Will US Nuclear Posture Review see a return to hegemony?

By Li Bin Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/24 23:23:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

A few days ago, the Huffington Post published the draft Nuclear Posture Review of the Donald Trump administration, which presents Washington's intention to use US nuclear weapons as a hegemonic tool again.

In the Cold War, nuclear weapons were indeed hegemonic tools of the US and the Soviet Union. The two superpowers were embroiled in a frenzied nuclear arms race to cement their hegemonic statuses. They developed large numbers of different types of nuclear weapons, and deployed these weapons on a hair-trigger alert.

There is a difference between regarding nuclear weapons as a hegemonic tool than using them as a weapon of last resort. If a country considers its nuclear weapons only as a measure of last resort, the quantity or variety of its stockpile would not be of vital importance. It would define a few extreme situations in which nuclear weapons may be used and it would develop and deploy its nuclear weapons for these situations.

However, if a country considers its nuclear weapons as a hegemonic tool, the consequences would be very different. It would consider any nuclear weapons in its rival countries as challenges to its hegemony; it would not tolerate that the number of its nuclear weapons, especially its strategic nuclear weapons, would be less than those in other countries; it would try to increase the types of its nuclear weapons so it could show its nuclear muscle on as many occasions as possible.

After the end of Cold War, the logic of nuclear hegemony is no longer convincing. The roles of the US' nuclear deterrence had been reduced to defend its vital national interests. Yet the Trump administration is trying to use US nuclear weapons for global and regional hegemony again. It recently issued a National Security Strategy that defines China as a revisionist which is challenging US hegemony. The draft Nuclear Posture Review tries to prove that the US needs a tailored strategy to counter China's nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities, as China is using these capabilities to challenge the US-led world order.

The draft document groundlessly claims that China would use a limited number of its nuclear weapons; indicates that the US would use its nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear Chinese aggressions; and says that the US will increase the range of options for graduated use of nuclear weapons.

It is difficult to understand these points if we assume that US nuclear weapons are used to defend only vital national interests. For example, how can China use a more limited number of nuclear weapons given that China has a limited number of nuclear weapons? However, the draft report does allow the US to show its nuclear muscle in more ways and on more occasions, and makes the US look more like a hegemon. As for US national security, the consequences may be opposite. The US could prepare more nuclear tools and could threaten to use nuclear weapons on more occasions. This would add more shadows of nuclear war. If a nuclear war breaks out, the US can't isolate itself. 

Facing a new threat posed by the Trump administration's Nuclear Posture Review, China could have simple responses. On the one hand, it should continue to focus on raising the survivability of its nuclear weapons in suffering a first strike and their penetration capability against missile defense systems. On the other hand, China needs to reaffirm that its nuclear weapons are only for deterring a nuclear attack. China has no interest in competing for global or regional hegemony and it does not intend to use its nuclear weapons as hegemonic tool.

Fortunately, the draft Nuclear Posture Review has positive comments on the China-US nuclear dialogue. It is hoped that the dialogue will play an important role in stabilizing the China-US nuclear relationship.

The author is a professor at Tsinghua University's Department of International Relations and a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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