge additional investments to improve the survivability of Chinese strategic offensive forces, including their large-scale expansion. Politically, it would be another sign that the reigning global power acknowledges the new one, and it would vindicate China’s 50-year advocacy of no first use. Although such Chinese gains can largely be won by objective conditions of mutual deterrence, Beijing would place some value on their confirmation in U.S. declaratory policy or in an explicit bilateral agreement.
Being far more capable and less vulnerable in the nuclear domain, the United States would benefit less than China from an affirmation of mutual nuclear deterrence. Yet it would advance American aims of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in international relations and warfare and at least marginally support U.S. nonproliferation policy. To the extent U.S. acceptance of mutual deterrence curbed Chinese modernization of offensive nuclear forces, it would ease pressure on the United States to respond with additional modernization efforts. Finally, it could be a constructive step in Sino-American relations with potential benefits for U.S. interests in increased Chinese willingness to cooperate on other international issues— an unverifiable but nevertheless fair prospect.1
At the same time, U.S. acceptance of has at least a theoretical potential to weaken deterrence of Chinese aggression in the western Pacific; to place more of a burden on the United States to counter China’s conventional force buildup (including finding other escalation options); to stimulate competition, instability, and even hostilities in other strategic domains (space and cyberspace), unless mutual restraint is extended to them; and to raise questions about U.S. security commitments among allies in the region. To mitigate these possible drawbacks, U.S. interest in should be made contingent on Chinese acceptance of a broad and integrated framework of strategic restraint.
In contrast to the nuclear domain, Sino-American and cyberspace would redress increasingly acute U.S. vulnerabilities, owing to heavy economic and military reliance on both domains and to the cost and limits of satellite and network defenses against a large, capable, and determined opponent like China. If the United States can seize on China’s growing reliance on and vulnerability in space and cyberspace to achieve a regime of mutual restraint in those domains, it would be a major American success.
Given that the United States will in any case possess potent ASAT and offensive cyber war capabilities, the Chinese should have an incentive to consider mutual restraint in these domains. Chinese military and political leaders should be disabused of any illusion that a preemptive, demonstrative, probing, or narrow strike on U.S. satellites or computer networks would end there: all Chinese satellites and networks would become potential targets for retaliation. In space and cyberspace, as in the nuclear domain, the underpinnings of restraint are the cold realities of national vulnerability, offense dominance, and danger of retaliation. China may resist mutual restraint in these domains and nevertheless find itself deterred.
Although it is possible to agree on mutual restraint in either space or cyberspace but not in the other domain, the interdependence of the space and cyber domains argues for dealing with strategic vulnerability in both. The importance of space stems largely from its use as a medium for the movement of data, and space sensors provide essential data for certain critical networks.2 Being vulnerable in both domains, the United States should pursue mutual restraint in both. Moreover, given the overlap of space and cyberspace, it would not be difficult for either power to circumvent mutual restraint in one of these domains by threatening in the other.3
The difficulty of establishing deterrence and has already been explained. For the United States as well as for China, the chief potential drawback of agreeing on offensive restraint in cyberspace would be any restrictions on interfering with computer networks that enable the other side’s military forces to conduct combat operations. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect mutual restraint in strategic cyberspace to prohibit or prevent attacks on dedicated military networks in wartime.
At the same time, the risk of escalation from military to civilian cyber attacks (that is, tactical to strategic attacks) is inherent in the dual nature of much of cyberspace—and quite substantial given the porosity and instability of network boundaries. The question, then, is whether U.S. and Chinese pledges of mutual restraint in strategic cyberspace would reduce or aggravate this escalatory risk. On one hand, pledges of restraint at the strategic level could create the mirage of a firebreak, reducing inhibitions against attacking military networks and thereby increasing the danger of escalation to strategic cyber warfare. On the other hand, Sino-American recognition of mutual vulnerability in cyberspace, including the risk of escalation, could and should instill caution on both sides in conducting military cyber attacks.
With this in mind, in agreeing not to attack strategic cyberspace except in retaliation, both sides should also undertake to exercise caution, discrimination, precision, and control in cyberspace should conflict occur. Because cyber war at any level runs the risk of cyber war at every level, the United States will want to adapt and apply established protocols for delegation of authority to combatant commands to the cyber domain, with a focus on ensuring that any actions that could produce serious civilian commercial disruptions are approved at appropriately high levels. Of course, the United States would expect Chinese political authorities to be equally vigilant in how the PLA may conduct cyber war against U.S. forces during armed conflict. With this important condition governing attacks on military networks in times of war, the United States should favor mutual restraint in strategic cyberspace.
Thus, from the U.S. perspective, a preferred package of mutual restraint understandings becomes clear. Given U.S. vulnerabilities in space and cyberspace, it would be inadvisable for the United States to agree to no first use of nuclear weapons against China while leaving China free to attack U.S. satellites and critical networks, even if the United States was likewise free. Moreover, to the extent the Chinese might be emboldened to use conventional force because of reduced fear of nuclear escalation, it could make matters even worse if they also thought they could exploit U.S. reluctance to intervene due to fear of Chinese attacks using space and cyber warfare. The United States should insist on the principle that stability in one domain should not endanger stability in others.
Despite all the advantages of a broad approach to mutual restraint, it could imply strategic decoupling in that the United States would, in effect, be declaring that it would not escalate to hostilities in these strategic domains even if its conventional military capabilities prove insufficient to deter or defeat Chinese aggression. The United States resisted strategic decoupling during the Cold War by warning that it was prepared to use nuclear weapons, up to and including strategic nuclear weapons, if NATO’s conventional defense against Soviet aggression failed. If the United States would not decouple strategic forces from conventional war with the Soviet Union, why would it do so vis-à-vis China? Put differently, if the United States was willing to risk strategic conflict to deter aggression against its European Allies in the last century, why would it not risk strategic conflict to deter aggression against its Asian allies in this one?
One reason is that the United States presently has conventional military superiority over China, whereas the Warsaw Pact was thought to have conventional military superiority over NATO well into the 1980s. Another is that China does not pose the sort of blatant, direct, and massive threat to East Asia that the Soviet Union posed to Western Europe. Serious limitations on the Chinese military’s ability to project and sustain a large combat force outside its borders mean that China has no real capability to commit region-wide military aggression; nor does it geographically abut any U.S. treaty ally other than Thailand. Moreover, in contrast to the Soviet Union, whose designs on all of Europe were implied by its seizure of half of it and the offensive orientation of the Soviet and Warsaw Pact militaries, China has betrayed no interest in large-scale territorial conquest in East Asia, and it would incur untold material and political costs if it tried. If China’s goal is to be a stable, prosperous, secure, and respected power, military expansionism is much more likely to jeopardize that goal than further it. The discrepancy between the territories and maritime areas China claims but does not control encompasses Taiwan, minor land border disputes with India and Nepal, and disputes over islands and maritime areas in the East and South China Seas. This discrepancy is a source of regional instability, especially as China improves its capabilities to assert its claims, but it is vastly different in nature and scope from the threat of Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The most likely threats China will pose in the region are low-grade ones over specific territorial disputes that do not affect vital U.S. interests.
