A deterrence paradox

Authored by: Jonathan Holslag

Handbook of Nuclear Proliferation

Print publication date:  December  2011
Online publication date:  February  2012

Print ISBN: 9781857436044
eBook ISBN: 9780203840849
Adobe ISBN:


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Why does China, as a regional power that could develop into a new great power, and, hence, might face the resistance of the USA, keep its nuclear force so small in comparison to that of the incumbent superpower and adhere to a no-first-use strategy even if it reckons that its nuclear arsenal might not survive an American first strike? 1 Clearly, this situation is at odds with the assumption of a large segment of the realist school that, if a power is successful and expands its capabilities, the anarchic structure of international politics will instigate it to use a part of its wealth to boost its nuclear arsenal. The baseline for realists is that a rising power needs to defend itself against the possibility that the superpower might try to derail its growth or try to contain it. But the rising star might also have expansionist aspirations, seek to maximize its power and therefore need a nuclear umbrella under which it can practise coercion and exploitation. 2 ‘China would be foolish not to try to imitate the United States, because regional hegemony greatly enhances a state’s prospects for survival,’ John Mearsheimer states. 3 From both perspectives, the minimum objective for China should be to reach parity with the USA, and even though parity does not necessarily require matching the number of American nuclear weapons, it would demand a reliable second-strike capacity or, in other words, the guarantee that at least some of its missiles can survive a first strike. 4 But again, most reports of China’s nuclear arsenal show that it is probably not on a par with the USA and that the latter might not feel deterred at all.

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