Possibility of Nuclear Escalation

Though China is a part of the global south with a maritime ambition to regulate shipping in the South China Sea it has also got involved in the Indo-Pak conflict which started long before the partition of the Indian sub-continent into two separate countries in 1947.

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Futuristic Nuclear Fusion Particles Simulation concept (iStock/Getty Images)

SHOULD THE WORLD DOSCOUNT NUCLEAR ESCALATION?

The world is watching apprehensively how the richest and the second richest countries in the world behave because unless they either fall into the Thucydides Trap by accident or miscalculation the thousand years old mankind would face extinction. This cannot happen as the world of Kane and Abel has marched forward into such complications that the world has become intra-dependent on each other in a way that one set of countries regardless of their conviction cannot tear itself away from the other.

The British newspaper The Guardian in its editorial ( 9th March 2023) wondered how the Barack Obama administration could fathom a G-2 possibility consisting of the US and China in the hope that as the Chinese would climb up the ladder into richness they would embrace democracy as their preferred creed. This implausible dream was seriously considered even when the Chinese were convinced that the USA was a wolf in the guise of a sheep and ‘wolf warriors” and XI-Jinping made a rare explicit criticism of Washington, remarking that “Western countries, led by the US, were implementing all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against China.  

Qin Gang, the foreign minister, warned that “the US side’s so-called competition is all-out containment and suppression, a zero-sum game of life and death”. In the US domestic scenario was not helpful for a rapprochement with China.  The House of Representative Select Committee on the strategic competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party wanted to raise public concern – surely not lacking in a country where growing hawkishness towards China was evident across the political spectrum. Though Beijing’s own actions were largely to blame for that shift, the change had bolstered its aggrieved conviction that it won’t gain much from attempting engagement.

CHINA’S “WOLF WARRIOR” MUSCLE FLEXING

Rightful concern in the US – on issues ranging from China’s increasingly forceful foreign policy to industrial espionage, and from the treatment of Uyghurs to the future of Taiwan – was mixed at times with nationalism and even racism. That China was closing the economic, industrial, and technological gap with the US is unnerving Washington, but the real issues are surely how it had done so and how it planned to use its capabilities. And while the committee did not want to encourage xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment, not everyone criticizing China was scrupulous in discriminating between government and people or making sure others did so. The Senate would make it illegal for Chinese citizens to buy any property, including homes.

The pandemic had already led to growing anti-Asian hate. Shrill, unfocused alarmism also made it harder to concentrate on the issues that really did matter and how to handle them. Under Xi, it was increasingly hard to read China’s leadership accurately, and harder still to sway it. As Chinese ambition soared so did the fear of nuclear escalation. As Keir A Lieber and Daryl Press in an article published in October 2023 wrote nuclear weapons once again loom large in international politics, and a dangerous pattern is emerging.

In the regions most likely to draw the United States into conflict—the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait, Eastern Europe, and the Persian Gulf—U.S. adversaries appear to be acquiring, enhancing, or threatening to use nuclear weapons. North Korea is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the United States; China is doubling the size of its arsenal; Russia is threatening to use nuclear weapons in its war in Ukraine; and according to U.S. officials, Iran has amassed enough fissile material for a bomb. Many people hoped that once the Cold War ended, nuclear weapons would recede into irrelevance. Instead, many countries are relying on them to make up for the weakness of their conventional military forces.

CHINA’S INVOLVEMENT IN INDO-PAK CONFLICTS

Though China is a part of the global south with a maritime ambition to regulate shipping in the South China Sea it has also got involved in the Indo-Pak conflict which started long before the partition of the Indian sub-continent into two separate countries in 1947. As mentioned earlier the strategy of nuclear escalation did not disappear when the Cold War ended. Around the world today, several nuclear-armed countries that find themselves outmatched at the conventional military level lean on nuclear weapons to stave off catastrophic military defeat. Pakistan is a prime example. Its principal adversary, India, has five times the population, nine times the GDP, and spends six times as much on its military.

