Report Finds Growing Risk of Nuclear War Between United States and China

Military Solutions Won’t Resolve the Conflict Between the Two Countries

Published May 23, 2016

WASHINGTON (May 23, 2016)—A report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) concludes the risk of nuclear war between the United States and China is mounting. The report, titled “The Risk of Nuclear War with China: A Troubling Lack of Urgency,” notes that “the governments of the United States and the People’s Republic of China are a few poor decisions away from starting a war that could escalate rapidly and end in a nuclear exchange.” It concludes that neither side is likely to prevail by embarking on an arms race reminiscent of the Cold War.

“Lack of mutual trust and a growing sense that their differences may be irreconcilable are pushing both governments to look for military solutions,”  said report author, Gregory Kulacki, China Project manager for the UCS Global Security Program. “But there is no military solution to the security dilemma facing the two countries.”

The new report comes on the eve of President Obama’s historic trip to Hiroshima, the site where the United States first used a nuclear weapon. Obama’s visit will raise questions about his nuclear arms control legacy and how his administration’s policies toward Asia are affecting the region.

Disputes between the United States and China over navigation in East Asian waters and policies toward Taiwan and elsewhere are among the unresolved points of contention. Meanwhile, strengthened U.S. military relations with Japan and others in the region have raised Chinese concerns. These diplomatic splits have prompted both governments to develop new military strategies and upgrade their conventional and nuclear forces to prepare for a potential U.S.-China conflict.

“As long as both sides remain committed to pursuing technical solutions to the problems that divide them,” said Kulacki, “they are condemned to continue competing indefinitely.”

Both China and the United States are developing advanced technical capabilities, including anti-satellite weapons, missile defenses and conventional precision-guided munitions, which could undermine strategic stability. According to the report, miscommunication, misunderstanding, and poor judgment in the fog of a rapidly escalating conventional conflict could precipitate an intentional or accidental use of nuclear weapons by either side.

The report recommends both governments acknowledge the growing risk of military conflict and invest more time and effort pursuing diplomatic solutions to the problems that divide them. The ongoing dialog between the two countries have been focused on managing military competition instead of addressing its underlying causes.

“The result is a stalemate that is not a stable outcome; rather, it is a perpetual high-wire act,” said Kulacki, who has been following the bilateral dialog on nuclear weapons policy for many years. “And that stalemate may not be enough to prevent the unthinkable—a nuclear exchange.”