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This section is intended to provide background on U.S. views on issues related to U.S.-China strategic stability. The approach set forth below is that of a practitioner rather than an academic and is heavily influenced by the author’s participation in several Track I.5 and Track II dialogues.1

Linton F. Brooks
Linton F. Brooks is an independent consultant on national security issues, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University, and an adviser to four of the U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories.

The Evolution of the Concept of Strategic Stability

The United States’ concepts of strategic stability were developed throughout the Cold War. Soviet acceptance of those concepts took longer, and the two sides never fully understood each other’s thinking. Still, by the end of the Cold War, analysts in both the Soviet Union and the United States had a similar, clear understanding of the basic premises of strategic stability and of the importance of those principles in avoiding catastrophe. They understood that the concept was primarily bilateral and was primarily about preventing nuclear war. To foster such stability, the two superpowers sought policies, forces, and postures that met three criteria:

  • In a time of great crisis, there is no incentive to be the first to use military force of any type, nuclear or otherwise (“crisis stability”)
  • In a crisis or conventional conflict, there is no incentive to be the first to use nuclear weapons (“first strike stability”)
  • Neither side believes it can improve its relative position by building more weapons (“arms race stability”)

Because the goal of strategic stability is the prevention of war, especially nuclear war, it is important to recognize that any criteria are irrelevant unless there is at least some possibility of conflict between two states. Such states need not be enemies or even adversaries, but there must be some plausible path to war. Thus it makes little sense to speak of strategic stability between the United States and the United Kingdom or between China and Pakistan. Strategic stability exists when war is possible but made significantly less likely by the policies, forces, and postures the two sides adopt.2 It is also important to remember that strategic stability is a two-player game; a single state cannot ensure stability.

Cold War strategic stability between the United States and the Soviet Union rested upon the back of mutual assured destruction. Because each side maintained forces that could survive a first strike and could inflict damage in retaliation that the attacker would find unacceptable, nuclear war became irrational. Each side worried about how many forces must survive and how much damage those surviving forces needed to be able to inflict, but the basic notion that stability depended on the mutual ability to inflict unacceptable damage in retaliation became the operating premise of both states.3 Since a major conventional war in Europe could have—and very probably would have—resulted in nuclear escalation, both sides also avoided direct conventional war.

Since the end of the Cold War, many analysts have broadened the term “strategic stability” to a significant degree. This broadening is useful, but in relations between nuclear states most U.S. analysts assume that the Cold War definition of stability is still an important and central component of stability, although not necessarily sufficient.4 At a minimum, ballistic missile defenses play a different role than they did throughout most of the Cold War when stability was based, in part, on restricting such defenses under the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. With legal restraints on deployment removed, defenses must be regarded differently when assessing modern strategic stability.

In addition, most analysts assume that developments in space and, especially, cyberspace must be taken into account even under a narrow, Cold War–like definition of strategic stability. For example, cyber capabilities interfering with nuclear command and control would obviously be hugely destabilizing, especially if their origin was uncertain. Interfering with space assets could be particularly destabilizing if it was intended to interrupt command and control or to degrade early warning, increasing the risk that the aggressor might believe a disarming first strike could succeed. As major powers make increasing use of space, both space control and counter-space capabilities will take on increasing importance, and there is also the possibility of a destabilizing arms race in space capabilities.

What has been described thus far is regarded by most American analysts and practitioners as a narrow definition of stability. While some find such a narrow definition adequate (and all find it useful in specific cases), many would expand it to place greater emphasis on conventional military operations, especially as they relate to the nuclear balance. For the United States and China, this means primarily taking into account maritime and air forces. The logic is simple. Nuclear war will not happen in a vacuum but will almost certainly result from escalation of a conventional conflict. Stability therefore requires reducing the chance of such conflict. This leads to the broader definition that will be used in this section, one adapted from Tom Fingar: Strategic stability means a situation in which war of any kind (but especially nuclear war) between major powers is unlikely and rule-based behavior is the norm.5

Both broad and narrow concepts have utility. The logic of expanding the concept of strategic stability to take greater account of conventional military operations is clear and straightforward. Unfortunately, such expansion in practice is conceptually difficult, because there is no obvious threshold below which conventional military operations need not be considered. This tends to weaken the coherence of the concept, and therefore makes agreement between two states and the implementation of agreed measures more challenging and less likely. Whatever definition is chosen, it is important to be clear about how the term is being used in any specific discussion. Otherwise it can lose all meaning and simply become a synonym for overall foreign and military policy.

