Over the past few years, security tensions in the Asia-Pacific have increased, raising the question of how to ensure continued strategic stability between the world’s great powers. This region is home to five nuclear states—China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and the United States—in addition to nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran.
Carnegie–Tsinghua’s Tong Zhao moderated a discussion with Chinese experts about ways to mitigate conflict and prevent military escalation in one of the world’s most strategically important regions.
- Intentions Are Paramount: Panelists asserted that the key to understanding strategic stability in Asia is assessing whether or not a country is willing to use particular military capabilities, rather than looking narrowly at what a state’s actual military capabilities are. They gave the example of weapons such as sea-based ballistic missiles, saying that whether a country opts to deploy such assets has more of an impact on stability than simply whether a country possesses them. Speakers also pointed out that a country’s willingness to engage in open dialogues is also an important measure for establishing greater trust and enhancing strategic stability.
- Deterrence and Sea-Based Ballistic Missiles: Panelists observed that China’s sea-based strategic forces have changed dramatically in the last fifteen years. They explained that China is enhancing its sea-based power projection to support the country’s Second Artillery Corps, which controls China’s nuclear arsenal. That said, speakers insisted that China’s nuclear capabilities still play only an auxiliary role in the country’s national security. They stated that China is committed to maintaining its nuclear policy of minimal deterrence. Panelists acknowledged that the United States has reservations about this modernization process, but they pointed out that these short-range sea-based missiles are positioned too far away from the United States to be a direct threat.
- Nontraditional Security Threats: While arms control is currently the most pressing challenge to strategic stability, panelists also highlighted new security threats in cybersecurity and space. In these emerging areas, offensive capabilities are easier to use successfully than defensive ones, according to speakers. They also noted that these domains are vulnerable because countries, multilateral organizations, and nonstate actors alike are reliant on them, and because the interconnected nature of these domains causes actions in one area to have extensive spillover effects. Panelists stressed the importance of establishing a set of internationally accepted rules to govern states’ cyber conduct.
- U.S.-China Military Relations: Panelists discussed U.S. concerns about China’s military modernization, which Beijing maintains does not represent an attempt to compete with other regional actors in the security realm. Speakers did believe that holding bilateral dialogues would help foster greater understanding between the two countries on issues such as missile defense and hypersonic weapons. China and the United States are highly dependent on each other economically and neither wants a high-cost arms race to ensue, panelists pointed out. They concluded that greater bilateral military transparency would be beneficial, although they stated that achieving such progress would have to begin by addressing both countries’ fear that the information they disclose could be used to undermine their security.
- Relations with India and Pakistan: Panelists observed that China’s relationships with Asia’s other established nuclear powers are vital to ensuring strategic stability. India and Pakistan are believed to have developed tactical nuclear weapons, or low-yield warheads that can be used on the battlefield. Speakers explained that Pakistan has done so in order to offset India’s superior conventional forces. One panelist asserted that the portable, compact nature of such weapons poses a high security risk, because they could more easily be stolen by terrorists. Speakers stated that India and Pakistan should take steps toward more constructive engagement on nuclear issues, such as establishing military hotlines and committing to not deploying tactical nuclear weapons at the countries’ shared border.
Tong Zhao is an associate in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
Fan Jishe is director of strategic policy research of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Liu Chong is a deputy director at the Institute of Arms Control and Security Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
Qiu Zhenwei is editor of the policy journal Naval and Merchant Ships. He is an expert on Chinese military affairs and national security policy.
Shi Jianbin is an associate researcher at the China Academy of Engineering Physics. He is an expert in Chinese nuclear policy and arms control.
Li Bin is a senior associate working jointly in the Nuclear Policy Program and the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.