Because both the dangers and the stakes in East Asia today are lower than those of the Cold War, a U.S. threat to initiate nuclear war against China—suspect even in the prior case—is not credible in any circumstances other than in retaliation for a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies. Therefore, U.S. acceptance of China’s nuclear retaliatory capability should not affect Chinese calculations about the use of force. Indeed, if the Chinese really thought the United States would launch a first strike in the event of the failure of conventional defense, presumably they would not count on some U.S. promise not to do so. It follows that the risks associated with strategic decoupling are much lower in East Asia today than they were in Europe during the Cold War. Nevertheless, given East Asia’s importance, the United States must preserve the stability of the region and the security of its allies in any accords with China.
In sum, broadly defined American objectives in Sino-U.S. strategic restraint should be to mitigate national vulnerabilities, deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons, curb threats to satellites and computer networks, discourage Chinese use of force, encourage Chinese cooperation, maintain regional stability, and reassure allies. These objectives are best served by an integrated and sturdy approach to Sino-U.S. mutual strategic restraint, covering all three domains, discouraging the use of force at any level, and providing for the security of U.S. allies and the region as a whole.
It is doubtful that China would readily accept wholesale the integrated approach to strategic restraint that the United States would favor. Yet its growing vulnerabilities and improving conventional military capabilities give China increasing incentive to avoid escalation to the strategic level. This is particularly the case in the nuclear domain, where China is most overmatched. Moreover, the Chinese would not relish a costly nuclear arms race, building more offensive capabilities to stay ahead of U.S. defense potential and possibly causing the United States to enhance its strategic offensive capabilities vis-à-vis China. Chinese policy statements consistently emphasize the imperative of avoiding costly and destabilizing arms races.
The Chinese would be more ambivalent about and cyberspace. Chinese military strategists view these domains as potential weaknesses in an otherwise commanding current U.S. conventional military edge. Operationally, the Chinese see vulnerable U.S. satellites and networks as opportunities to disrupt the C4ISR system on which the U.S. military depends for conducting integrated expeditionary and strike operations. The PLA might well try to block any limitations on attacking U.S. forces in those domains.
The key to the possibility of broader strategic restraint, along the lines preferred by the United States, lies in whether Chinese political leaders grasp the sweep, scale, and implications of China’s national vulnerabilities and have the political will to overrule their generals. China will be vitally dependent on space and cyberspace within a matter of years, as an inescapable result of the Chinese economic integration at home and abroad. China’s ability to sustain strong economic growth and perhaps to maintain political order could be dashed by conf lict in these new domains.4Party and government leaders will recognize this from their vantage points, and increasingly inf luential business executives (many of whom are also senior party members) will recognize it from theirs. If the regime’s leaders defer to the PLA, there may be no agreement to reduce vulnerability in space and cyberspace. In turn, because the United States may insist on an approach to strategic restraint that encompasses all three domains, there might be no agreement on , either.
Thus, hopes for the United States and China to address their growing strategic vulnerability to each other may hinge on Chinese civil-military relations. The PLA follows political guidance issued by top civilian leaders but increasingly expects to be able to apply its professional military judgment on matters such as military doctrine and strategy, force planning, resource priorities, war plans, target selection, and operational command and control.5 This does not mean that decisions governing actual uses of force—starting hostilities, attacking U.S. forces, and initiating war in space and cyberspace—would be taken by the PLA without civilian consent. Consistent with the history of China’s civil-military relations since Mao Zedong, only political leaders may make war-and-peace decisions. However, current Chinese political leaders, unlike their predecessors, have no personal military experience. Options presented to them by the PLA could be limited to or tilted toward PLA preferences, perhaps presenting strikes on U.S. satellites and networks as operational necessities.
A "rational actor" analysis of Chinese decisionmaking would indicate that China could accept a broad approach to mutual strategic restraint along the lines and for the reasons suggested here.6But a "bureaucratic decisionmaking" analysis, in which the PLA has to be brought along, suggests lower expectations. Still, one expects that China’s positions on mutual restraint will rest ultimately on the views of its political leaders about national goals and vulnerabilities, China’s role in the region and the world, Sino-American relations, and their own responsibilities and legacies. If those leaders see great power antagonism as the primary dynamic or are overly deferential to the military (perhaps to bolster their political positions), they will be disinclined to embrace the concept and general application of strategic restraint and be more likely to seek unilateral advantage. If they believe China’s future success depends on international security, cooperation with the United States, and undisturbed growth and political stability at home, Chinese leaders may elect to pursue broad and fair mutual restraint despite military objections. In any case, the Chinese will face the reality of U.S. retaliatory capabilities in all three domains, for which the PLA has no feasible solution or persuasive answers.
Even if China’s political leaders are sympathetic in principle to mutual strategic restraint, it could take years for Chinese positions to form on such complex and momentous questions. Nothing in our analysis of Chinese general predispositions and likely reactions to specific terms of mutual restraint suggests that U.S. proposals would be met by uniform enthusiasm or lead to early agreements. The exception, again, is a bilateral nuclear no-first-use deal, which we would caution the United States not to accept unless China is prepared to seriously discuss comparable restraint in space and cyberspace.
The preceding sections have discussed perceptions about the costs, benefits, and preferred forms of strategic restraint in the nuclear, space, and cyber domains from the separate perspectives of the United States and China. However, there is also an interactive element to Sino-U.S. relations that will shape attitudes in both countries toward strategic restraint. This involves three key factors: the strategic military balance in the nuclear, space, and cyber domains; the conventional military balance (and how it varies with geography); and the role played by military competition and preparations for possible conf lict in overall Sino-U.S. relations. In the preceding chapters, we have laid out the argument that the relative balance in the strategic domains matters much less than the absolute capability of each side to impose major damage in the nuclear, space, and cyber domains. On the other hand, the salience of the U.S.China conventional military balance varies considerably depending on the extent to which serious conf licts of interest exist that could produce military conf lict and how important these interests are compared to other aspects of the bilateral relationship, which often will have a more positive and cooperative nature.
