Elizabeth Pond Blog

The Ides of the Second Nuclear Era

A primer for the ultimate Greek tragedy?

On the Ides of September US President Joe Biden shifted the Great Game overnight from Afghanistan (and Europe) to Oceania (and Asia) by announcing a new informal AUKUS defense partnership. The United States and the United Kingdom will arm Australia with state-of-the-art nuclear-propelled – but not nuclear-armed – submarines. For only the second time, the US will share its leading sub technology with a foreign country, following the grant of this privilege to the UK in 1958. Canberra’s coast guard will be transformed into a major blue-water navy in the Indo-Pacific. Australia will add this prize to its membership in the elite Five Eyes intelligence-sharing club that includes also the US, UK, Canada, and New Zealand.

A month later, on the Ides of October, the Financial Times revealed that the Chinese had already one-upped AUKUS by sending a hypersonic rocket with a piggyback glider in a low orbit around Earth on July 27. Toward the end of the orbit the maneuverable nuclear-capable glider separated from its mother ship and wriggled its way to within 24 miles of the intended target. This demonstration that the Chinese can maneuver hypersonic gliders that fire explosives in flightand could therefore theoretically launch an attack from the southern hemisphere without being detected by the West’s missile defense in the north –impressed Western observers.

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley called the Chinese launch “very concerning.” The Financial Times, the leading daily reporter on the issue, said the launch “stunned the Pentagon and US intelligence because China managed to demonstrate a brand new weapons capabilitythat the US doesn’t yet have.We’re witnessing one of the largest shifts in geostrategic power that the world has ever experienced,” Milley told the newspaper.

The second nuclear era

Together, the two superpowers’ stakeout of new red lines in the Indo-Pacific abruptly ended our planet’s first nuclear era of peace by gridlock and unleashed a far more volatile and threatening second nuclear era.

In retrospect, our first nuclear epoch, however terrifying it seemed at the time, looks benign in the normative and codified restraints it set to prevent a holocaust of humanity. It took 27 years of contemplating the prospect of a man-made extinction of mankind to flip thebalance of terror” itself into a template for what historian John Lewis Gaddis dubbed the long peace.” But in the end, in his analysis, the reciprocal fear was so great that no nuclear weapon was ever fired in anger. There was no World War III. Heartland Europe enjoyed its longest stretch of peace in its history. By 1972 the US and the Soviet Union signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), based on counterintuitive “mutual assured destruction.”

In this “second-strike” balance, both the American and the then Soviet superpower acknowledged that neither one could devastate the other without itself being devastated by a retaliatory strike. Neither wished to commit double suicide. Both looked into the abyss in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and blinked. Both stopped their proxy wars from escalating up to a nuclear exchange. And there was still enough time after receiving any digital report of an attack for the recipient of this alarm to verify by hotline that it was not just some sensor malfunction before automatically pressing its own red button.

It is precisely that time to check the possibility of error in the warning of a putative missile attack that was erased by China’s 3,850 mile-per-hour flight on July 27. With a missile delivery time of a warhead under 30 minutes, and with that warhead capable of independent maneuvering to evade being targeted itself, there is no longer any buffer time to test the digital messenger and perhaps avert an accidental war. But at least theoretically, in this new world China is already able to make a first strike of devastation without automatically triggering a return strike.

A single test flight does not constitute a first-strike threat, of course. But the Financial Times notes that China “is also developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles that would carry multiple warheads, and is constructing hundreds of silos for land-based ICBMs. It also tested 250 ballistic missiles in 2020 — more than the rest of the world combined.”

In all likelihood America will catch up with the apparent Chinese lead in steering gliders and acquire a first-strike offensive capability of its own, and there could well be a cosmic hair-trigger game of chicken in a destabilizinguse-’em-or-lose ’em” environment. With the technological demise of an assured second strike, Beijing is already preparing for just such an unstable game of chicken by moving toward an instant launch-on-warning” posture, according to the Pentagon.

More broadly, Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State and one of the first strategists to search out a way to tame the world’s initial nuclear weapons, now goes one step further. He worries about the combustible mix between today’s erraticunrestrained competition” between the US and China that has “no precedent in history” and the magnification of this hostility by expansive military reliance on artificial intelligence to make autonomous battlefield decisions that we neither understand nor control.

Kissinger told the Financial Times that AI capabilities “produce a level of uncertainty in the world within which permanent peace is very difficult to sustain, probably impossible.” He continued, “With [earlier] nuclear weapons it was possible to conceive of principles of deterrence in which there was some symmetry between the damage on each side….If an unrestrained [US-China] arms race goes from nuclear to AI, the dangers of dramatic escalation would be very great.”

Compounding the dangers of our dim comprehension of the unknown second nuclear era we are now entering into is the dearth of dialogue between the US and China and the extraordinary high stakes today’s two superpowers are investing in their feud. This year the Chinese refused to engage in serious bilateral talks at policy-making level until October, ten months after President Joe Biden took office.

Most important in the lack of contact is what Western media are beginning to call the self-isolation” of President Xi Jinping. He has not traveled outside his country for almost two years, not even to address this month’s COP26 climate summit or other international summits. At home he is converting strict covid shutdowns and surveillance into long-lasting barriers to easy entry into China even for foreign businessmen. After achieving spectacular economic growth, lifting 850 million peasants out of extreme poverty by becoming the world’s factory, and replacing Russia as the second superpower, China is now turning, it seems, toward more economic self-sufficiency.

