U.S.-China Nuclear Deterrence and The South China Sea

With the possibility that China will deploy its JIN-class submarine fleet during this contentious time, dialogue between the US and China has become evermore important in order to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to escalation to conventional or even a nuclear confrontation.

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In the coming weeks, the U.N. Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) will announce its long-awaited decision on Chinese and Philippine rival claims to territory in the South China Sea. China views the arbitration as illegitimate and holds fast to its maritime claims while strengthening its naval forces. In response, the U.S. Pacific fleet conducted freedom of navigation exercises and recently deployed aircraft carriers near the South China Sea to reassure its allies. These developments exacerbate tensions between the United States and China, which could have serious implications for nuclear deterrence in the region. This is especially true as China moves away from what Mao Zedong coined People’s War, a military strategy focused on land forces, towards a strategy centered on sea-based defenses.

The Chinese government is devoting a large amount of resources to improving its ballistic missile submarine fleet (SSBNs), which would revolutionize the Chinese navy. The 2015 People’s Liberation Army Navy’s1 publication states that it is working on adding a fifth submarine to its JIN-class SSBN fleet. The Pentagon speculates that the PLA(N) will deploy the submarines this year, which would provide China with a viable second-strike capability because of the stealth of these weapons. The JIN-class submarine can launch missiles up to 7400km and, if able to move to the Pacific Ocean undetected, would have the capacity to strike the continental United States.

As the Chinese government settles on the deployment patterns of its SSBNs, two challenges will arise: First, deploying nuclear submarines in disputed waters will further strain relations between U.S. and Chinese maritime forces given the opposing views on the legitimacy of China’s claims to territory in the South China Sea. Second, these submarine deployments will boost China’s second-strike capabilities — and could therefore create an imbalance in U.S.-Chinese deterrence dynamics. Given that submarines are difficult to detect and new ballistic missile technology could improve the ability of Chinese weapons to reach the continental United States, it is easy to see how these developments could damage U.S.-Chinese relations. This scenario would be further complicated if China were to use its SSBNS to engage in an area access/area denial strategy to prevent U.S. naval forces from entering disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Many scholars in the nuclear policy community stress the importance of confidence-building measures, particularly increasing dialogue between the United States and China to avoid a nuclear crisis. Chinese nuclear scholar Dr. Li Bin of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy has been an advocate for military-to-military dialogue. While nuclear scientists and scholars in both the United States and China have interacted for decades on strategic nuclear issues, little of this dialogue has occurred between members of the security community. Li argues that institutional differences can create a barrier between the People’s Liberation Army and the Department of Defense. Some U.S.  scholars indicate that, historically, the Chinese military has been very careful about its level of transparency, especially in regards to its nuclear capabilities. However, these scholars suggest that as China’s second-strike capability grows through the modernization of its nuclear arsenal, Beijing’s vulnerabilities will decrease, which might in turn increase its willingness to engage in transparent dialogue. Furthermore, facilitating effective dialogue would also require that both sides work towards understanding each other’s perception of nuclear deterrence and escalation control.2

During President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington last fall, he and President Obama established a series of confidence building measures, which included strengthening military relations through improved communication. However, how the United States and China move forward after the PCA’s decision will help gauge the efficacy of these measures. From the onset, China refrained from participating in the court proceedings and continues to base its claims to features in the South China Sea on maps and other documents dating back to the Ming dynasty, which are viewed as evidence of its “historic rights.” If the PCA rules in favor of the Philippines, retracting this view is unlikely. Some international lawyers predict that the Court will indeed rule in the Philippines’ favor on most questions, which would further press the United States to reinforce its alliances in the Pacific vis-à-vis increased naval presence. With the possibility that China will deploy its JIN-class submarine fleet during this contentious time, dialogue between these two great powers has become evermore important in order to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to escalation to conventional or even a nuclear confrontation.


    1. People’s Liberation Army Navy is abbreviated as PLA(N).
    2. Yeaw, Christopher T., Erickson Andrew S., and Chase Michael S. “THE FUTURE OF CHINESE NUCLEAR POLICY AND STRATEGY.” In Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age: Power, Ambition, and the Ultimate Weapon, edited by YOSHIHARA TOSHI and HOLMES JAMES R., 53-80. Georgetown University Press, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tt67q.6.
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