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China is building up its nuclear capabilities. Photo: AP

US nuclear arms race with China ‘futile’, think tank warns

  • Washington can no longer rely on conventional military superiority to prevent an attack on Taiwan, report says
  • It also says China’s efforts to expand its nuclear arsenal means Washington should look at other forms of deterrence

A US attempt to win a nuclear arms race with China would be “an exercise in futility”, a think tank has said.

A report from the Brookings Institution also warned that the US had lost its conventional military supremacy over China in East Asia, making it harder to deter any attack on Taiwan.

Concern that Beijing will use force to bring the island under its control is growing in Washington, with General Anthony Cotton, the nominee to head the Pentagon’s nuclear operations, telling a Senate committee that he agreed nuclear arms could help deter such a move.
The report published on Tuesday argued that the apparent pace of China’s nuclear expansion might make it more confident about using conventional force, but for the US, a war with China over Taiwan would “almost inevitably raise risks of both inadvertent and deliberate nuclear escalation”.
Until recently China was believed to have around 200 to 300 deliverable nuclear warheads, compared with the more than 4,000 held by the US and Russia. But last November a Pentagon report said China could have up to 700 warheads by 2027 and at least 1,000 by 2030.

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There are many obstacles preventing the US from regaining outright nuclear superiority, according to the Brookings report, including the White House’s commitment to strategic stability and nuclear arms controls.

“And even if these obstacles were overcome, the United States probably could not produce plutonium pits fast enough to compete with China (not to mention Russia),” the report said.

“Even more generally, an all-out nuclear arms race against the world’s top manufacturing power seems likely to be an exercise in futility.”

The authors predicted the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal would lead to a cold war-style nuclear stalemate, and the US would be better off investing more in conventional warfare.


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In terms of conventional deterrence, the report warned the Pentagon’s traditional strategy to deter mainland Chinese aggression against Taiwan – “deterrence by denial” based on the US military superiority – might be “extremely hard to achieve” given China’s military advances.

It pointed to the People’s Liberation Army’s growing investment in areas such as missiles, intelligence, communications and cyber warfare.

The report said the best way to defend US interests was to avoid a firm statement of intent or commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack.

Instead, it said, the US should make clear that the United States and its allies would decouple economically from China, and reduce its own vulnerability to Chinese economic pressure or sophisticated and asymmetric attacks on its infrastructure.

Citing the “integrated deterrence” strategy of Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, the report said the key challenge was to find the non-nuclear ways of doing so and consider the potentially escalatory implications.

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“In fact, the outcome of any US-China fight over Taiwan is and will remain very difficult to forecast; victory for the United States and its allies cannot be presumed,” it said.

“America’s deterrent policy must not centre on its presumed ability to use nuclear threats or employ nuclear weapons to end a conflict on favourable terms.”