U.S. analysts describe ongoing PLA efforts to raise the costs and risks of U.S. military forces operating close to China as an antiaccess/area denial strategy. China is developing and deploying a number of systems that fit under this umbrella, including advanced conventional submarines, an antiship ballistic missile that can target U.S. carriers, antiship cruise missiles on air and naval platforms, extended-range surface-to-air missiles, and ballistic and cruise missiles with sufficient precision and range to strike U.S. air bases throughout the region.7If these systems work as intended, the closer U.S. aircraft and naval vessels operate to China, the greater their risk of being shot down or sunk. The cumulative effect would be to shift the local military balance in China’s favor as U.S. aircraft and ships operate closer to China, making U.S. intervention in a conf lict over Taiwan more costly, less successful, and less likely.
At the same time, China has significant limitations on its ability to deploy and sustain air and naval power outside its borders, especially in a combat environment. China has no overseas air bases and only a rudimentary air refueling capability (via a small fleet of tankers and a limited number of fighters capable of being refueled). The PLA navy is gradually expanding its ability to conduct out-of-area operations, but its deployments to date have been of small numbers of ships, of limited duration, and in permissive environments.8 After two decades of debate, China is only now preparing to deploy its first aircraft carrier (a remodeled carrier purchased from Ukraine). Despite significant improvements in PLA capabilities, a fundamental asymmetry in the U.S. and Chinese ability to project power will persist for decades. PLA antiaccess/area denial capabilities are increasing the risks for U.S. forces close to China, but the farther away the PLA gets from China, the more U.S. forces will have an advantage. The U.S. military is pursuing a variety of technical and operational efforts to respond to the general spread of antiaccess/area denial capabilities, including a new joint AirSea Battle doctrine.
If U.S.-China interests are viewed as fundamentally opposed and the risk of military conf lict is viewed as high, negotiating a strategic restraint agreement would be much more difficult (even though an agreement could still have high value for both sides in limiting and regulating military competition). Under such circumstances, both sides would be highly attentive to the conventional military balance, inclined to look to counterspace and cyber attack capabilities to compensate for weaknesses in specific conventional capabilities, and highly suspicious about the other side’s willingness to abide by any agreements. Competition for military advantage would be the dominant feature of the relationship. However, we believe that U.S. and Chinese interests are not fundamentally opposed and that prospects for major Sino-U.S. military conf lict are low if the two sides can continue to manage the Taiwan issue prudently. Military competition will be part of the Sino-U.S. bilateral relationship, but not so central a part that restraint in the strategic realm becomes impossible when it is in the interests of both sides.
Notwithstanding this relatively sanguine assessment of Sino-American relations, the prospects and effects of mutual strategic restraint must be examined in the light of possible conflict. Because the use of force by China to settle outstanding territorial disputes cannot be excluded, neither can Sino-U.S. military contingencies, given U.S. interests and commitments in this important region. Therefore, even if the relationship is not defined by military competition under the shadow of great power conflict, the effects of strategic restraint on the probability of conflict must be considered.
Decoupling the threat of strategic escalation could make conventional warfare seem less risky to the nations involved, at least in theory. In essence, it means that conflict and its costs, risks, and casualties can be confined to the military forces involved—clearly a Chinese objective in the event of conflict. If the side starting a conflict has already accounted for expected military losses, strategic decoupling can weaken deterrence by excluding other, larger losses. In the context of Sino-U.S. mutual strategic restraint, the concern is that China would be more likely to risk conflict and therefore more likely to commit hostile acts if escalation to strategic domains was believed to be unlikely. After all, China’s current military strategy is designed to avoid a protracted conflict and strategic escalation, which would allow the United States to bring more forces to bear and increase the danger of Chinese defeat and serious losses.
While Sino-U.S. military conflict in the western Pacific conceivably could occur over Taiwan, Korea, or some territorial dispute involving U.S. treaty allies, the Taiwan case involves vital Chinese interests and is examined here to get a clearer sense for the risk of decoupling. China would like to achieve reunification with Taiwan without resorting to force, which would entail high military costs and risks, stoke regional fears of an aggressive China, produce painful economic sanctions, and severely damage U.S.-China relations regardless of the outcome. Nevertheless, U.S. military capabilities and the prospect of U.S. intervention are major parts of the Chinese calculus on whether to use force to gain control of Taiwan. The threat of U.S. intervention poses two specters for China: failure to achieve its war aims vis-à-vis Taiwan, and escalation to a costly general war with (and likely defeat by) the United States. Accordingly, Chinese military strategy and the operational concepts and force modernization efforts predicated on it are designed to deter, delay, degrade, and otherwise limit U.S. military intervention so that PLA operations against Taiwan can succeed swiftly and general war with the United States can be averted.9China’s investment in antiaccess/area denial capabilities is primarily focused on raising the costs and risks of U.S. intervention in a Taiwan conflict.
How would mutual strategic restraint, as suggested here, affect the calculations about Chinese attack and U.S. intervention? In general, as the local military balance becomes less favorable and the western Pacific becomes more dangerous for U.S. ships and other forces, the United States could feel pressure to soften its commitment to defend Taiwan. The United States could also take measures to beef up Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, though there are major practical and political limits to this, especially the damage to Sino-U.S. relations of increased U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Alternatively, the United States could rely increasingly on deterrence by threatening escalation and thus planting doubts in Chinese leaders’ minds about PLA assurances of a brief, predictable, confined, and low-cost conflict. U.S. escalation might take the form of waging a longer campaign that allows the United States to bring more forces to bear or broadening the conflict into other geographic areas to exploit the U.S. military’s edge in power projection. It could also involve escalating to strategic attacks—an option that would be foreclosed by a strategic restraint agreement.
Mutual restraint and strategic decoupling could contradict the U.S. threat of escalation and thus weaken deterrence even as the local military equilibrium shifts in China’s favor. Yet on closer look, a more nuanced picture appears. In regard to nuclear weapons, a no-first-use pledge, if believed, could ease whatever fear the Chinese might have that war over Taiwan could end in a U.S. nuclear attack on China. But recall that the bedrock beneath any nuclear no-first-use understanding is the objective reality of mutual deterrence, which is based on a Chinese ability to have a survivable retaliatory force and a U.S. inability to prevent it. Whether or not the United States admits that it is deterred from escalating to nuclear war with China, in the end it is Chinese confidence in the credibility of the threat to retaliate that determines whether China fears U.S. nuclear escalation.
