American defense analysts and scholars have correctly diagnosed a major problem afflicting American power, but they are perhaps too optimistic when it comes to the prognosis. Brad Glosserman and David Santoro recently exemplified this disconnect at War on the Rocks. They are right when they observe that America suffers from a deterrence deficit in Asia and Europe, and they are right about the key cause of that deficit: America’s rivals doubt its resolve. It is easy to agree that it would be good to fix this problem, but it might not be as easy to do so as the two suggest. America’s rivals may simply be right — maybe the United States is not willing to do what’s needed to resist its challengers. Certainly, no American leader has yet tried to argue convincingly that it should.
At first glance, the solution sounds simple enough. Glosserman and Santoro say that to effectively deter rivals, “the United States should show absolute determination to respond to attacks against its vital interests or those of its allies, even in the face of escalation.” But what exactly does that entail? Let us focus on the case of China.
To deter China, Washington must convince Beijing that it is willing and able to fight a war that would impose greater pain on the Chinese than they are willing to bear to achieve their goals. First, we must be clear that China’s goals are much broader than the immediate issues in contention. Disputes over the “nine dash line” or the Senkaku Islands matter to Beijing mainly as opportunities to display strength and press its claims to replace the United States as the primary power in East Asia. This is a first-order national priority seen in Beijing and beyond as essential to China’s future security, prosperity, and identity. And it is, after all, Beijing’s own backyard. That means we should expect China to be more determined to change the regional order than America is to preserve it.
This is why the timid warnings and modest diplomatic pressure applied by the Obama administration through the “pivot” have not been enough to make China back off. Glosserman and Santoro are correct that America must show more plainly that it is willing to go much further to persuade China to abandon its challenge. It must show that it is willing to go to war. But what kind of war at what level of cost must America show that it is willing to fight? Glosserman and Santoro seem optimistic that conventional conflict might be enough, particularly a large-scale conventional strike campaign. Hence, they suggest that America can do a lot to show resolve and strengthen deterrence by expanding non-nuclear strike capabilities.
It is hard to see how this optimism is justified. It overestimates how much damage can be done to a country of China’s sheer scale by even a massive campaign of conventional strikes. It underestimates the damage China would be willing to absorb rather than abandon its strategic ambitions in Asia, which remain central to how it views its place in the world. And it underestimates China’s capacity to hit back with conventional attacks of its own on U.S. forces, bases, and allies in the Western Pacific, which expanded missile defenses could at best only marginally reduce.
America today no longer has escalation dominance over China at the conventional level of conflict in the Western Pacific. That means America can no longer dissuade China from challenging the U.S. position in Asia by threatening conventional escalation alone. The oft-repeated claim that America’s growing conventional capabilities make nuclear forces less important in deterring major rivals like China is simply wrong.
On the contrary, China’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) and conventional strike forces make America more dependent than before on the threat of nuclear escalation to deter China from confronting U.S. forces. That is presumably why President Obama has again been persuaded to abstain from making a “no first use” declaration. This means America will only reliably deter China if it can convince Beijing that it is willing to start a nuclear war. And because China can retaliate with nuclear attacks on American cities, that means it must convince China that it is willing to accept the risk of massive U.S. civilian casualties.
This situation is not unprecedented. During the Cold War, America convinced both its NATO allies and Russia that it was willing to accept Soviet nuclear attacks on U.S. cities to deter the Soviets from launching a conventional war in Europe. This was never easy, as Denis Healy most famously made clear. But Healy’s clever line — that it “only takes a 5 percent credibility of American retaliation to deter an attack [from the Soviets], but it takes a 95 percent credibility to reassure the allies” — misses the essential foundation of this success. America’s Cold War threat of nuclear escalation was credible because the issue was plainly and publicly explained by U.S. leaders and evidently accepted by the majority of American voters.
The lesson for today is clear: Before the United States can convince China that America has the stomach to fight a nuclear war over the strategic future of Asia, Washington must first convince the American people. So far, no U.S. leaders have even begun to do this, which presents a stark contrast with the American nuclear deterrent during the Cold War that today’s Asia hands too often ignore. The Obama administration does not even acknowledge the existence of great power competition with China, or that China is a strategic rival to be contained, let alone argue that it might be necessary to fight a nuclear war to do so.
This is hardly surprising, as the question of how far America should be willing to go to resist China’s challenge has not been seriously addressed even in the community of Amercian strategic and foreign policy experts. By underestimating China’s resolve and power, U.S. policymakers and analysts have too readily assumed that China can be deterred and its challenge contained without America paying serious costs, so they have not considered what costs would really be worth paying.
This is the question they must now address. To put it bluntly: Is anything in Asia today worth a nuclear war with China? No one doubts that many things in Asia matter to America: preserving the rules-based order, supporting long-standing allies, protecting democracy in Taiwan, or even perpetuating U.S. leadership for its own sake. But how much do all these matter? Do they matter enough to justify what preserving them from China might cost?
The answer is far from clear. During the Cold War, stopping the Soviets seemed essential to preserving America’s way of life. But China, for all its power and ambition, is not the Soviet Union. China has no chance of dominating Eurasia and no program to rule and transform the world, so it does not threaten America the way the Soviet Union did.
A future Asia in which China plays a bigger leadership role would be an Asia without many things the United States values, but many people would argue that those things are not so valuable that we should contemplate fighting a nuclear war to preserve them. Unless U.S. leaders are willing publically to argue that such people are wrong and plainly convince a majority of Americans that America should and would be willing to fight a nuclear war to preserve U.S. leadership in Asia, Washington will not be able to convince China of its resolve and deter China from pursuing its ambitions. And it is hard to see any American leader stepping up to that task anytime soon.
Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, and the author of The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power. He served for many years as a senior Australian defense official.