In its annual Nuclear Posture Review, the United States says it now believes China is the country with the largest arsenal of nuclear warheads. Although this conclusion has been known for some time, the inclusion of it in the Nuclear Posture Review’s report, published on Monday, marks an important shift. According to the report, “given its growing capability, China’s strategic nuclear forces have become a more effective deterrent.”
In addition to expanding on China’s narrative that its nuclear arsenal poses no threat to U.S. interests, this new line of thinking has helped reinvigorate U.S. deterrence efforts. Pentagon spokesperson Heather Babb told reporters that the report signals a “consistent and larger strategy to deter and defend against [the United States] interest in the region.” The report also omits the coining of the term “defending against [China’s] strategic coercion,” which the report itself says was “no longer a feasible justification for maintaining the size of our nuclear deterrent.”
These changes reflect an escalating arms race in the region. India and Pakistan are both developing nuclear-capable missiles, and Taiwan is due to do so in 2020. Large portions of South and East Asia are expected to develop armed cruise missile capabilities “in the coming decade,” according to the report.
In a panel discussion this summer, a group of economists argued that “Beijing’s nuclearization, if successful, will likely reify the military superiority that currently exists between the United States and China, substantially reducing the level of inter-state peace in Asia.” That reality has already set the region on edge, with recent rhetoric by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in suggesting that no deal could be reached unless the United States agreed to permanently withdraw its nuclear force from South Korea and remove nuclear weapons from Japan. The escalation of this hostility has created an unstable combination of nuclear and political uncertainty that has now been tested in Japan, with the first direct use of a nuclear weapon since 1945.
At the same time, North Korea seems to be pursuing a de facto status quo from which it would be difficult for the United States to abandon. South Korea can survive only if North Korea effectively manages to block the United States from re-establishing a presence on its doorstep. And while some have suggested that both Pyongyang and Washington ought to revise their past nuclear agreements, strengthening the existing system in the meantime seems to be the more prudent course. After all, by refusing to renegotiate a nuclear agreement in which Pyongyang agreed to give up all of its nuclear weapons, the United States is still bet on eventual improvement in the North Korean leader’s behavior. If it doesn’t provide progress, it is simply in the American interest not to change the status quo.
These developments suggest that South and East Asia are headed for a potentially destabilizing period of nuclear escalation. In a pre-release of the Nuclear Posture Review, Andrew Gilholm, senior director of energy and power for the Boston Consulting Group, noted that “while the [U.S. government’s] strategic debate around America’s nuclear posture in Asia and the Pacific is still ongoing, a tipping point is approaching.” With public debate barely underway, it seems unlikely that these vital concerns will receive sufficient attention. And as the Washington Post pointed out, the Nuclear Posture Review is an “arbitrary document” that is designed to present a unified picture of U.S. security. While it seems aimed at changing the “the narrative around American dominance,” an overlooked reality is that the U.S. military does not have the military might to end the nation’s new sense of regional inferiority. U.S. defense officials want to pull out nuclear weapons and those who want to keep them may well succeed in convincing the president to abandon his commitment. But in an unstable region, the smaller the United States military, the harder it will be to contain what’s occurring around the edges.