Nuclear Deterrence and the US-China Strategic Relationship

From Alliances, Nuclear Weapons and Escalation: Managing Deterrence in the 21st Century, edited by Stephan Frühling and Andrew O’Neil, published 2021 by ANU Press, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.

In this chapter from Alliances, Nuclear Weapons and Escalation: Managing Deterrence in the 21st Century,  Oriana Skylar Mastro argues that there are several reasons to suspect that the nuclear dynamics between the US and China are different from those that existed between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War. For one, China’s approach to nuclear weapons is fundamentally different from the US and Soviet approaches of assured destruction capability. Instead, China’s policy of assured retaliation with a no-first-use pledge, designed to deter nuclear attack and coercion, reduces the strategic importance of nuclear weapons in the bilateral relationship.

Mastro notes that the great power nuclear relationship also impacts US allies differently. She points out that European countries are committed to collective defence, but no North Atlantic Treaty Organization – style construct exists between US allies in Asia. Additionally, key US European allies such as France and the United Kingdom have their own nuclear capabilities while Asian allies rely exclusively on the US to deter nuclear attack against their countries.

Her chapter evaluates the role that nuclear deterrence plays in the US–China strategic relationship. It lays out the pathways to conflict and the implications for nuclear use, evaluates how allies influence nuclear dynamics (the conditions under which nuclear weapons would most likely be used and how) and explores how escalation to nuclear conflict may affect US allies in the region depending on their level of involvement in the contingency. In doing so, Mastro highlights that, when it comes to nuclear use, there is a sizeable difference between what is possible (the operational realities) and what is plausible (the strategic logic behind potential use).