China US Policy

Alternatives to the Pentagon’s China Nightmares

This is a moment to be pressing President Biden and those around him to embrace a no first strike doctrine, for Congress to defund the land-based ICBMs and other nuclear first strike weapons, to initiate negotiation of an Asia-Pacific Freeze to halt the suicidal arms race.

JOSEPH GERSONNovember 6, 2021

I’m embarrassed for my friends when they make mistakes, not that I haven’t made a few myself. Recently when the Pentagon issued its terrorizing annual report on China warning that by 2030 China’s People’s Liberation Army could have 1,000 nuclear warheads, a valued colleague commented that at this rate China will then have as many nuclear warheads as Albuquerque, New Mexico.

My friend was wrong. 

At that rate, Xi Jinping will have less than half of the 2,500 nuclear weapons the Pentagon has based at Kirkland Air Base in Albuquerque.

There are alternatives to the nationally self-defeating and toxic China threat discourse in Washington, and to fueling an extremely dangerous nuclear arms race with China that could end with nuclear winter and the extermination of nearly all life as we know it. 

The Pentagon’s annual China report to Congress brings to mind the nonexistent missile gap of the late 1950s and early 1960s and the Bush-Cheney-Rice insistence that the U.S. had to invade Iraq before Saddam Hussein attacked us with weapons of mass destruction that in fact he didn’t have. 

The Pentagon’s timing is exquisite. Its terrorizing red flag is being waved in the midst of the Biden Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and Congressional debates over funding for Washington’s first-strike nuclear war fighting arsenal. As the Washington Post recently reported, the Biden Administration—including the Pentagon—are locked in an Nuclear Posture Review debate over the possible adoption of a “sole use” retaliatory, as opposed to first strike, nuclear doctrine. (A sole use doctrine wouldn’t eliminate the danger of nuclear war. It would restrict U.S. presidents to pushing the nuclear button in retaliation, only after the U.S. had suffered a nuclear attack.) There is meaningful opposition in Congress and beyond to deploying a new generation of the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles based in the northern plains states, destabilizing standoff air launched cruise missiles, and new B-61 nuclear weapons for warfighting in Europe.

The Pentagon report claims that in the face of the Chinese threat, we have no choice except to, as General Milley advocates, maintain and modernize our tried and true first-strike nuclear war fighting doctrine and to spend the estimated $1.7 trillion needed to build and deploy the offensive and defensive weapons that are essential to threatening or actually initiating a nuclear war.

But is that our only option?

Einstein’s Dictum and Chinese Fears

U.S. policy toward China, be it Trump’s or Biden’s, is proof of Einstein’s universal law that insanity is the insistence on “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Millions of lives and the national treasure needed to reverse climate chaos, vaccinate the world’s people, and to fund the safety net that we so desperately need have been wasted as a consequence of what Senator Fulbright once termed “the arrogance of power.” That’s the insistence on bludgeoning rivals into obedience rather than walking a mile in their shoes, taking their fears, concerns and legitimate ambitions into account. The wiser policy, which at the heights of the Cold War prevented it from turning omnicidally hot,  is pursuing mutually beneficial common security diplomatic resolutions to conflicts that are inevitable in international relations. Think in terms of President Kennedy’s secret Cuban Missile Crisis negotiations with Khrushchev and President Reagan’s diplomacy with Gorbachev that resulted in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty that ended the Cold War in 1987, before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

The Pentagon and too many of our national leaders have yet to learn the lessons of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

If they did the necessary research and listened to Chinese scholars, they would begin to understand that while China’s nuclear arsenal is indeed very dangerous, Beijing’s apparent plans to move from a minimum to a medium deterrence doctrine are a realpolitik and defensive response to the U.S. first-strike nuclear war fighting doctrine and to the decade and a half old U.S. military buildup in Asia and the Pacific. Since Kurt Campbell, now Biden’s leading Asia hand on the National Security Council, conceived the Obama era “pivot to Asia” to reinforce U.S. Asia-Pacific hegemony, the U.S. has moved to deploy 60% of its naval and air forces to the Asia-Pacific (now Indo-Pacific) theater. Provocative incidents in the South China Sea and near Taiwan are occurring on a near weekly basis and carry implicit danger that a miscalculation could trigger military escalation.

Most worrisome to Chinese leaders has been the buildup of U.S. land- and sea-based “missile defenses.” While there is a defensive rationale for these deployments—to protect the hundreds of U.S. military bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam that surround North Korea and China, as well as allied populations –  strategically they also theoretically serve as shields to reinforce U.S. first-strike swords. With its relatively small, if genocidal, minimum deterrent arsenal of 250-300 nuclear weapons facing Washington’s reported 5,550, China’s strategic thinkers and policy makers fear that in an escalating crisis over Taiwan, or following an incident in the South China Sea, that the U.S. might launch a disarming first strike nuclear attack to eliminate its deterrent nuclear arsenal. In this scenario, U.S. missile defenses would be used to mop up any Chinese nuclear armed missiles that survive the U.S. attack and that could be launched in retaliation.