To make matters worse, most of Pakistan’s largest cities are less than 100 miles from the Indian border, and the terrain in the most likely corridors of an Indian invasion is difficult to defend. Unable to build sufficient conventional defenses, Pakistan’s leaders worry that a major war would lead to the destruction of its army and the seizure or isolation of its major cities. And so they rely on nuclear weapons to keep their next-door neighbor at bay. Pakistan has approximately 170 nuclear warheads, a third of which are tactical. Pakistani officials have made clear that the country’s nuclear posture is designed to deter or halt an Indian invasion.

The former head of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, explained in 2015 that “by introducing the variety of tactical nuclear weapons in Pakistan’s inventory, . . . we have blocked the avenues for serious military operations by the other side.” In May 2023, he reiterated that the purpose of Pakistan’s diverse arsenal is to give it a “strategic shield” to blunt India’s conventional military superiority. To this end, Pakistan has focused on being able to rapidly assemble, mobilize, and disperse nuclear weapons at the outset of any conflict. Of course, Pakistan could not hope to win a nuclear war against India—which has a comparable number of nuclear warheads and sophisticated delivery systems capable of retaliation—but Pakistan could inflict tremendous pain on its neighbor, coercing India to halt a conventional military campaign.

NORTH KOREA’S KIM JONG UN’S IRRATIONAL ANTICS

An added complication has been the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s statement of   2022, although the primary mission of his country’s nuclear arsenal is to deter an attack, he would use nuclear weapons to repel an attack if deterrence failed. “If any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state, our nuclear forces will have to decisively accomplish the unexpected second mission,” Kim said.

U.S. and South Korean military planners, like their Indian counterparts, must now grapple with the same problem the Soviets once faced: how to capitalize on conventional military advantages against an enemy that may be willing to use nuclear weapons. The United States has more than enough nuclear weapons to respond to North Korean nuclear escalation, as leaders in Pyongyang surely know. But if there is a war on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea will be desperate.

CHINA’S NUCLEAR DOCTRINE

Unlike Pakistan and North Korea, China has declined to use nuclear threats to compensate for its conventional military inferiority relative to the United States. China’s reluctance to depend on nuclear threats is particularly notable given the high stakes of a major war over Taiwan. Defeat in such a conflict might lead to formal independence for the island—a major blow to China’s conception of its sovereignty. Perhaps more importantly, the loss of Taiwan would humiliate the Chinese Communist Party and could stoke a nationalist backlash or internal coup.

Nevertheless, China has focused on improving its conventional military rather than readying its nuclear arsenal for wartime coercion. In fact, Beijing asserts that it will never be the first side in a conflict to use nuclear weapons. To be clear, China’s nuclear doctrine is not as simple as it sounds. According to Chinese military documents, Beijing would consider exceptions to its no-first-use policy if China faced a major military defeat in a high-stakes conventional war. And Chinese strategists have considered how low-yield nuclear weapons could be used coercively.

Additionally, around 2019 China began updating its nuclear forces in ways that would support a coercive strategy. It has increased the size, readiness, and diversity of its arsenal to increase its survivability; this would allow Beijing to initiate wartime escalation without fear that the United States could respond by destroying its nuclear force.

Finally, China’s leaders could change their official stance during a war and use nuclear weapons if a conflict against the United States went badly. But as of now, China remains committed in its rhetoric to eschewing nuclear first use and in addressing its military weaknesses by strengthening its conventional military power. China’s current no-first-use policy aside, the pattern is dangerous to ignore: nuclear-armed countries that fear catastrophic military defeat frequently adopt escalatory doctrines to keep their enemies at bay.

For NATO during the Cold War, Pakistan or North Korea today, and perhaps even China in the future, nuclear escalation on the battlefield makes sense if the only alternative is a regime-threatening defeat. Coercive nuclear escalation is a competition in pain—both inflicting it and suffering it—which is a type of conflict that invariably favors the desperate.  North Korea has adopted a similar strategy. Pyongyang’s conventional military is vastly outmatched by the combined forces of South Korea and the United States. North Korea’s army is large, but its military equipment is decrepit, and its troops rarely conduct training beyond simple small-unit exercises.