A few analysts would further expand the concept to consider long-term geopolitical issues. This may be particularly appropriate in the case of relations between a rising power like China and a status quo power like the United States. The history of interactions between rising and status quo powers is mixed, with half the cases examined in one major academic work leading to war.6

Multilateral Approaches to Strategic Stability

Thus far, this section has spoken of strategic stability in exclusively bilateral terms. It is common in the United States to call for a consideration of “multi-national strategic stability.” Despite frequent calls for a generalized approach, no such approach has emerged and none is likely. As one recent government-sponsored report put it:

Standing alone, the phrase “multi-national strategic stability” is of limited value. The phrase implies that the stability of the international system can be described in an abstract and generalized manner independent of the specific context at issue. We disagree. In our view, multi-national strategic stability is largely the sum of stability between many pairs of nuclear weapons states.7

There is one important exception to this conclusion with respect to Sino-American strategic stability. U.S. deployments of ballistic missile defense systems against threats to the U.S. homeland present China with what has been called a security trilemma in which actions taken against one state (for example, North Korea or Iran) are perceived as directed against a third state (in this case, China).8 The implications of this trilemma are discussed below. Regional defenses, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, should not in principle pose a similar trilemma because they are not capable of dealing with strategic-range missiles.

Given the lack of an agreed definition, many analysts and government officials simply use the term “strategic stability” without definition based on an assumption that “we will know it when we see it.” Former U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration, for example, used the term extensively and made force structure decisions based on a detailed description of strategic stability, but never formally defined the term as it applied to China. A potentially attractive variant of this approach (although one that has gained few adherents) is to list characteristics that contribute to stability and use those characteristics as a guide to stable relations without necessarily seeking to define stability itself. 9

U.S. Consideration of Chinese Perspectives

As noted earlier, strategic stability cannot be assured by the actions of a single state. This implies that U.S. experts must carefully consider (or at least understand) Chinese concerns. The U.S. record on this is mixed. A recent publication by a well-placed Chinese expert notes that in recent times, “Chinese policy analysts and scholars have focused primarily on four factors: the nuclear taboo, nuclear blackmail, U.S.-China interdependence, and consensus and communication.”10

These factors do not routinely appear in U.S. analyses. Yet how important is each of them?

  • Nuclear taboo. While the term is seldom used in the context of strategic stability, the view that nuclear weapons are a last resort rather than a first resort is near-universal in the U.S. analytic community, as is the understanding that breaking more than seventy years of tradition of non-use would be a momentous decision.
  • Nuclear blackmail. Many U.S. analysts would quibble with specific Chinese historical examples of nuclear blackmail (the Vietnam War, for example). Virtually all, however, would doubt the utility of using nuclear weapons for compellence rather than for deterrence. Most assume that nuclear blackmail lacks credibility.
  • Interdependence. All Americans recognize the extensive Sino-American economic interdependence. But large numbers (including the present author) are skeptical that this alone can provide stability, in part because of the various challenges to stability described later in this section.
  • Consensus and communication. American experts would accept the importance of this factor, but might disagree with the author’s upbeat assessment of the degree to which both strong consensus and good communications characterize the current relationship.

Strategic Stability With China: Recent Experience

The relationship between the United States and China may well be the most important geopolitical determinant of global international relations in the twenty-first century. If strategic ability as a concept is only relevant where conflict is possible but not inevitable, it is clearly—and increasingly—relevant in Sino-American relations. Given this fact, a fundamental question for both academic theorists and government practitioners is whether or not the concept of strategic stability can be useful in analyzing and managing this crucial relationship. Here it is important to distinguish between strategic stability as an internal analytic tool and strategic stability as a useful organizing principle for international communications. The experience of the past few years points in different directions for these two potential uses.