In Chinese thinking, this possible scenario kindles the memory of  the Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Nanjing Massacre, when China and its people were devastated and left defenseless against overwhelming foreign powers.

Do the Chinese really have reason to worry? It was the United States that eviscerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons. During the 1955 and 1958 Taiwan crises, the U.S. prepared and threatened to attack China with nuclear weapons. In fact, we have since learned that in 1958 then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was willing to sacrifice Taiwan to Soviet retaliatory nuclear attacks in an expanded version of what later became the Vietnam War paradigm of destroying a village in order to save it. 

Chinese scholars and policymakers, like their U.S. peers, know that on as many as thirty occasions, beginning with the 1946 Iran crisis, during international crises and wars U.S. leaders have repeatedly prepared and/or threatened to initiate nuclear war. Nearly a dozen times to reinforce U.S. Middle East hegemony. At least six times against North Korea. Four times during the Vietnam War. And, of course, during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1954 CIA backed coup in Guatemala. The list includes the initial Bush-Cheney response to the 9-11 attacks,  the two Bush wars against Iraq, President Obama’s “by any means necessary” threats against Iran, and Trump’s “fire and fury” threats against North Korea. 

This is history that must be taken seriously. Daniel Ellsberg, who served as a senior nuclear war fighting planner in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations, put it well when he wrote that successive U.S. presidents “used nuclear weapons “in the way that you use a gun when you point it at someone’s head in a confrontation…whether or not you pull the trigger. You’re also using it when you have it on your hip ostentatiously.” 

Common Security Alternatives

There are alternatives to the nationally self-defeating and toxic China threat discourse in Washington, and to fueling an extremely dangerous nuclear arms race with China that could end with nuclear winter and the extermination of nearly all life as we know it. 

A first step would be transforming Joe Biden’s 2017 and 2019 statements that he could envision no circumstances in which the U.S. would need to initiate a nuclear war into national policy. The current Nuclear Posture Review, which will set the guidelines for U.S. nuclear weapons and warfare policies for years to come, should adopt a no first use doctrine which would prohibit U.S. presidents from initiating nuclear war.  Doing so would  join China in its no-first use doctrine, challenge Putin to do the same, and reduce the incentives for each of these powers to augment their nuclear arsenals. 

As leading Chinese scholars and analysts tell us, the U.S. moving to a no first use doctrine would provide a foundation for future mutually beneficial U.S.-Chinese diplomacy. This could include reducing the risks of war as a consequence of each side’s provocative military maneuvers, their weaponization of cyber and A.I. warfare capacities, and the weaponization of space.

Voices as diverse as the relatively conservative Biden climate tsar John Kerry (a former nuclear cold warrior who promoted the transformation of Boston Harbor into a nuclear weapons base) and the Congressional Progressive Caucus remind us that the real battle is not against China. It is against the threats posed by climate chaos, pandemics, and poverty.  Despite the profound differences between the United States and China, without mutually beneficial common security collaborations between the world’s two largest economic and scientific powers, humanity doesn’t stand a chance against these increasingly imminent existential threats. 

In 1981, at the height of the Cold War, with the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race spiraling toward disaster,  Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme brought together leading U.S., Soviet and European figures, including former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, in the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues. Their conclusion was that security has to be found in common with, not in opposition to, a nation’s adversaries. They were clear that “States can no longer seek security at each other’s expense; it can be obtained only through cooperative undertakings”.  The discussions among the commissioners, including Georgi Arbatov, a senior advisor to five Soviet general secretaries, played a central role in the negotiation of the INF Treaty that halted the Cold War. And their conclusions are is no less true today than they were four decades ago. 

Solutions to the world’s most urgent threats—nuclear weapons and climate chaos—are well known. What have been missing are political courage and popular will. The prospects of great power war, nuclear war, and devastating climate chaos are no longer unimaginable. But, what humans have created, we can change.

The challenge before us is not whether Beijing will soon have an Albuquerque-size nuclear arsenal. It is if we have the wisdom and will to insist on the pursuit of mutually beneficial common security alternatives to replace the manifest destiny drive to nuclear war and catastrophic climate change. If creating a more peaceful, just and prosperous nation is more important to us than maintaining a global empire.

This is a moment to be pressing President Biden and those around him to embrace a no first strike doctrine, for Congress to defund the land-based ICBMs and other nuclear first strike weapons, to initiate negotiation of an Asia-Pacific Freeze to halt the suicidal arms race. 

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Joseph Gerson is President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, Co-founder of the Committee for a SANE U.S. China Policy and Vice President of the International Peace Bureau. His books include Empire and the Bomb, and With Hiroshima Eyes.

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