UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear, China

The Next Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Estimate of casualties from a single Chinese nuclear warhead targeting Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan by NUKEMAP.

Japan was the first, the last and the only nation to be attacked with nuclear weapons. If it continues along the path set by Prime Minister Abe and the national security bureaucrats of his Liberal Democrat Party (LDP), it may also be the next.

The laws and norms restraining the development and deployment of nuclear weapons are dissolving in the same corrosive nationalism that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One by one laboriously negotiated constraints are disappearing. The latest to go was the INF Treaty. Mr. Abe’s government did nothing to preserve it, and may have intentionally hastened its demise. For more than a decade LDP bureaucrats have been lobbying the US government to redeploy US nuclear weapons in Asia. Some Japanese officials, including Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba, have discussed putting US nuclear weapons back in Japan, training the Japanese Self-Defense Force to deliver them and obtaining US permission to decide when to use them.

Fear of China

Government and military officials in Japan and the United States are in the grips of increasing anxiety about China. The steady growth of a national economy containing nearly one-fifth of humanity is the cause of their worries and the animus guiding some of President Trump’s trade warriors. China’s gross domestic product (GDP) eclipsed Japan’s in 2010 and will soon surpass the GDP of the United States. China has held military spending to consistent 2% of GDP since 1979, but combined with the rapid pace of Chinese economic growth Chinese military expenditures have created the impression of an equally rapid military buildup US and Japanese security experts assume must be aimed at something other than self-defense.

Japanese security experts fear China will act the same way Japan did in the 1930s. US security experts worry China will behave the same way the United States does now. Neither feels comfortable living with those thoughts.

Both sets of officials imagine new nuclear weapons will relieve their anxiety. The Trump administration wants to offset China’s increasing conventional military capabilities with new “low-yield” or “non-strategic” nuclear weapons the United States can use to avoid defeat in a future war with China. The nuclear thinking within Abe’s LDP is similar but less clear cut. In a lengthy discussion about China in Washington in 2009, Mr. Akiba told me he believed that if Chinese leaders knew Japan had access to US nuclear weapons, a military trained to deliver them and a government with the authority to use them then China would be less assertive on everything from territorial disputes to trade negotiations.

Resurgent Nationalism

The elevation of national ambitions, priorities and interests over international agreements that subordinate all three to shared peace and prosperity is rapidly overturning decades of halting but inspiringly successful efforts to not only avoid another world war but to create a more sustainable and equitable global economy. The collapse of international nuclear arms control is accelerating in a context where all international organizations are under assault, and many of the international laws and norms that created them are being disparaged or ignored.

Abe’s LDP was one of the first to subvert the post World War II consensus on the dangers of nationalism.  The prime minister and the leaders of his party bristled at the continuation of ritual expressions of remorse for the consequences of Japanese militarism and chose instead to ostentatiously honor the perpetrators. They sought to restore Japan’s national stature by overturning the “peace constitution” instituted in the wake of the atomic bombings and Japan’s defeat. Steve Bannon admiringly told the LDP that Abe was Trump before Trump. The only difference between Abe and his American idol is that the prime minister still values international trade agreements seen as essential to Japan’s economic survival.

It is unlikely President Trump is self-consciously leading an organized effort to redirect US foreign, economic and military policy. His only clear interest–the focus of all his presidential activity–appears to be simple self-aggrandizement. But the aberrant character of his campaign and his government repelled traditional US  foreign policy elites and attracted a cabal of sycophants, opportunists and ideologues, like Bannon, who mobilized longstanding popular resentments against post-war US internationalism that Trump shared and articulated. Public support for Trump’s “America-first” orientation enabled his underlings to institutionalize a rapid US withdrawal from many of its international obligations.

China, on the other hand, embraced the idea of global community and emerged as one of internationalism’s most vocal defenders. This difference may provide a new ideological foundation for anti-Chinese policies similar to those that organized US-China relations during the Cold War.

Precarious Planning

The war all three nations imagine might come would be fast and vast. US plans include preemptive long range missile strikes deep into central China. US leaders refuse to rule out the possibility that some of those missiles would be armed with nuclear warheads.

Chinese plans include large-scale missile launches at every imaginable US military target on its periphery, including US military bases in Japan. Some of China’s missiles are capable of carrying either nuclear or conventional warheads. Chinese leaders have repeatedly stated they will never, under any circumstances, be the first to use nuclear weapons but US and Japanese officials don’t believe them.