From a U.S. perspective, strategic stability remains a vital principle for internal analysis, despite the multiple senses in which the term is sometimes used. In the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” the lens of strategic stability was used extensively. It was cited as the basis for force posture decisions from retaining the strategic triad (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and heavy bombers) to deploying all ICBMs with only a single warhead. The crisis component of strategic stability was used in rejecting suggestions for de-alerting, despite the president’s pre-election interest in the concept. Such stability was an important—perhaps the most important—concept dominating the review.11

In contrast to its utility as an analytic tool, strategic stability largely failed as a structure for organizing discussion with China. This was not for lack of trying. The review was explicit in calling for a dialogue organized around stability, stating:

With China, the purpose of a dialogue on strategic stability is to provide a venue and mechanism for each side to communicate its views about the other’s strategies, policies, and programs on nuclear weapons and other strategic capabilities. The goal of such a dialogue is to enhance confidence, improve transparency, and reduce mistrust. As stated in the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report, “maintaining strategic stability in the U.S.-China relationship is as important to this Administration as maintaining strategic stability with other major powers.”12

The administration sought to reassure China of the importance it attached to the relationship between the two countries. Throughout the “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” China was given equal billing with Russia in discussions of strategic stability. As Brad Roberts, an engaged Department of Defense official, stated, an administration priority was to

put the US-China nuclear relationship on a more positive footing. That relationship has long been marked by mutual suspicion and mistrust. . . . The Obama administration . . . embraced strategic stability with China as an organizing concept . . . to signal that it saw the strategic relationship with China much as it saw the strategic relationship with Russia—that is, a relationship in which we could not rule out the possibility of a military flashpoint but where the political emphasis is on shared interests, for example in stability, rather than on divisive ones.13

Despite the considerable merits of this approach, it was a failure. After years of trying, the United States was unable to engage China in meaningful government-to-government discussions on strategic stability or nuclear weapons issues generally. In the Track I.5/Track II discussions that the Chinese government appeared to regard as an effective substitute for government-level discussions, Chinese analysts often claimed that strategic stability as a concept was only appropriate between nuclear equals like the United States and the Soviet Union or Russia. Chinese participants have become more willing over time to use strategic stability terminology, but it is unclear that the two sides are converging on a common understanding of what the term means.14 Further, seeking a dialogue based on Western terms and concepts that the Chinese do not use internally slows the process of understanding the differences between Chinese and American thinking.

Challenges to Sino-American Strategic Stability

No matter how strategic stability is defined, it faces significant challenges—challenges that become greater in both numbers and importance the more one expands the meaning of strategic stability. Five are particularly worth discussing.

Misunderstanding of Each Other’s Plans, Intentions and Actions

In principle, the knowledge that both sides could be devastated by a nuclear exchange should be sufficient to ensure stability. It is not. That is because escalation can spin out of control as each side takes steps that are misinterpreted by the other. As a result, there is no concept of bilateral strategic stability that will be attainable if the two sides fundamentally misunderstand each other. Stability requires above all an understanding of how the United States and China each view the military dimension of their relations.15 It is widely believed among U.S. experts that transparency leads to predictability and that predictability leads to stability. It is therefore unfortunate that China has interpreted past calls for transparency as efforts to get information on force structures and disposition that could be used to weaken China’s military capability. This is not what the United States is or should be seeking from China’s government. Instead, what Americans believe is necessary is mutual understanding of doctrine, long-range plans, and the approach to managing crises. Ideally, through detailed discussions on these topics, “both sides gain knowledge about each other’s strategy such that they gain increased confidence that neither will dramatically alter the relationship.”16 Current government-to-government discussions are not conducted in sufficient depth to lead to such understanding.17

National Ballistic Missile Defense

The United States has concluded that its security requires the ability to defend its homeland against ballistic missile attack from North Korea or Iran. It believes that effective defense against the relatively crude, first generation missiles of these two states is technically feasible and that U.S. limited understanding of decisionmaking processes of these two governments makes it imprudent to depend entirely on threats of retaliation to counter threats to the homeland.18 China fears that such defenses threaten (and may be intended to threaten) its strategic deterrent. The 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review Report”and “Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report” were intended to make it clear that this was not the case. For example, page 13 of the “Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report” states

the homeland missile defense capabilities are focused on regional actors such as Iran and North Korea. While the [ground-based missile defense] system would be employed to defend the United States against limited missile launches from any source, it does not have the capacity to cope with large scale Russian or Chinese missile attacks, and is not intended to affect the strategic balance with those countries.19

Despite these attempts at reassuring China, Chinese experts have focused on their understanding of capabilities rather than on U.S. statements of intent. Chinese concerns have been increased by U.S. reluctance to acknowledge that a condition of mutual vulnerability exists between the two states (although the above-quoted statement comes close) for fear that such a step could undermine allied confidence in the U.S. extended deterrent.20

National ballistic missile defense is likely to become more contentious because of recent changes to the Ballistic Missile Defense Act of 1999. Until recently, that act established that it “is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack.” (Emphasis added.) In December 2016, Congress amended this law to revise the policy to read “to maintain and improve an effective, robust layered missile defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States, allies, deployed forces, and capabilities against the developing and increasingly complex ballistic missile threat.”21 In the U.S. system, annual authorization acts provide policy aspirations, not actual funding, so it is uncertain how big a difference this action will actually make, but it is virtually certain to increase Chinese concerns.