Conversely, if the Chinese were not satisfied that they had a convincing second-strike threat, they might not trust the United States to abide by a no-first-use pledge, especially if U.S. forces were about to be defeated and Taiwan was about to be seized. The Chinese would assume that whether the United States would escalate to nuclear war in the course of a military conflict would depend on American calculations at that time of the costs of doing so versus the costs of not doing so, rather than on a prior promise of restraint. While mutual restraint may be desirable, the ultimate Chinese insurance against U.S. nuclear attack is not a pledge but rather the fact that Chinese retaliation cannot be totally prevented by a U.S. nuclear first strike and missile defense. It follows that strategic decoupling is a byproduct not of but rather of objective, seemingly inevitable conditions of mutual deterrence, and thus a concern that the United States will have to address in any case.
Such conditions of deterrence imply that the costs of nuclear war to the United States would outweigh the costs of refraining from nuclear escalation and that it would therefore not resort to nuclear weapons over Taiwan, even if military operations were going poorly. Barring U.S. abandonment of Taiwan, the combination of a less favorable local military balance and a less credible nuclear threat would leave the United States in need of other escalatory options.
Space and cyberspace are candidates for U.S. escalation or the threat of escalation to strengthen deterrence of China, keeping in mind the expectation of minimal casualties. Experience with nuclear deterrence does not provide a simple template for judging how effective either escalatory threat could be in deterring the use of force by China. The nuclear threshold is clear.10 Moreover, the consequences of nuclear war, while devastating, are fairly calculable. While attacking satellites is a reasonably clear threshold, the difficulty of identifying a threshold for cyber war has already been explained. Moreover, the course and consequences of escalation, especially in cyberspace, are hugely unpredictable.
These ambiguities do not mean that the threat of counterspace and cyber attacks cannot help deter the use of conventional force. Rather, ambiguity about escalation thresholds and uncertainties about effects of conflict in these domains can foster caution rather than recklessness. It follows that the threat of space and cyber attacks could contribute to deterrence, should the United States threaten such escalation. In turn, this means that deterrence of Chinese conventional aggression might be weakened were the United States to agree on mutual restraint in these domains.
At the same time, given Chinese ASAT and cyber war capabilities, U.S. interest in threatening retaliation in these domains to offset declining local military superiority must be tempered by the prospect of very damaging Chinese retaliation. Therefore, we caution against looking to such escalation as the solution to the problem of deterring Chinese use of force.
Both of these new domains are complicated by the possibility that China itself could be tempted to initiate attacks on satellites or networks. The United States might regard the extension of hostilities into space and cyberspace as dangerous and disadvantageous; therefore, it would want to be able to deter China from launching such attacks. The best U.S. deterrent of such attacks would be the threat of severe retaliation against Chinese satellites and computer networks, with the effect of delivering such a shock to China’s economy that the Chinese would refrain from attacks in space or cyberspace. The prospect of Chinese retaliation against U.S. satellites and/ or computer networks is all the more reason for the United States to adopt a second-strike posture in these domains.
While the United States may be able to deter Chinese attacks in space and cyberspace, it could still be left with the problem of strategic decoupling because of mutual deterrence, and thus at least some erosion of its ability to deter China from using conventional force against Taiwan. This is all the more reason why the United States must consider other ways of deterring China from using its improving military capabilities, including those that can strike U.S. intervention forces. U.S. efforts to develop a new AirSea Battle doctrine focusing on effective joint employment of naval and air strike capabilities in the face of an adversary’s sophisticated antiaccess/ area denial capabilities represent one potential response.11
While this study does not assess every U.S. escalatory option systematically, these options could include conventional strikes on Chinese forces outside the immediate initial area of hostilities, conventional strikes on war support installations on the Chinese mainland, or a naval blockade to interdict China’s sea lines of communication and energy supply. The United States has an abundance of deployable and global range strike capabilities, and the longer a conflict with China lasts, the more of these it can bring to bear. Apart from attacking Chinese satellites and critical national computer networks, much less using nuclear weapons, the United States has what China does not: the ability to target and strike enemy forces and other targets anywhere, including the homeland. The United States has escalatory options that would not violate an exchange of pledges to exercise restraint in the strategic domains. (Moreover, Chinese escalation to counterspace and cyber attacks would not necessarily preclude the U.S. ability to execute these options, especially those that exploit the U.S. advantage in power projection.)
Of course, even U.S. conventional escalation could be viewed as strategic by China, especially if it involved attacks on the mainland or threatened Chinese nuclear deterrent capabilities, such as warning systems and national command and control. The Chinese are especially sensitive about U.S. global strike options, such as long-range conventional ballistic missiles and long-range bombers, even though these capabilities are not receiving substantial funding.12 They might either insist that these be included in any assurances of mutual restraint or else make clear unilaterally that Chinese strategic restraint will be contingent on U.S. restraint in the use of such systems. The United States must be prepared to insist that PLA forces cannot expect to operate against U.S. forces from a mainland sanctuary. If China launched attacks on U.S. satellites, it could expect U.S. retaliatory attacks on its ASAT launchers and related support facilities. In any case, the United States would certainly exercise care in conventional escalation, especially in choice of targets, lest it elicit a Chinese conclusion that its ability to launch its strategic retaliatory forces was under threat, which could trigger nuclear war.
Even without conventional global strike capabilities, the United States does have conventional options to maintain deterrence of Chinese use of force under conditions of mutual strategic restraint even if China succeeds in tilting the conventional military balance in the western Pacific in its favor in the coming decade or so. With or without Sino-American accord on mutual restraint, it is imperative for the United States to be sensitive to shifts in the balance and to adapt its military strategy as needed to ensure that the Chinese remain mindful of the severe consequences of using force.
The potential problems mutual strategic restraint could pose for averting Chinese use of force and Sino-American hostilities in the western Pacific prompt three additional observations. First, apart from the dangers of combat with U.S. forces and ensuing escalation, the Chinese have many reasons not to use force, at least not on a large scale: uncertainty of success, expected high losses (even in the event of success), regional and global outrage and sanctions, the possibility of derailing China’s economic growth, the long-term damage to relations with the world’s superpower, and unpredictable domestic political repercussions.
Second, it is all the more important for the United States to play whatever helpful role it can in producing a fair, principled, and sustainable outcome of the Taiwan problem—the most obvious flashpoint for major war between the United States and China.13 And third, the United States should be clear that it is concerned with not only compliance with the specific terms of mutual strategic restraint but also the overall effects. If the Chinese become militarily aggressive despite—or perhaps because of— arrangements of strategic restraint, the United States would obviously reassess all aspects of its relations with China, including understandings concerning restraint.