Within minutes of the beginning of a war between China and the United States–a war Abe’s new interpretation of the Japanese constitution obliges Japan to join even if it is a not party to the dispute that starts it–there will be hundreds of missiles headed for scores of targets spread over an incredibly large area of East Asia. The first things to be destroyed will be the antennas, radars and computer networks commanders on all sides rely upon to assess what’s happening and communicate with their troops. None of them can be certain some of the missiles headed in their direction are not armed with nuclear warheads.

In the midst of this fast-moving high-stakes chaos it is not inconceivable that a nuclear weapon could be used by either side, perhaps without authorization or by mistake, igniting a much broader nuclear war that could obliterate Japanese urban populations near US military bases and major metropolitan areas in the continental United States.

Delusional Thinking

Even more frightening is the belief of Japanese and US defense officials that they can use use low yield nuclear weapons first to control the escalation of the war. They imagine if they use these nuclear weapons China will give up the fight without retaliating.  The idea is an old one stretching all the way back to the beginning of the nuclear age.

The Chinese communist leadership faced this type of US nuclear threat before during the Taiwan Straits Crisis of the 1950s. They did not have nuclear weapons then but were allied with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Declassified Chinese and Soviet archives show China’s leaders were prepared to take the blow and continue to fight. They did not expect Soviet retaliation on their behalf so long as the scale of the US nuclear attack was limited. Soviet leaders, however, insisted they must retaliate in order to preserve their own credibility.

It is impossible to know how a nuclear-armed China would respond today. I suspect even China’s leaders do not know what they would do. There is, however, a reasonable chance it would not be what US military planners expect. The United States foreign policy and defense establishment does not have a very good track record when it comes to understanding Chinese thinking or predicting Chinese behavior.

China does not have low yield nuclear weapons so if it did retaliate, even in a very limited way, it would be with missiles carrying nuclear warheads with an explosive force 30-40 times larger than the weapons the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One classified Chinese text on the operations of its nuclear forces suggests they would choose a relatively isolated but important military target in the theater of war, like Okinawa or Guam.  A single Chinese nuclear warhead targeting Kadena Air Base in Okinawa would kill approximately 90,000 people and injure 200,000 more, most of whom would be innocent Okinawans and the families of the 18,000 American and 4,000 Japanese personnel who work there. It’s hard to believe either side would be able exercise “escalation control” at that point in an already devastatingly massive conflict.

Lessons Worth Remembering

We’ve managed to avoid sliding into another “great power” conflict for 74 years because up until very recently our governments understood the dangers of nationalism and the necessity to subordinate national interests to international law and organization. Japan’s peace constitution embodies this better than any other legal document of the post-war era.

“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

The constitution may have been imposed by the United States at the end of WW II but the Japanese people came to cherish it and transformed those commitments into a pillar of Japan’s post-war national identity.

I find it sadly ironic that US officials have been pressing their Japanese counterparts to abandon that language for decades to no avail until Abe’s LDP pledged to restore Japan’s national honor and autonomy by finally capitulating to this foreign demand.

Japan’s new nationalists and their US counterparts justify their challenge to the post-war international consensus by pointing to the rise of China. The implication is that China, not the United States and Japan, is to blame for the disintegration of the international order. Rhetorically, at least, nothing could be farther from the truth. The key component of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy is the concept of a “community of common human destiny.” The five aims of the policy are to “build enduring peace, universal security, shared prosperity, openness and tolerance and a clean and beautiful world.”

Not exactly Mein Kampf, is it.

Despite its many horrible faults, the Chinese government is not championing nationalism or disparaging internationalism. It has a number of seemingly intractable sovereign disputes with some of its neighbors, including Japan, but those disputes do not necessarily foretell the emergence of another Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany or Soviet Union.

I’ve spent most of the last thirty-five years living, studying and working in China. The one constant in the breathtaking transformation of that country during this period is the consistently enormous gap between US perceptions of what is happening in China and the reality I experience when I am there. It’s possible US and Japanese fears may be exaggerated or misplaced.

Attempting to address those fears by exerting pressure, waging trade wars and flooding East Asia with new nuclear weapons will put all three nations on the path to a war none of them can win. The only way out of our present difficulties is to negotiate mutually acceptable compromises in the interest of the common good.

China Holds Firm on No First Use of Nuclear Weapons

“Enthusiastically celebrate our country’s successful test launch of a nuclear missile” (1966)

Ever since I took this job 17 years ago US colleagues of all political and intellectual persuasions have been telling me that sooner or later China would alter, adjust, amend or qualify the policy that China will never, under any circumstances, use nuclear weapons first. Yesterday, the Chinese Ministry of Defense released a much-anticipated new white paper on China’s national defense policies. Here’s what it says about nuclear weapons:

China is always committed to a nuclear policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally. China advocates the ultimate complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons. China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security. China pursues a nuclear strategy of self-defense, the goal of which is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

It would be difficult to compose a more emphatic rejection of claims that China’s no first use policy is changing. The statement also indicates it is not Chinese policy to use nuclear weapons first to forestall defeat in a conventional military conflict with the United States. China does not have an “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear strategy.