For his part, Kissinger also worries about an overlay of complacency among the generations that have grown up in our 75 years of no world war, have no cautionary memory of its carnage, and might sleepwalk into Armageddon as casually as our oblivious forefathers fell into the slaughter of World War I. Presumably the main danger now lies less in a premeditated attack than in a misjudgment of the adversary’s red lines or an unnoticed AI escalation that crosses a red line. It was precisely this concern that impelled Gen. Milley to respond twice in an unorthodox way toward the end of President Donald Trump’s tenure to CIA reports that Beijing really did fear an imminent American nuclear attack. He made discreet calls to his Chinese equivalent to reassure him that the US had no such intentand imply that he himself would warn Beijing if the situation changed in Washington.

Unfortunately, in this fraught moment of dynamic nuclear change there has so far been nothing remotely resembling the intense conceptual gestation over 27 years at both official and track-two civic levels between US and Soviet physicists that finally gave birth to the first SALT arms-control treaty. There is no gathering consensus over some new Kissingerian “deterrence in which there [is] some symmetry between the damage on each side” to help mankind survive the demise of that odd peacekeeper of an assured second strike.

Nor is there any common ground for negotiating equitable numbers of nuclear warheads when China is only now surging from its long-time minimum deterrence of about 230 nuclear warheads to some 1,000 warheads by 2030 and world-class” superpower numbers by 2049 that will promote the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” for the centennial of Mao Zedongs victory in China’s civil war. Nor are there even any experienced Chinese negotiators in this field, since Beijing’s small arsenal was never taken into account in earlier bilateral US-Soviet calculations. Nor is there visible Chinese interest in the talks to talk about the strategic stability” that the US keeps suggesting.

The ultimate Greek tragedy?

At this juncture, therefore, the two superpowers seem to be heading for a collision worthy of a Greek tragedy. The immediate bone of contention is not nuclear weapons per se, but the self-governed island of Taiwan, one hundred miles off the south China coast. Yet the course of the contrary narratives of Washington and Beijing that are now building about the democratic Republic of China on Taiwan are inseparable from implicit nuclear brandishing.

In the narrative of Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, Taiwan is part of the patrimony that must be “returned” to the People’s Republic of China in Beijing to avenge the humiliation visited on China in the 19th century by Europeans who seized Hong Kong and other concessions from it. (And this although Taiwan has never been under the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China.) Especially since the financial crisis of 2008 Xi has bolstered his claim for a return of Taiwan to the PRC by preaching the superiority of his efficient autocracy over messy democracy.

Above all, President Xi sees China as the rising hegemon and the US as the declining hegemon, as proved most recently by its rout in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

There are hints that Xi might like to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s rule as soon as next year, when the Chinese Communist Party will appoint him to a third term – or possibly a life term as president. Xi repeatedly vows to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control – preferably peacefully, he adds, with mafia overtones.

The 24 million Chinese and Taiwanese living on Taiwan, by contrast, see their independent country as one of the Asian economic tigers, a rich country that produces the world’s most sophisticated semiconductor chips. They are also proud of their robust democracy; Freedom House ranks it as the second to the freest in all of Asia, surpassed only by Japan. Pew opinion polls regularly show that two thirds of adults favor closer ties with America over closer ties with Beijing.

When Kissinger orchestrated US rapprochement with Communist China in1979 to separate it from its Russian ally, Washington and Beijing papered over their differences about the legal status of Taiwan by agreeing to disagree. Both acknowledged the concept of one China” without defining what that meant concretely. Both rejected the other side’s interpretation of the phrase. The island’s voters overwhelmingly want to remain independent of mainland China, and various Hong Kong demonstrators for democracy in China took refuge in Taiwan after repression of them in Hong Kong.

For Americans, the narrative now is that the US is replicating in Asia its feat after World War II in Europe in protecting old and nurturing new democracies. This mission is seen as important, especially given the shrinkage in the number of democracies worldwide over the past 15 years. In particular, the US regards itself as the guardian of Taiwan’s democracy. It has no treaty pledging it to defend Taiwan if it comes under attack. But it does have a Congressional mandate to sell weapons to Taiwan, and in a show of force that ended the last big crisis there in the mid-1990s it dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area. Officially, America’s policy is “strategic ambiguity,” to avoid heightening tensions. This month Australia volunteered to join in any American action to defend Taiwan.

Washington is also seen in this positive light by Japan, India (with reservations), South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam (despite its old war with the US), the Philippines (in a recent shift by President Rodrigo Duterte), and by smaller neighbors that have been bullied by the Chinese in Beijing’s recent “wolf-warrior” phase. These nations welcome America’s new extended deterrence” in Asia in this case, the prospect that combined US, Japanese, and Australian backing for them will raise the costs of Chinese coercion of smaller neighbors and thereby reduce it. In political-science jargon, they are now balancing” with Washington in informal collective defense against Chinese pressure rather than appeasing Beijing bybandwagoning” with the regional superpower, as Duterte recently did.

In sum, Xi Jinping is as adamant about his righteous cause of incorporating Taiwan into his Chinese dream as Biden is about his righteous cause of defending Asia’s second-freest democracy. 

The good news is that on the Ides of November 2021 Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met each other virtually and agreed for the first time to talk about talking about taming their nuclear weapons.

The bad news is that American political scientist Francis Fukuyama says his Chinese students agree with Xi that strongman rule works better than democracy – and so do millions of Americans when asked who really won the 2020 presidential election.

(updated 2021/11/27)

Elizabeth Pond, Princeton, New Jersey