Wu Sino US Inadvertent Escalation - Program on Strategic Stability ...


Wu Sino US Inadvertent Escalation - Program on Strategic Stability ...

Side B



Side A

Intentional Deliberate escalation ong>Inadvertentong> escalation


ong>Inadvertentong> escalation

Accidental/ unauthorized


We will not discuss accidental/unauthorized escalation in this article, because an

accidental/unauthorized launch Chinese nuclear weapons is “highly unlikely.”



China and the United States might choose to escalate deliberately in order to coerce

the other side or to compensate conventional imbalance, but we will not discuss

deliberate escalation in this article either, and assume that neither China nor America

would escalate deliberately. In ong>Sinoong>-U.S. case, inadvertent escalation occurs only

when the United States attacks China’s nuclear weapons inadvertently. Since the

numerically and technically inferior Chinese arsenal has by no means disarming

capability against the U.S. one, even if China attacks U.S. nuclear weapons

inadvertently, the United States would feel no use-it-or-lose-it pressure.

It is worthwhile to discuss Chinese nuclear policy and its implication to

inadvertent escalation. China has maintained an unconditional no first use (NFU)

policy for several decades. It seems that given China’s NFU policy, there is no

escalatory risk in a ong>Sinoong>-U.S. conflict unless the United States escalates. The author

believes that China’s NFU policy should be understood as a very high political

threshold for first use, rather than an absolute and inaccessible wall. If China faces an

extremely worst situation, the very existence of the nation threatened, China could use

nuclear weapons first.


Well, then people might argue that NFU declaration is

meaningless. From the author’s perspective, China’s NFU policy is of great

significance because it means China abandons the coercive utility of its nuclear

weapons. Nuclear coercion requires to signal to the opposite the willingness to use

nuclear weapons. On the contrary, if one says that it would never use nuclear

weapons first, it cannot coerce anybody.

This article is divided into four sections. The first section presents the

mechanisms of ong>Sinoong>-U.S. inadvertent escalation. As an important driving factor, the

vulnerability of Chinese nuclear forces will be discussed in the second section. The

third section discusses three hypothetical escalatory scenarios in detail. The last

section raises some policy recommendations on how to avoid escalation.

1 Mechanism of ong>Inadvertentong> ong>Escalationong>

! 17 Robert D. Walpole, National Intelligence Officer for Strategic and Nuclear ong>Programong>s, Speech at Carnegie

Endowment for International Peace, September 17, 1998, https://www.cia.gov/news-information/speechestestimony/1998/walpole_speech_091798.html.

! This is not to say that China’s NFU pledge is not sincere, on contrary, it is. To judge whether or not China’s


NFU is sincere, we need to examine China’s nuclear posture, which is not designed for first use and is

substantially constrained by China’s NFU policy. Gregory Kulacki, “Chickens Talking With Ducks: The U.S.-

Chinese Nuclear Dialogue,” Arms Control Today, October 2011.

! 4

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