Cybersecurity Considerations

It is virtually certain that during a crisis or low-level conflict, both parties will seek information on what the other is planning, including through use of cyber techniques to gather information. It will be important that these efforts not appear to be precursors to attempts to disable military command and control systems. Such actions would imply an imminent attack and could lead the other side to act preemptively. Especially destabilizing would be any indication that one side was seeking to interfere with nuclear command and control systems. U.S. systems for controlling nuclear weapons have elements that are separate from other military command and control. Many U.S. analysts believe that this is not true in China. If that is correct, and the two countries are ever in a military confrontation, the results could pose serious risks to stability and escalation management.22 The U.S. way of war is to attack conventional command and control systems. Some in China may believe, therefore, that having a common system will lead to U.S. restraint. Perhaps it will, but there is an enormous risk that instead of restraint, the Chinese policy will lead to unintended escalation that is in no one’s interest.

Conventional Forces, Especially Maritime Forces

China’s 2015 white paper on military strategy placed new emphasis on the roles of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.23 The references to the navy were brief but important:

In line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” with “open seas protection,” and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure. The PLAN will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defense and comprehensive support.

In a later section on “maintaining constant combat readiness,” the white paper stated that “the PLAN will continue to organize and perform regular combat readiness patrols and maintain a military presence in relevant sea areas.” Many U.S. analysts regarded these words as especially significant, given China’s extensive operations in the South China Sea. U.S. analysts fear the aggressive nature of such operations could result in confrontation with U.S. allies with potentially significant implications for strategic stability. In turn, Chinese experts have long objected to U.S. surveillance operations within China’s exclusive economic zone, which they view as inconsistent with international law, a conclusion the United States rejects.24

Geopolitical Issues

Finally, in the coming decades, geopolitical concerns could pose major challenges to strategic stability. As noted earlier, most U.S. analysts would not include long-term geopolitics within the definition of strategic stability, although these same analysts recognize that whether China’s rise can come without a confrontation with the United States may be the single most important long-term challenge of the twenty-first century. Global operations by the U.S. Navy are an integral and vital part of U.S. national security strategy and U.S. support to allies, including in the Pacific. The United States fears that China seeks some form of regional hegemony that will be inconsistent with such global operations. Were China to seek to establish some form of Monroe Doctrine with Chinese characteristics, the threat to stability could be enormous.

Alternate Approaches to Stability

Most U.S. discussions of alternate approaches to stability have been in the context of relations with the Russian Federation. Strategic stability between Russia and the United States continues to rest on the foundation of mutual assured destruction. Because this appears inconsistent with the partnership that both sides sought to forge in the past (and that many still hope for, despite present political tensions), there have been efforts in both countries to find an alternate model for the nuclear relationship. In the United States, the concept of “mutual assured stability” was put forward as a possible model. A report by the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board described the concept this way:

A relationship among nations . . . in which nuclear weapons are no longer a central feature for their security, deterrence based on nuclear destruction is no longer necessary, and the likelihood of nuclear war is treated as remote because their relationship is free of major, core security issues such as ideological, territorial, or natural resource competition issues, and the benefits from peaceful integration in economic, political, and diplomatic spheres provide a counterbalance to the perceived advantages of nuclear conflict.25

The Russian effort to find an alternate model that has received the greatest visibility in the West was proposed by the scholar Alexey Arbatov and retired Major General Vladimir Dvorkin in their 2006 book Beyond Nuclear Deterrence: Transforming the U.S.-Russian Equation—in which they call for moving beyond mutual assured destruction as a basis for the U.S.-Russia relationship. Their plan is based on a three-step approach:

The first of the three avenues toward the end of nuclear deterrence is to “de-alert” and further reduce the Russian and American nuclear forces. The second is to develop and deploy a joint ballistic missile early warning system. . . . The third is to develop and deploy joint [ballistic missile defense] systems. Initially, the second and third avenues would be limited to nuclear and missile proliferation threats, but eventually—in parallel with transformation of the nuclear forces of both sides—they would embrace a growing part of the strategic assets of the two powers . . . and would transform their present mutual nuclear deterrence into a qualitatively new type of strategic relationship.26

Neither the Russian nor the American approach has captured the imagination of either government and thus there has been no progress in transforming the relationship between the two states beyond one based in part on mutual assured destruction. This result was probably inevitable, at least with respect to Russia and the United States. Mutual assured destruction is not a policy to be embraced or rejected, but an inescapable fact to be managed. Russo-American strategic stability continues to rely in part on the fact that both Russia and the United States have the ability to absorb an attack and retaliate in a manner that is unacceptable to the attacker, thereby making the attack pointless.

China has officially suggested an alternative organizing principle for overall relations through an analogue to mutual assured stability called a new model of major-country relations.27 Like mutual assured stability, this model seeks to change the political conditions that can lead to conflict. It is based on three principles: no conflict or confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. The heart of the proposal is mutual respect, which involves respecting the core interests of one another. From a U.S. perspective, this model may fail when core interests conflict. Examples include the conflict between Chinese sovereignty issues over Taiwan and the South China Sea and U.S. core interests in meeting international obligations (such as those to Taiwan) and maintaining freedom of navigation, especially for the U.S. Navy.

Chinese experts in Track I.5 and Track II dialogues often suggest another alternative model combining an unprovocative declaratory policy (no first use) and a minimalist modernization plan (known as “lean and effective”). These experts argue that their model will keep nuclear weapons from becoming a source of competition and political friction.28 Neither of these models has gained much U.S. support. It is unlikely that a reasonable alternative organizing principle for overall relations can be found, although there may be better concepts for organizing a strategic dialogue.


There is neither full agreement within the United States nor is there agreement between the United States and China on a common definition of strategic stability. The term has had limited value in Sino-American discussions, both official and unofficial. Yet there is clearly an objective reality buried in the definitional confusion. It may be that a precise definition is unnecessary. Former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, who commanded allied military forces in Germany during the Second World War, was fond of quoting an Army aphorism: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” He knew that no detailed plan would be adequate for the complexities of conflict, but he also knew that the process of developing plans was invaluable in surfacing issues and preparing individuals to deal with them. In the same way, analysts in both countries should continue to work to understand stability even though no definition can fully capture the complexities of the continuously evolving relationship. Such discussions may help analysts and policymakers in the United States and China both to understand one another’s perspectives and to deal more effectively with conflict and crises should they occur. If so, it will be effort well spent.

About the Author

Linton F. Brooks is an independent consultant on national security issues, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University, and an adviser to four of the U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories.


1 While this paper is based on my experience both within government and in unofficial dialogue, these are personal views and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. government, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, or any organization with which I am affiliated. I am grateful to Elbridge (Bridge) Colby, John Harvey, Micah Lowenthal, Mira Rapp-Hooper, James Schoff, Brad Roberts, and Heather Williams for comments on an earlier draft and, in the case of Brad Roberts, for allowing me to participate in a series of workshops on stability that has helped shape my thinking. I alone am responsible for the use I have made of their insights.

2 Although strategic stability is best analyzed on a bilateral basis, because survivable second-strike strategic forces are a requirement for strategic stability, the existence of such forces can foster a degree of stability with multiple potential adversaries.

3 The 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative by then U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s administration (popularly referred to as “Star Wars”) sought to change the basis of stability through deploying a highly effective national missile defense that would deny the attacker confidence of the effectiveness of an attack. This effort proved technically and financially difficult (some would say infeasible) and was abandoned when the Cold War ended.

4 For a discussion of the multiple options often considered within the U.S. analytic community, see Elbridge A. Colby and Michael S. Gerson, eds., Strategic Stability: Contending Interpretations (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2013).

5 This section omits discussion of rule-based behavior because U.S. thinking (or at least the thinking of the present author) on this aspect of stability remains rudimentary. An example of a threat to stability from lack of rule-based behavior might be China’s rejection of the ruling by the Law of the Sea tribunal on the South China Sea. An example where stability is threatened by failure to agree on the rules might be the differing U.S. and Chinese views of what military activities are allowed in the exclusive economic zone.

