While the risk of a deliberate nuclear exchange is still small between the United States and China, there is a growing risk of inadvertent nuclear use according to new research from the United States Studies Centre. And in this US-China nuclear relationship, Australia needs to be more proactive the study suggests.
Set against the intensifying trade disputes and tech competition between Washington and Beijing, Non-Resident Fellow Dr Fiona Cunningham describes a nuclear relationship in flux.
The drivers of this dynamic are more complex than is commonly understood. Although China’s recent nuclear modernisation is consistent with its long-held policy of No First Use, Beijing has acquired new capabilities that could enable it to shift towards a nuclear first-use strategy. At the same time, efforts by the United States to maintain its current margin of superiority over China’s nuclear forces, or to deter North Korea and Russia, could prompt further growth in China’s arsenal.
“China’s nuclear arsenal is becoming more sophisticated and slightly larger, changes that are consistent with its assured retaliation posture but have generated some uncertainty about how it will use its nuclear weapons in the future,” Dr Cunningham explains.
The report contends that it is in Australia’s interest to support an allied strategy that relies on conventional military capabilities to deter and/or respond to the potential use of force by China, rather than one that relies on US nuclear weapons and strives to mitigate escalation risks. Dr Cunningham urges Australia to use alliance mechanisms and multilateral fora to lessen the risks of nuclear use, while supporting informal arms control measures among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
“Canberra may be able to help facilitate formal US-China nuclear discussions by laying the groundwork for alternatives to the current US pressure campaign. This could be achieved through continued calls for official discussions on nuclear risk reduction among the Permanent Five (P5) members of the United Nations Security Council.”
Dr Cunningham also notes that a more targeted pursuit of broad-based literacy in nuclear strategy, arms control and deterrence within and outside of government will be of critical importance to its ability to independently assess, robustly debate and deftly manage its exposure to nuclear risk.