A Sino-American strategic restraint agreement would affect the general stability of the western Pacific and East Asia. The United States and most of the states in the region believe that stability depends on U.S. power, in various forms, to balance the reality and perception of an increasingly potent and assertive China. Ironically, past Chinese leaders held the view that U.S. power was essential for checking the Soviet East Asian threat and for averting Japanese unilateralism and remilitarization.14 While there is no current or prospective Russian threat, the question of Japanese intentions has not vanished. Nevertheless, Beijing now views American military power in the region as an obstacle to the stature (if not dominance) to which it aspires, as well as a potential threat to itself and to its access to the world.
The issue here is whether mutual strategic restraint would diminish U.S. ability to keep the region stable. If there is the potential for such a result, it seems faint. The extent to which the United States can check any Chinese ambitions to dominate the western Pacific and East Asia depends on a variety of factors:
If these variables were to point toward declining U.S. interest in East Asia and growing U.S. inclination to defer to China, and if trends in regional military capabilities favored China, the mutual strategic restraint proposed here could be read by U.S. allies and others as indicative of a U.S. reduction of its responsibilities to maintain stability in East Asia. Yet given that East Asia and its stability will remain of crucial importance to the United States, if only on economic grounds, it is not easy to imagine the United States shedding its responsibilities, reducing its presence, and becoming inattentive to developments there.15Moreover, the United States is mindful of the danger that key regional states, primarily Japan, might embark on policies inimical to U.S. interests if the United States appeared untrustworthy. U.S. interests in the region mandate active involvement with or without mutual strategic restraint with China.
It must also be understood that Sino-American mutual strategic restraint would tend to make the United States a more, not less, reliable ally in the region. A premise of this study is that the United States is becoming increasingly vulnerable in strategic domains. Just as mutual restraint would limit U.S. escalation options, so would it limit Chinese escalation options. If growing strategic vulnerabilities could make the United States more cautious in intervening to protect allies from Chinese threats, it follows that mitigating those vulnerabilities would give the United States greater freedom of action. The United States could act more confidently in East Asia if it were less fearful that conflict would escalate to space and strategic cyberspace.
For these reasons, China should not expect agreement on strategic restraint to mean that the United States will reduce its role, presence, and willingness to act in East Asia. It would be unwise and potentially hazardous for China to think that mutual vulnerability and mutual restraint will expand its freedom of action and constrict U.S. freedom of action. Nor should it expect the United States to dismantle its alliances or close its bases in the region, regardless of any Sino-American arrangements. In view of their misgivings about Chinese intentions, states in the region are unlikely to feel that China’s improving conventional capabilities and a Sino-U.S. mutual restraint agreement would require them to accept Chinese domination, provided the United States remains committed to security ties in place for over half a century.
Recent developments in Northeast and Southeast Asia suggest that China’s own behavior—its failure to curb North Korea’s belligerence and efforts to reinforce its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea— is a powerful factor in the decidedly pro-U.S. tilt of regional states, including such nonallies as Vietnam. In contrast, China’s willingness to improve relations with Taiwan has paid dividends. Perhaps these regional developments suggest to the Chinese the advantages of a cooperative and restrained role in the region, regardless of understandings with the United States about strategic restraint.16 A path for China to achieve its legitimate ambitions using peaceful means will make a resort to force and intimidation much less likely.17
What would be certain to destabilize East Asia is Sino-American conflict in space and cyberspace. A growing number of East Asian states are as dependent on computer networking and satellites as the United States and China. This is a consequence both of their own advancement and their economic cooperation with China and the United States, which together account for 34, 29, 33, and 25 percent, respectively, of the trade of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Because a war in space or in cyberspace would harm these states, they should welcome Sino-U.S. initiatives to reduce the dangers.
Similarly, East Asian stability would not be helped by a nuclear arms race between China and the United States, propelled by Chinese perceptions that the Americans were determined to deny them a nuclear deterrent. Such competition likely would result in a large buildup in China’s offensive capabilities, opposed but not neutralized by costly U.S.-led missile defense investments. Although mutual strategic deterrence might be preserved, the region would potentially be more menaced by a larger and more rapid Chinese nuclear buildup.
Despite this reasoning, key U.S. allies and partners in East Asia might respond ambivalently to Sino-American mutual nuclear deterrence. On one level, they have no alternative than to adjust to the reality of China’s capability to deter a U.S. nuclear attack, and they would not want a nucleararms race. Presumably, sophisticated civilian and military leaders in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan realize that the United States has already effectively acquiesced in a Chinese second-strike capability. The U.S. nod toward mutual deterrence in the Nuclear Posture Review did not exacerbate regional concerns about the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence.
Nevertheless, the question is whether key states would think that an explicit Sino-American no-first-use pledge as suggested here would increase Chinese freedom of action to their disadvantage. On this question, it is necessary to address individually Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, which have the greatest potential to be affected.
Japan’s bilateral security relationship with the United States has proven extraordinarily resilient. Sequentially, it has transcended Sino American rapprochement, the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the expansion of Chinese power, and the preoccupation of the United States with challenges in other regions in this century. Because of that relationship, Japan is able to keep defense expenditures low without sacrificing its security or its interests abroad (Japan spends less than 1 percent of GDP on defense, compared to nearly 5 percent for the United States and 2.5 percent for China). Japan presently sees its alliance with the United States as its best insurance against both China’s rise and North Korea’s recklessness.18As Japan improves its own military capabilities in select areas and exhibits somewhat greater willingness to operate its forces far from home, it does so strictly within the context of its security relationship with the United States. There seems little likelihood that Japan would jettison this relationship and either remilitarize on its own or seek a position equidistant between the United States and China. In this regard, it now appears that the initial Democratic Party of Japan government’s flirtation with the idea of being closer to China and less close to the United States was an anomaly that is unlikely to be repeated.
Nonetheless, there is no point in taking chances that Japan could misinterpret Sino-American mutual strategic restraint, especially in the nuclear domain. Because of the extreme sensitivity of nuclear weapons in Japan, both the Japanese and U.S. governments are circumspect about conditions in which the latter might use such weapons. While there is an acknowledged U.S. nuclear umbrella over Japan, obviating the need for Japan to have nuclear weapons, its nature is vague. Clearly, it means that the United States could retaliate with nuclear weapons if China used nuclear weapons against Japan. Much less clear, if not doubtful, is whether Japanese leaders count on the United States to respond with nuclear weapons if China were to use conventional force against Japan or its military forces.