Lacking the resources to compete militarily, Pyongyang leans heavily on its nuclear weapons. As the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un explained in 2022, although the primary mission of his country’s nuclear arsenal is to deter an attack, he would use nuclear weapons to repel an attack if deterrence failed. U.S. and South Korean military planners, like their Indian counterparts, must now grapple with the same problem the Soviets once faced: how to capitalize on conventional military advantages against an enemy that may be willing to use nuclear weapons. The United States has more than enough nuclear weapons to respond to North Korean nuclear escalation. But if there is a war on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea will be desperate.

CHINA INSEPARABLY WEDDED TO TAIWAN

China’s reluctance to depend on nuclear threats is particularly notable given the high stakes of a major war over Taiwan. Defeat in such a conflict might lead to formal independence for the island—a major blow to China’s conception of its sovereignty. Perhaps more importantly, the loss of Taiwan would humiliate the Chinese Communist Party and could stoke a nationalist backlash or internal coup. Nevertheless, China has focused on improving its conventional military rather than readying its nuclear arsenal for wartime coercion.

In fact, Beijing asserts that it will never be the first side in a conflict to use nuclear weapons. To be clear, China’s nuclear doctrine is not as simple as it sounds. According to Chinese military documents, Beijing would consider exceptions to its no-first-use policy if China faced a major military defeat in a high-stakes conventional war. And Chinese strategists have considered how low-yield nuclear weapons could be used coercively. Additionally, around 2019 China began updating its nuclear forces in ways that would support a coercive strategy.

It has increased the size, readiness, and diversity of its arsenal to increase its survivability; this would allow Beijing to initiate wartime escalation without fear that the United States could respond by destroying its nuclear force. Finally, China’s leaders could change their official stance during a war and use nuclear weapons if a conflict against the United States went badly. But as of now, China remains committed in its rhetoric to eschewing nuclear first use and in addressing its military weaknesses by strengthening its conventional military power.

China’s current no-first-use policy aside, the pattern is dangerous to ignore: nuclear-armed countries that fear catastrophic military defeat frequently adopt escalatory doctrines to keep their enemies at bay. For NATO during the Cold War, Pakistan or North Korea today, and perhaps even China in the future, nuclear escalation on the battlefield makes sense if the only alternative is a regime-threatening defeat.

UKRAINE WAR AS CORE OF RUSSIAN NATIONAL INTEREST

 Putin has always portrayed the war in Ukraine as a core national security interest, based on historic territorial claims and the perceived threat of Ukraine’s membership in NATO. He has publicly framed the war in nearly existential terms. Perhaps most importantly, complete defeat in Ukraine would be humiliating and particularly dangerous to a leader who has built his power on a reputation for strength, acumen, and restoring Russian greatness.

Preventing military catastrophe would be of paramount importance to Putin, and nuclear escalation would be one of his few remaining cards to play. No enemy army stands poised to invade Russia. But if Putin believes that complete defeat in Ukraine will lead to his being toppled—and killed or detained—he will likely see the stakes as sufficiently high to use nuclear weapons. Russian leaders have made the links between the war in Ukraine and nuclear escalation clear.

One of Russia’s most senior defense officials and former president, Dmitry Medvedev, said in July 2023 that Russia “would have to use nuclear weapons” if Ukraine’s counteroffensive succeeded in retaking Russian-held territory. “There simply wouldn’t be any other solution,” he said. Putin claimed in February 2023 that Western countries “intend to transform a local conflict into a phase of global confrontation,” adding that Russia “will react accordingly, because in this case, we are talking about the existence of our country.” And in September 2022, he said that Russia would use “all means at its disposal” to defend its territorial annexations in Ukraine. NATO’s strategy made nuclear weapons the ultimate weapons of the weak.

Perhaps these nuclear threats are mere bluffs aimed at convincing the West to end its support for Ukraine. In fact, some Western observers discount the plausibility of escalation, noting that if Russia’s military position in Ukraine starts to collapse, nuclear escalation would not solve Moscow’s problem. Ukraine’s military forces are dispersed, so even a handful of Russian tactical nuclear strikes would do limited damage to Kyiv’s forces.

