Paul Bracken on China, Nuclear Weapons, and Pacific Defense

By Robbin Laird

The Coronavirus crisis and its management by the liberal democracies is clearly and inflection point. Moving forward choices will be made shaping the decade ahead in terms of basic national strategies as well as with allies.

To get a sense of how, we might shape a military strategy that fits into the evolving strategic context I talked with nuclear arms expert Paul Bracken of Yale University.

For one aspect which seems often to be neglected is that China is a nuclear power and like all nuclear powers, adversarial warfighting strategies which highlight operations deep within the close in periphery of a counter tend not to be considered in conventional military terms alone.

Question: How would you characterize the Chinese situation?

Paul Bracken: A number of leading scholars on China underscored that China was facing a real economic crisis prior to any U.S. backlash against it. Their point was that China could not continue to grow from 2015 onward, simply by doing more of what it was doing.

The global economy was becoming much too complex for Chinese economic mass mobilization manufacturing strategies to work going forward.

In other words, China was facing a branch point.

What would they do?

Then with the U.S. backlash against China, the branch point changed as well. The branch point, plus the U.S. and broader allied reactions to China are going to force Beijing to rethink what they’re doing.

They can’t simply do more of the same.

This is the reason China faces complex new challenges which are unprecedented.

Question: With regard to the military side of the equation, where might we start?

Paul Bracken: China is a major nuclear power.

And they are one which has missiles of various ranges within the Pacific region.

What they have done far exceeds what the Soviet Union had against NATO Europe during the Cold War.

With the end of the INF treaty, an end driven in part by Chinese missiles which would have been excluded by an INF treaty if they had been party to it, Beijing’s long-range missile threat needs to become a focus of attention, and not just by counter military responses.

This raises the question of the possibility of having at least three power nuclear talks (US, Russia, China) to provide both public diplomacy and cross-government considerations of how to manage the missile challenge. Obviously, such an approach is challenging but certainly has its advantages of finding a place to discuss ways to crisis manage as well.

Moreover, China would like to constrain U.S. nuclear modernization, and for this they simply cannot ignore arms control.

Question: This does raise the question of how to craft an effective and realistic military strategy towards China, with recognition of the nuclear reality of any confrontation in the Pacific.

You and I both entered our professional lives and worked with military and political leaders who understood that large scale conventional operations always contained within them the possibility and in some cases the probably of the triggering of nuclear use.

I simply do not see this with the generation of leaders who have lived through the land wars as their existential reality.

Do you?

Paul Bracken: Nuclear war as a subject has been put into a small, separate box from conventional war.

It is treated as a problem of two missile farms attacking each other.

This perspective overlooks most of the important nuclear issues of our day, and how nuclear arms were really used in the Cold War.

It should be remembered that China is the only major power born in a nuclear context. The coming to power of the Communists in China was AFTER the dawn of the nuclear age. And Beijing learned early on the hard realities of a nuclear world.  Soviet treatment of Beijing in the Taiwan Straits crises and in the Korean War with regard to nuclear weapons, taught China the bitter lesson that they were on their own.

This led directly to China’s bomb program.

China is also the only major power surrounded by five nuclear states.  It’s true that two of these states are, technically speaking, allies (Pakistan and North Korea).

But there can be little doubt that both target China with atomic weapons.

More, at senior levels of the Chinese government they understand that their “allies” are a lot more dangerous than China’s enemies.

When discussing defense strategies, it is crucial to understand the nature of escalation. One of the fundamental distinctions long since forgotten by today’s military leaders and in academic studies is the zone of the interior, or ZI.

As soon as you hit a target inside the sovereign territory of another country, you are in a different world.

From an escalation point of view striking the ZI of an adversary who is a nuclear, crosses a major escalation threshold.

And there is the broader question of how we are going to manage escalation in a world in which we are pushing forward a greater role for autonomous systems with AI, deeply learning, etc.

Will clashes among platforms being driven by autonomous systems lead to crises which can get out of control?

We need a military strategy that includes thinking through how to go on alert safely in the various danger zones.

Question: This raises a major question for strategy: How to manage military engagements or interactions in the Pacific without spinning crises out of control.

How does the nuclear factor weigh in?

Paul Bracken: The first thing is to realize it is woven into the entire fabric of a Pacific strategy. You don’t have to fire a nuclear weapon to use it.

The existence of nuclear weapons, by itself, profoundly shapes conventional options.

The nuclear dimension changes the definition of what a reasonable war plan is for the U.S. military.

And a reasonable war plan can be defined as follows:  when you brief it to the president, he doesn’t throw you out of the office, because you’re triggering World War III.

Also, see the following:

A Look at Strategic Geography for Pacific Defense: Putting the Chinese Military Challenge Into Strategic Context