6 John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2014). Mearsheimer’s conclusions on China are also set forth separately in “Can China Rise Peacefully?,” National Interest,April 8, 2014.

7 International Security Advisory Board, “Report on the Nature of Multilateral Strategic Stability,” U.S. Department of State, April 27, 2016, The report notes there are some exceptions, such as the China-India-Pakistan triangle, where relations between any pair of states are influenced by the third. For example, if China increases its nuclear forces in a manner that India believes requires a response, Pakistan may respond to India’s action by increasing its own forces. Another example is the relationship among China, Russia, and the United States, where both Russia and the United States are reluctant to reduce their strategic forces to a level at which China might attain parity or at least might alter the strategic balance.

8 The term and the concept come from Mira Rapp-Hooper. See Linton Brooks and Mira Rapp-Hooper, “Extended Deterrence, Assurance, and Reassurance in the Pacific During the Second Nuclear Age” in Ashley J. Tellis, Abraham M. Denmark, and Travis Tanner, eds., Strategic Asia 2013–14: Asia in the Second Nuclear Age (Washington, DC: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2013).

9 For an example (in which the present author participated), see “Report on the Nature of Multilateral Strategic Stability.”

10 People’s Liberation Army Colonel Lu Yin, “Reflections on Strategic Stability,” in Li Bin and Tong Zhao eds., Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2016).

11 Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010.

12 “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” 51.

13 Brad Roberts, “Major Power Strategic Stability After the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review” (informal remarks to a Workshop on Re-Conceptualizing Strategic Stability, Institute for National Security Studies, U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado, June 4–6, 2015).

14 These conclusions are based on the author’s personal participation in three different annual Track I.5 and Track II dialogues over the past nine years. Although U.S. analysts vary slightly in their use of the terms, in this paper Track I.5 refers to discussions involving both government and nongovernment experts, with the government officials ostensibly participating in a personal capacity only. In contrast, Track II discussions involve only individuals not currently serving in governments, although many have prior government service. In the paper cited in the previous note, Brad Roberts points out that because “China has rejected official dialogue on strategic stability, the United States has not had to do its homework on what such a dialogue might encompass.” As a result, American officials are less able to deal with the challenges to stability described below.

15 For a recent analysis of risks in the Chinese understanding of escalation, see Burgess Laird, “War Control: Chinese Writing on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict” (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2017). In contrast to the argument set forth below, Laird suggests that the study of Chinese writings is better than increased dialogue as a mechanism for understanding Chinese thinking.

16 Robert L. Pfaltzgraff Jr., “China–U.S. Strategic Stability” (paper presented at the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, Washington, DC, April 6–7, 2009).

17 The Chinese government appears to favor such discussions occurring in unofficial (Track I.5 or Track II) channels. These have led to some useful understandings, but few Americans regard them as an adequate substitute for an official dialogue.

18 The United States is not asserting that these states cannot be deterred, but rather that U.S. uncertainty about their approaches to gathering and processing information, their limited understanding of the United States, and the opacity of their decisionmaking combine to raise doubts about U.S. understanding of how such deterrence can be managed.

19 U.S. Department of Defense, “Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report,” February 2010,

20 Some U.S. analysts believe that acknowledgment by the United States of mutual vulnerability with China would be a strategic error. This view is based on a belief that China seeks to exploit perceived weakness. Pfaltzgraff, 2009.

21 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 Section 1681 amending Section 2 of the National Missile Defense Act of 1999 (Public Law 106–38).

22 A similar concern would arise from co-locating People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces units with nuclear and conventional missions such that an attack on conventional forces could be misperceived as an attempt at eliminating China’s nuclear retaliatory capability.

23 The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, China’s Military Strategy (Beijing, 2015),

24 Chinese reaction to aircraft surveillance led to a midair collision and a major international incident it 2001. See Shirley A. Kan, “China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April 2001: Assessments and Policy Implications,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, October 10, 2001,

25 International Security Advisory Board, “Report on Mutual Assured Stability: Essential Components and Near Term Actions,” U.S. Department of State, August 14, 2012.

26 Alexey Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin, Beyond Nuclear Deterrence: Transforming the U.S.-Russian Equation (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006).

27 Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, “Toward a New Model of Major-Country Relations Between China and the United States” (speech at the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, September 20, 2013).

28 I am indebted to Brad Roberts for reminding me of this approach.