The Japanese would be unsettled, to the point of considering their own nuclear options, if they perceived that the U.S. nuclear deterrent no longer applied to the case of a Chinese nuclear threat against them. Although China has already adopted a universal nuclear no-first-use policy, the Japanese would be alarmed if they thought the United States had agreed not to use nuclear weapons unless China used nuclear weapons against the United States itself. Therefore, any Sino-American no-first-use pledge would have to clarify that both parties, not just the United States, understood this also to cover "allies," a term that plainly applies to Japan. This means that the United States would reserve the right to launch nuclear retaliation in the event that China, notwithstanding its national no-firstuse policy, attacked Japan with nuclear weapons. While a Chinese nuclear attack on Japan is far-fetched, this clarification could ease Japanese concerns about Chinese nuclear blackmail while also averting a Japanese reconsideration of its own nonnuclear status.
The same clarification is no less important in regard to South Korea, where the matter of nuclear weapons is complicated by several factors: North Korea’s possession of nuclear explosives, the declining health of Kim Il-Sung and the growing belligerence of his regime, and the prospect of Korean unification. Neither China nor the United States wants to see South Korea or, in the event of unification, a Korean successor state with nuclear weapons. The former is very improbable. The latter could occur if the Korean successor state takes control of, and then drags its heels in dismantling, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Such an eventuality might be more likely if the Koreans perceived the United States as having foresworn the option of nuclear retaliation in the event of a Chinese nuclear attack on Korea. Clarification that covers allies is also important for Korea.
The case of Taiwan is complicated by several factors: the fact that it is not a formal U.S. ally, the lengthening shadow of a Chinese conventional military threat, and the increasing vulnerability of U.S. conventional forces available nearby to aid in the defense of Taiwan. Although cross-strait relations have been good of late, owing to pragmatism and flexibility on both sides, there is no assurance that this will continue if a new government comes to power. Meanwhile, China is improving both its capabilities to threaten the island (including many more short-range ballistic missiles than missile defense systems can possibly intercept) and its antiaccess/area denial capabilities.
The United States has not threatened to use nuclear weapons if China attacks Taiwan. Therefore, a U.S. exchange of no-first-use pledges with China should not in and of itself weaken deterrence or damage Taiwan’s confidence. Again, Taiwan’s leaders and strategists understand that China will have a credible nuclear retaliatory capability if it does not already. Moreover, China has never hinted at the possibility of using nuclear weapons against Taiwan, which is, after all, claimed as part of China.
At the same time, if the United States and China entered into a broad agreement to refrain from attacks in any strategic domain—nuclear, space, or cyberspace—both China and Taiwan could interpret this as limiting options for U.S. escalation. Even if the probability of a Chinese attack on Taiwan remains low, the perception of the United States retreating from escalation, even as trends in the local military balance favor China, could have two effects. First, China would be more confident and thus less flexible in negotiations and arrangements with Taiwan, including terms of reunification. Second, rather than choosing a unilateral military buildup and possibly acquiring nuclear weapons, Taiwan is more likely to become pliable in its relationship with China, perhaps even to the point of accepting unfavorable terms for reunification.
While these risks are less easily managed by the United States than the Japanese and Korean concerns mentioned earlier, they are not sufficient to derail pursuit of broad strategic restraint with China. Again, the alternative scenario of China and the United States in a nuclear arms race and threatening each other’s satellites and computer networks is hardly a promising one for Taiwan. But the United States will need to tailor if not the content, then at least the presentation, of mutual restraint with China to avoid compromising Taiwan’s confidence.
China has long held the position that nuclear weapons should be marginalized from world politics, bilateral affairs, and, of course, military conflict.19 Being weaker in this domain than the United States, as well as Russia, and adhering to a minimum deterrence policy, it is natural for the Chinese to downplay the importance of nuclear weapons in their foreign relations. From the Chinese perspective, mutual deterrence with the United States would not be seen as much as an emblem of a trustful new relationship than as rectification of a discrepancy in the existing relationship. Moreover, because China has not treated U.S. reluctance to endorse mutual deterrence as an obstacle to cooperation on other matters, it is unlikely that a change in U.S. nuclear policy will cause China to show a burst of cooperation.
Still, at this formative moment in the development of the world’s most important relationship, it would do no harm and potentially some good to marginalize nuclear weapons from the Sino-American agenda, in contrast to the way they dominated the U.S.-Soviet agenda. This may be the Chinese view, but it would also be advantageous for the United States. After all, the United States benefits from China’s policies that it will not be drawn into a nuclear arms race and is satisfied with an effective minimum deterrent. If China takes the view that nuclear weapons are neither an instrument nor a yardstick of power, the United States should agree. Such an understanding goes hand in hand with the mutual restraint proposed here, as well as with the American desire to marginalize the role of nuclear weapons in world affairs generally.
If mutual restraint extends to space and strategic cyberspace as well, there is an opportunity for China and the United States to develop a longterm relationship in which the vulnerability of each to the other will have been mitigated cooperatively and at least partially removed as a source of mistrust, misunderstanding, and possible miscalculation. A premise of this study is that Sino-American relations in the broadest sense will be shaped by both convergent and divergent interests. In and of itself, mutual strategic restraint in the domains examined here will not determine whether the world’s two leading powers have a harmonious or confrontational relationship or guarantee cooperation on other specific issues. Yet for the established world power and the rising world power to agree to foreclose strategic warfare against each other would herald a joint commitment to a constructive and prudent relationship.
The United States should regard the mitigation of strategic vulnerabilities not only as an important end in itself, but also as part of the foundation for a durable, constructive relationship between it and the world’s other leading power, which could benefit generations of Americans to come. Without setting preconditions on strategic restraint, the United States should lay out a vision in which such restraint becomes the basis for prudent behavior by the two powers toward each other, each other’s partners and allies, and all responsible states. The idea animating such a vision is that with exceptional destructive power comes exceptional responsibility. This idea, more often trashed than honored by great powers historically, is increasingly important as the world becomes more integrated and states, weak and strong, become more vulnerable. Mutual Sino-American strategic deterrence is important but insufficient, and it must not create conditions in which temptations to use force grow along with China’s power.
The antithesis of this idea would be that strategic restraint liberates great powers from the danger of escalation and enlarges their freedom to use force or coercion below the strategic level. We do not mean to suggest that the Chinese would take such a retrogressive view. But there will be factions in China and opportunities for China to take advantage of a situation in which the strategic threat from the superior power has been neutralized. Therefore, it is important for the United States to articulate its larger vision, if only to go on the record that the United States will monitor compliance with not only the terms but also the effects of mutual restraint. In the long run, the American commitment to mutual restraint will and should be related to the entirety of Chinese behavior. The implication should be clear: if China were to threaten Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, or the Southeast Asian states with which it has territorial disputes, the United States would naturally review its assumption that strategic restraint would strengthen stability.