China is not preparing to fight a nuclear war with United States. It does not have “battlefield” or “tactical” or “non-strategic” nuclear weapons. Chinese nuclear strategists don’t think a nuclear war with the United States is likely to happen. And they seem sure it won’t happen as long as the US president believes China can retaliate if the United States strikes first.

That’s not a high bar to meet, which is why China’s nuclear arsenal remains small and, for the time being, off alert.

China sees its comparatively modest nuclear modernization program as a means to convince US leaders that a few Chinese ICBMs can survive a US first strike and that these survivors can penetrate US missile defenses. Chinese nuclear planners might be willing to slow or scale back their nuclear modernization efforts if the United States were willing to assure China’s leaders it would never use nuclear weapons first in a military conflict with China. Chinese experts and officials have been asking the United States to offer that assurance for decades. US experts and officials consistently refuse.

In the absence of a no first use commitment from the United States, Chinese nuclear strategists believe continued improvements to their nuclear arsenal are needed to assure China’s leaders their U.S. counterparts won’t take the risk of attacking China with nuclear weapons. Chinese experts know US efforts to develop a working ballistic missile defense system are not going well, but they still feel the need to hedge against continued US investment in the system with incremental improvements in the quality and quantity of China’s small nuclear force.

Given the impassioned attack on constructive US-China relations currently sweeping US elites off their feet, along with the continued proliferation of misinformation about Chinese nuclear capabilities and intentions, many US commentators are likely to brush aside the new white paper’s reiteration of China’s longstanding nuclear no first use policy. It doesn’t fit in the emerging US story about a new Cold War. That’s unfortunate, especially as the US Congress threatens to ramp up a new nuclear arms race its supposed adversary has no intention to run.



Do Mick Jagger and Keith Richards Hold the Key to Peace in Northeast Asia?

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1969. Wise beyond their years?

I’m not a Rolling Stones fan. There’s something a little dark about their music. I prefer the Beatles, who offered more light and love to listeners. But when it comes to hope for a peaceful way out of the Korean War, the songwriters for the Stones may have given us the key to ending it.

The war started in June of 1950 when Kim Jong-un’s grandfather sent his army south to unify his country, which was divided in half at the end of World War II. He almost succeeded. The United States stopped him. But instead of putting things back the way they were, US forces pushed north to eliminate Kim the elder and his communist government. They almost succeeded. The People’s Republic of China stopped them. The fighting ended in 1953—at the same dividing line where it started—but the war did not.

To make a really long story ridiculously short, the North and the South, the United States and China continuously prepare to carry on the fight. They’ve packed an unimaginably large amount of military hardware into Northeast Asia and ostentatiously practice using it. The balance of forces has been tilting against North Korea for quite awhile. China isn’t the reliably militant communist ally it was in 1950. The North’s economy is tiny and crippled by UN sanctions. But it has one thing going for it: nuclear weapons.

The Kim family dynasty sacrificed a lot to get them. The idea that the grandson is going to give them up before there’s major changes in the current situation, including a formal end to the war, is wishful thinking.

The United States and China have nuclear weapons too. Theirs are legal. North Korea’s are not. The Kims signed a treaty promising they wouldn’t make them. The United States and China signed the same treaty promising they would get rid of theirs but, whatever. For a long time now the United States has been ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea, first to stop them from trying to make nuclear weapons and, now that they’ve succeeded, to give them up. Things got pretty tense a few years ago. Fighting words were flying. Missiles too. Then the Olympics happened.

I love the Olympics. It’s one of those moments we’re all reminded we can love our own countries and compete with people from other ones without hating and killing them. In that spirit the leader of the South invited the leader of the North to meet and talk. There’s been a lot of meeting and talking since then. But every time the talk gets round to ending the war some cranky US somebody or another tells the North, “Only if you give us your nuclear weapons first!” He got sent off to Mongolia before the last meeting and things seemed to get better.

China’s leader, just back from his first visit to North Korea, seems to have put a new deal together. I call it the everybody chills plan. North Korea freezes its nuclear weapons program; the bombs and the missiles, but gets to keep what it’s got. The United States relaxes its military posture but gets to keep its troops in the neighborhood and parade them around as long as it does it more politely. China and South Korea get to help North Korea improve its economy, but UN sanctions that put some limits on what kind of help they can provide and how North Korea uses it remain in place.

