By Michael Tkacik
In the future, China may incorporate nuclear weapons into its framework of political threats, intimidation, and even the use of force to achieve its international goals.
A war between the United States and China would have catastrophic global consequences. Thus, deterring Chinese revisionism must be the sine qua non of U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific. While war has been avoided to date, China’s behavior is increasingly assertive as it seeks to become the dominant global power. China has shown itself adept at utilizing political coercion to achieve its goals. It uses a wide variety of statecraft tools and tactics to achieve its goals, from hybrid warfare to “comprehensive national power” (CNP) to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s “Three Warfares” framework to “gray zone tactics.”
China’s revisionist efforts typically occur below the level of outright violence, but are nevertheless illegal under international law or violate the norms and expectations that make up the liberal international order, incomplete though it is. Similarly, China does not appear to distinguish between peacetime and wartime conflict, again giving it an advantage in perpetual struggle.
The one tool of statecraft that China has avoided is nuclear weapons. China has not threatened other states with nuclear weapons and its declaratory policy is “no first use.” Many believe China will continue its no-first-use policy, even after it reaches parity with the United States. But this thinking finds its root in China’s traditional position as an inferior nuclear power and simply projects straight-line into the future. China’s approach to achieving its strategic goals since at least 2008 reveals another possibility: Beijing may incorporate nuclear weapons into its framework of political threats, intimidation, and even the use of force to achieve its international goals. After all, nuclear weapons are another element of CNP.
Note I am not arguing that China will use its nuclear forces as political instruments; rather I am arguing that we should examine the possibility more carefully, given China’s willingness to incorporate all elements of statecraft into its geopolitical strategy.