Moreover, Russian escalation would only make the Kremlin’s problems worse because NATO would probably respond with conventional attacks against Russian forces in Ukraine. In short, according to the skeptics, Russia’s nuclear threats are hollow. Those who downplay Russia’s nuclear options misunderstand the logic of coercive escalation. Russia’s goal would not be to rectify the conventional military imbalance but to demonstrate in a shocking fashion that the war is spinning out of control and must be ended immediately. The aim would be to raise the prospect of a wider nuclear war and convince people and their leaders in the West that given what is at stake for Russian leaders, Moscow will keep inflicting pain to forestall defeat.

If Russian escalation triggered a large-scale conventional NATO attack on Russia’s forces in Ukraine, as many analysts expect it would, Moscow could just use nuclear weapons again—much as NATO would have done in the face of a Soviet invasion. Had the Soviet Union invaded a NATO member, the balance of wills would have favored NATO because the allies would have been fighting to protect their own freedom and territory. Now, if defeat in Ukraine endangers Putin’s regime, the Kremlin would have the most to lose. The reasoning behind escalation is brutal, similar to that of blackmail or torture. But self-interested leaders facing a defeat that could cost them their lives may have no other option.

To be sure, Russian nuclear escalation is only one possible course. The current battlefield stalemate may drag on until the two sides grudgingly agree to a cease-fire. Perhaps Russian forces will regain the initiative and seize larger swaths of Ukrainian territory. Or maybe Putin’s domestic opponents will remove him from power, opening the door to a better settlement for Ukraine. It is even possible that if Russia’s leaders order nuclear escalation, military commanders may refuse to carry it out, instead launching a coup to end Putin’s regime.

The future of the conflict is uncertain, but the logic and history of the nuclear age are clear: when a conventionally superior army backs a nuclear-armed enemy against a wall, it risks nuclear war.  Hawkish policy analysts suggest that the United States can stare down its adversaries’ nuclear threats if Washington has enough military power, a resolute mindset, and a strong nuclear deterrent. But those attributes will not deter an enemy that is cornered. The United States will be in grave danger if it underestimates the will of desperate, nuclear-armed adversaries.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN REALISES RISK OF UKRAINE WAR ESCALATION

The good news is that the Biden administration appears to understand the risk of escalation in the Ukraine war. Early statements made by U.S. President Joe Biden suggesting that Putin “cannot remain in power” have been replaced with more moderate rhetoric, and U.S. leaders have limited the kinds of weapons they provide Ukraine in large part to manage the dangers of escalation. Similarly, U.S. planners have encouraged their South Korean allies to consider wartime objectives far short of complete victory, to avoid pushing the Kim regime to the edge of nuclear war.

For example, if North Korea launches a major artillery attack on South Korea, the wisest response may be to destroy or seize those artillery positions but not continue the campaign north to Pyongyang. But it is impossible to know for sure how an enemy will react in war, especially because leaders are incentivized to misrepresent their actual redlines. Fighting nuclear-armed adversaries is a dangerous game of brinkmanship. There are military steps the United States can take to reduce these dangers.

CONCLUSION

 For potential conflicts on the Korean Peninsula and across the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. military should be developing strategies for waging conventional war in a manner designed to reduce the risks of escalation. For example, the U.S. military should minimize attacks that undermine an enemy leadership’s situational awareness and hold on to power, such as strikes on national command-and-control networks, nuclear forces, and leadership targets themselves.

Enemies who rely on nuclear weapons to stalemate U.S. military power will, of course, adapt as well; they will likely entangle the conventional and nuclear domains to prevent the United States from safely waging a conventional war. However, the United States can make plans to escalate conventionally without threatening the survival of an enemy regime, thereby reducing the risk that a desperate leader will employ a nuclear weapon. The United States must take the growing threat of coercive nuclear escalation seriously. After the Cold War, the United States became more ambitious in its foreign policy objectives.

It spread Western political values and free markets and forged military ties around the world. But such objectives are opposed by nuclear-armed adversaries in China, North Korea, Russia, and perhaps soon in Iran. U.S. policymakers would be wise to not discount the potential power of their enemies. And if they need to be reminded of what their foes may be able to do, they need to turn only to their own history.

Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat. During his tenure, he worked in several countries as the ambassador of Bangladesh including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Germany

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