Lots of good things could happen if everybody chills. First, no war or threats of war. That’s not a small thing. If they can keep that up for awhile everybody may get more comfortable with the idea of putting it in writing.  Second, North Korea can sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Just saying no to nuclear testing is always a good idea. Third, the UN can get its inspectors back in North Korea to make sure its nuclear arsenal isn’t getting bigger or better. That seems like a real plus to me. Finally, and most importantly, the poor people of North Korea can catch a much-deserved break. Nobody has suffered more from all of this than they have.

Yeah, North Korea gets to keep its nuclear weapons. That’s not good. The United States and everyone else threatened by those weapons will still have to worry about them. But that’s where the Stones come in. When it comes to North Korea, as to many things in human life, you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.


Xi’s China Stands with World. Trump’s America Stands Alone.

US and Chinese delegations talk trade in Osaka, Japan.

The presidents of the United States and China met at the G-20 leadership summit in Osaka, Japan to try to put an end to a trade war that’s disrupting the global economy. They walked away with a ceasefire agreement that left everyone uncertain about the future.

Almost all of the other members of the G-20 have serious problems with the way President Xi’s China does business. Yet not a single one of them stood with President Trump. The meeting closed with what they politely called a 19+1 declaration. It would be more accurate to call it a declaration of the 20-1 .

China, the United States and the World

At the end of the last world war political, economic, social, cultural, educational and religious leaders throughout the world committed to a collective effort to avoid another world war. They agreed the best way to do that was to act, to the greatest degree possible, in support of common interests, not only national ones.  Over the decades they established institutions, laws, and common practices to work through the very difficult problems that can arise when powerful national interests are at odds with the common good.

Before the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reclaimed China’s seat in the United Nations in 1971—over the objections of the United States, which did everything it could to isolate Communist China from the rest of the world—Xi’s predecessors preached the Marxist-Leninist gospel of global revolution.  They saw the United Nations, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which eventually became the World Trade Organization (WTO), as instruments of US imperialism.  Xi’s China is still unapologetically communist. But today China is not only a member of the world order it once reviled, it is one of its biggest beneficiaries and staunchest defenders.

The United States, on the other hand, is walking away from the world order. It is withdrawing from arms control treaties, disregarding trade rules by leveling tariffs and, most importantly, telling the world it will dump as much carbon into the atmosphere as it pleases. President Trump and the officials he’s hired to represent the United States have proudly proclaimed they’re putting US national interests above the common good. They seem to have decided that most if not all of the international commitments the United States made in the past are bad deals that disadvantage the United States to the benefit of others, especially China.

Who will the rest of the world follow? If it takes after Trump’s America the consensus on avoiding world war by building international institutions and promoting global norms to protect the common interest will collapse. If it doesn’t the world is unlikely to follow a communist China with pressing human rights problems and a strident approach to territorial disputes.  Most of the rest of the world is more likely to continue to press forward as best it can without the United States. This latest meeting of the G-20 was a pretty strong signal that the post-war consensus can hold, and that China intends to help defend it.

Hopefully, President Xi will eventually recognize China needs to compromise more of its national interests to make good on that intention. His commitment to combating climate change is an encouraging sign.  Playing a more prominent role in international nuclear arms control and disarmament would be an excellent next step.

Going Forward

The United States is home to 4.3% of a global population rapidly approaching 7.6 billion. It is true that the US share of the global economy has been shrinking for quite awhile. But that’s not a sign of American decline. To the contrary, it is a reflection of the economic success in the rest of the world that US post-war internationalism intended to create.

The reason so many average Americans seem eager to walk away from the world today is not because US internationalism decreased economic disparities between nations—and in the process made the whole world a lot wealthier—but because it increased economic disparities within nations. The benefits of globalization were not shared equally among social and economic classes across countries. Discontent in China is what led to the rise of Xi Jinping. He won the Communist Party’s top spot with a promise to save the Party by rooting out corruption and rebalancing the economy. Discontent in the United States led to the rise of Donald Trump. He won his office, in part, with a promise to save America from foreigners and the supposedly bad deals his predecessors made with them.

The G-20 declaration presented a comprehensive defense of the post-WWII internationalist consensus and a unambiguous refutation of the new US nationalism. It vowed to keep international markets open and to strengthen the institutions that govern them, especially the WTO. The G-20 would have included a warning against protectionism but sought to avoid widening further its rift with the biggest offender, which isn’t China but the United States.

It also took note of “the important work of the International Panel on Climate Change” and declared the G-20 is “irreversibly” committed to the Paris Agreement. Despite vociferous and time consuming US objections, all of its members, except the United States, “reaffirmed their commitment to its full implementation.”