Spring 2020

The Revival of Nuclear Competition in an Altered Geopolitical Context: A Chinese Perspective

Li Bin

The U.S. government considers “power competition” to be the nature of the relations among big powers, and that it will have an impact on the evolving nuclear order in the near future. When big powers worry about power challenges from their rivals, they may use the influence of nuclear weapons to defend their own power and therefore intensify the danger of nuclear confrontation. We need to manage the nuclear relations among nuclear-weapon states and nuclear-armed states to avoid the risk of nuclear escalation. The fact is that big powers including the United States have neither the interest nor the capability to expand their power, and understanding this might cause big powers to lose their interest in power competition. If we promote dialogue among nuclear-weapon states and nuclear-armed states on their strategic objectives, it is possible to reduce the power competition that results from misperceptions and overreactions. Some other factors, for example, non-­nuclear technologies and multinuclear players, could complicate the future nuclear order. We therefore need to manage these factors as well and develop international cooperation to mitigate nuclear competition.

Li Bin is a Professor of Tsinghua University’s Department of International Relations. He is the author of Arms Control Theories and Analysis (2007) and has been published in such journals as Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Science & Global Security.

A central element of the Cold War was the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, both superpowers seeking nuclear quantitative superiority and the ability to offer nuclear umbrellas to their allies, vying for leading influence in the world. Among states and observers today, there is a growing concern that nuclear competition will once again shape the global order.

In its 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS), the United States accused Russia and China of challenging American power, influence, and interests and of expanding their own influence. According to this report, “great power competition returned. China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally.” The position of the United States was that China and Russia were expanding their power (and influence) and the United States had to respond.

To understand the future of nuclear competition, this essay considers the evolution of the pattern of power in the world since the end of the Cold War. If the United States, Russia, and China plan to expand their power as indicated in the NSS, nuclear weapons and other strategic capabilities would become tools for power expansion and a Cold War–type nuclear arms race would return.

Even if the United States, Russia, and China do not plan to expand their power, misperceptions could still cause a power competition: worrying or assuming the others are seeking to expand their power and reacting accordingly. In this case, nuclear-armed states may have new nuclear competition, but it would not be directly associated with power expansion. The patterns of nuclear competition would be qualitatively more complicated while quantitatively less intensive than the Cold War nuclear arms race.

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