Whether in striving to achieve understanding regarding mutual restraint in strategic realms or in respecting the letter and spirit of those understandings, the problem is less of a monolithic antipathy than of civilmilitary disagreement that China’s political leaders have neither the power nor the process to settle. China does not have a fully effective policymaking system for making coherent national security policy decisions in which political leaders take seriously but do not necessarily defer to the advice of the military and intelligence services. It is worth noting that the United States had no such system until being thrust into a leading global role with the end of World War II. Now that China is becoming a more active and important global power, its lack of a system to integrate national security policy is becoming conspicuous, both in regard to reactions to unforeseen problems abroad and in coherent long-term policy.20 The possibility of entering into, abiding by, and building on understandings with the United States on mutual strategic restraint will certainly tax China’s policymaking ability.
In sum, provided the Chinese neither reject mutual restraint nor, at the other extreme, pursue it to gain unilateral advantage and greater freedom of action in East Asia, the ability of the world’s strongest power and its fastest rising power to agree not to attack each other strategically should have a salutary effect on the world’s most important and potentially most dangerous relationship. All else being equal, it could dispose both states to cooperate on a host of common global security concerns.
Taking into account possible Chinese ambivalence, as well as the PLA’s grip on military strategy, plans, and operations, the United States will want to institutionalize mutual restraint in order to monitor results, strengthen trust in compliance, and promote a larger vision of responsible conduct by the world’s strongest powers. This could take two forms:
The United States has considerable experience with CBMs and an even larger body of analysis about them.21China also has a fair amount of experience in negotiating and implementing CBMs.22As the term suggests, CBMs can help assure parties that agreements are being kept, intentions are known, behavior and capabilities are not misconstrued, and provocative actions are avoided. When well designed and implemented, the openness they provide can obviate the need for worst-case assessments and planning. Given that the understandings about Sino-American mutual restraint suggested here concern intentions, CBMs could help enable and sustain such understandings.
A way to think about CBMs in this context is to pose the question: how could one party know if the other intended not to honor the terms and purposes of strategic restraint? The answer should inform which CBMs are adopted. In the nuclear domain, for instance, if the United States accepted mutual deterrence but was actively pursuing a capability to launch a disarming first strike against China, it would keep alive the option of a very large-scale national BMD system. Accordingly, China would be interested in a CBM that would expose any such U.S. intent.
This study does not analyze in depth the details, feasibility, and pros and cons of all possible CBMs bearing on restraint in the nuclear, space, and cyberspace domains. But several promising ones can be derived from the proposed terms of mutual restraint.
In the nuclear domain, the Chinese will worry that the United States will continue to develop and deploy capabilities that could threaten the survivability of China’s second-strike force: ASW technologies and forces, ballistic missile defense, offensive nuclear forces that could disarm China’s retaliatory force, surveillance systems to track and target China’s strategic forces (for example, mobile ICBMs), and long-range conventional strike systems. The problem is that the United States will, for many reasons, be active in all these areas, irrespective of its intent toward China’s deterrent. ASW is needed to protect U.S. surface ships and strategic submarines; BMD is needed to defend against rogue states and to protect U.S. expeditionary forces; U.S. offensive nuclear forces must be modernized; improved surveillance of Chinese capabilities of all sorts is only prudent; and longrange conventional strike forces have many missions. How, then, could Chinese suspicions be allayed?
For its part, the United States could become concerned that China will continue to develop and deploy strategic offensive forces beyond those required for a minimum deterrent.23 Meanwhile, China will not cease its efforts to ensure an effective and survivable retaliatory force regardless of U.S. endorsement of mutual deterrence. Of the two, Chinese concerns could be considered more warranted, for the United States has little reason for concern that China could be building more than a second-strike capability, whereas the Chinese are unconvinced that the United States is truly prepared to abandon the option of a first-strike capability against China. Nevertheless, the United States will be as insistent on CBMs to allay its concerns as it should be receptive to CBMs to assuage China’s fears.
Against this background, three types of CBMs bear consideration. The first, already favored by the United States, is reciprocal openness about nuclear doctrines, capabilities, and programs.24 Chinese resistance to this is ironic, since China has greater concerns about U.S. nuclear capabilities and plans than the United States does about Chinese nuclear capabilities and plans. The Chinese defend their secretiveness about nuclear capabilities as a requirement of their minimum deterrence posture, which leaves little cushion.25 If the Chinese think the United States will not relinquish the option of a disabling first strike against China, why would they make information available about the size, capabilities, and whereabouts of their retaliatory forces, or about their modernization programs? It follows that such Chinese secretiveness could be eased if the United States explicitly accepted China’s deterrent. China’s ongoing shift to a second-generation nuclear deterrent with mobile ICBMs and a sea-based deterrent could also reduce perceived costs of greater transparency. Moreover, Chinese political leaders should see merit in greater transparency measures if those measures addressed Chinese concerns about U.S. programs—BMD above all—and facilitated U.S. acceptance of mutual nuclear deterrence.
The second type of CBM would address concerns about nuclear attack, particularly a no-warning attack necessary for successful first strike. In particular, each side’s offensive nuclear forces could be placed on lower alert status. One difficulty with this is that the readiness of U.S. deterrent forces is not predicated on the possibility of Chinese attack but instead on the possibility of Russian attack, for which lower readiness would be considered imprudent. As for China, while doctrine calls for being able to ride out a first strike before retaliating, China regards increased alert status of its nuclear forces as a key means of signaling resolve in a crisis and may be reluctant to foreclose this option.
The third type of CBM is at once the most intriguing and most problematic: to involve the Chinese in BMD cooperation, along the lines of U.S. offers to involve the Russians. This could allay, though not eradicate, Chinese fears that U.S. BMD could be developed and someday used to intercept a Chinese retaliatory force. The problem is that U.S. BMD efforts, although primarily directed against the likes of Iran and North Korea, are not irrelevant to the Chinese conventional missile threat. In particular, the United States would not want to share with China any data that could reduce the efficacy of U.S. missile defense of its own forces, ships, and bases against China’s growing arsenal of precise conventional ballistic missiles. Under present conditions, the United States would also be concerned about leakage of sensitive BMD information from China to hostile states such as North Korea or Iran.
On balance, it would be best to concentrate on openness—something the United States has sought and that China should, for its own reasons, welcome. In time, each side should see that the other is not investing in significantly more capabilities than those required to sustain mutual deterrence. This, in turn, could take the "worst" out of worst-case planning and perhaps obviate the need for investments in new capabilities. Meanwhile, exchange of information could add to the trust needed for and implied by mutual restraint.
Confidence in a Sino-American agreement not to be the first to interfere with the other’s access to space could be reinforced by a moratorium on ASAT testing. However, such a moratorium would require dealing with ambiguities over the purpose of space-capable rocket tests, directed energy tests, and other operations that could interfere with satellite performance. The difficulty of specifying which type of testing is not permitted would aggravate breakout risks. Moreover, China would undoubtedly try to exploit an ASAT test moratorium to prohibit U.S. testing of ballistic missile interceptors. Finally, an ASAT test moratorium could have the perverse effect of weakening deterrence. Testing is needed for better ASAT performance, which makes the threat of retaliation on which deterrence depends more credible. In sum, while an ASAT test moratorium could be explored as a possible CBM, the drawbacks might exceed the benefits.
What could be more promising is Sino-U.S. agreement to notify each other of space launches, with explanation and perhaps within specified parameters.26The United States is currently more capable than China of detecting such launches using its own national means, yet neither side would have to reveal sensitive information. Generally speaking, spacelaunch notification would seem to be a reasonable practice to increase transparency and trust. Moreover, it could be a modest step toward a more cooperative approach to space, which current U.S. space policy professes in general to favor.
Confidence-building measures to bolster restraint in strategic cyberspace are more problematic than those for the nuclear and space domains. Each side will continue to develop offensive options because of a wide range of needs and potential adversaries, and because the line between offense and defense can be blurry. At a minimum, any state that wants to improve computer network protection must have the ability to try to defeat its own best defenses. Moreover, the terms of Sino-American suggested here would cover only attacks on strategic computer networks, such as those critical to national well-being. The sides might not refrain from other intrusions. Thus, both parties will presumably have and use offensive cyber war capabilities in some fashion.
Nevertheless, there are two CBMs that could complement SinoAmerican mutual restraint in strategic cyberspace. First, the parties could set up a mechanism for consultations on suspicious events, such as probes of networks that could be considered strategic, attacks on less important networks, concerns about attacks coming from platforms within one or the other country but not necessarily with state complicity, and complaints from enterprises about attacks. Second, the parties could consult and cooperate on third-party threats, including but not necessarily limited to nonstate threats.
The United States and China could go so far as to share intelligence and cooperate on defense. However, any cooperation on third-party threats and defenses could run afoul of the extreme caution of both countries with regard to intelligence and network protection. Any CBMs of this sort will have to start modestly and intensify cautiously as the two countries build trust in each other’s intentions in cyberspace. At present, that trust is low.
In addition to specific CBMs, the United States and China should maintain a regular high-level dialogue on strategic restraint, which could deal with nuclear, space, and cyberspace together or separately. The dialogue should include both political and military leaders, with the former in charge. While modalities can be left to government ministries, the purposes of strategic dialogue should be to:
A Sino-American strategic security dialogue has in fact begun, with the first meeting occurring in the context of the May 2011 U.S.-China Strategic and Economy Dialogue. It is unrealistic to think that the United States, having sought such a process, would set preconditions on the direction it should take. At the same time, strategic dialogue is more likely to be fruitful if the sides could agree early on some of the basic purposes and principles of restraint:
Perhaps some of the ideas offered here can energize and serve as grist for this dialogue.
The United States could now explicitly accept China’s second-strike nuclear deterrent, paving the way for a bilateral no-first-use agreement. Such a step would recognize the reality of Chinese offensive capabilities, the futility of defending against them, and the wastefulness of a Sino-U.S. offense-defense arms competition. It would also advance U.S. interests in reducing the role of nuclear weapons in world politics and warfare and in relieving Chinese distrust in U.S. willingness to acknowledge China as a world power. However, recognizing that this step would be a concession to China and would leave the United States with more serious vulnerabilities in space and cyberspace, it should be taken only as part of an integrated U.S. approach to mutual strategic restraint.
Such a U.S. approach would be guided by certain principles:
Again, the Chinese may prefer a narrow nuclear no-first-use understanding, believing that this would neutralize a U.S. strategic advantage, relieve the danger of U.S. nuclear blackmail, give China more freedom of action, and leave open Chinese options in space and cyberspace. They might feel that as their power grows, their vulnerabilities will decline. If they do, they are mistaken. The paradox of power in the 21st century is that vulnerability comes with power. In particular, China is becoming so reliant on cyberspace and space that hostilities in those domains would do great harm to its economy and possibly its political stability. Accordingly, the Chinese should be receptive to and strategic cyberspace not just because the United States would not otherwise accept China’s nuclear deterrent, but also because China will find itself at least as vulnerable as and less powerful than the United States in these domains.
However, the Chinese might not be so agreeable, particularly if the PLA persuades the political leadership that would ruin China’s chances of neutralizing the U.S. advantage should a conflict come. It is not clear that China’s political leaders can ignore the argument that Taiwan cannot be taken by force if the PLA is prohibited from striking U.S. vulnerabilities: the satellites and computer networks that enable U.S. forces to respond and defeat Chinese forces before they can accomplish their mission of unifying China.
The United States should not abandon the idea of broad-based SinoAmerican strategic restraint if China is unwilling or, because of divided Chinese views, unable to engage seriously on this agenda. Even if the United States fails to get a definitive strategic restraint agreement, engaging Chinese civilian leaders may sensitize them to China’s growing vulnerabilities in the space and cyber domains and to the importance of close civilian control of military contingency plans and activities in the space and cyber domains. Such a realization may heighten Chinese awareness of the high costs and risks of military conflict with the United States, thus reinforcing deterrence.
Moreover, the passage of time may work to the advantage of the United States for two related reasons. First, Chinese political and economic elites will become increasingly aware of China’s vulnerabilities in space and cyberspace as its use of these domains grows. Second, as offense dominance and the threat of U.S. ASAT and cyber war capabilities become more apparent, the Chinese will find themselves increasingly deterred from striking first in these domains.
The prospect of a lengthy but ultimately promising strategic dialogue on mutual restraint argues for U.S. persistence. This, in turn, argues for building a bipartisan consensus in favor of Sino-American strategic restraint. This may not be easy, given the controversy surrounding China mainly because of economic issues. On the other hand, the mainstreams of both parties fundamentally accept the goal of a constructive relationship with China as long as U.S. interests and friends are protected along the way.
Assuming the Chinese are not prepared to embrace broad mutual restraint at once, the United States would be wise at least to offer a joint framework for discussing and eventually agreeing on concepts and terms. The next chapter sums up what that framework might include, assesses what difference it would make for the United States and Sino-American relations if the framework is eventually agreed or not, and offers several recommendations.