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China’sNew “OldThinking’9 The Concept of Limited Deterrence I O n e overlooked aspect of the growth of China’s power in recent years is a disturbing set of ideas in the Chinese military about nuclear weapons.’ Some of these ideas are old, others are new. What has not changed in the post-cold War era is a deeply rooted hard realpolitik worldview that nuclear weapons buy both soft power (international status and influence) and hard power (militarily operational power). What is new are more comprehensive and consistent doctrinal arguments in favor of developing a limited flexible response capability. From the late 1980son, Chinese strategists have developed a concept of “limited deterrence ” (you xiun wei she) to describe the kind of deterrent China ought to have. While the the concept is still evolving, limited deterrence, according to Chinese strategists, requires sufficient counterforce and countervalue tactical, theater, and strategic nuclear forces to deter the escalation of conventionalor nuclear Alastair lain Johnston is Assistant Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he is also a Faculty Associate with the Olin lnstitute of Strategic Studies and the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. The author wishes to thank Patrick Garrity and the participants in the Center for National Security Studies Workshop on Regional Nuclear Forces and the Future of Nuclear Weapons, and Karl Eikenberry, Paul Godwin, Lisbeth Gronlund, Harlan Jencks,Stan Norris, Michael Pillsbury,David Shambaugh, David Wright, and especially Tom Christensen for comments, criticism, and input. A number of U.S. and Chinese officials who must remain nameless also deserve much thanks. None of these people is responsible for the analysis. 1. John Lewis’s group at Stanford has produced excellent histories of the Chinese nuclear weapons program. See John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988); John Wilson Lewis and Hua Di, ”China‘s Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies,Strategies,Goals,” International Security, Vol. 17,No. 2 (Fall 1992),pp. 5-36; and John Lewis and Xue Litai, China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994).Chong-pin Lin has written an important study of nuclear thinking up to the mid-1980s; Lin, China’s Nuclear Weapons Strategy: Tradition within Evolution (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1988).But there are only a handful of articles on doctrinal issues in the late 1980s. See Harlan Jencks, “PRC Nuclear and Space Programs,” in kchard Yang, ed., Yearbook on PLA Affairs 1987 (Kaohsiung:Sun Yat-sen Center for Policy Studies, 1988);Arthur S. Ding, ”PLA in the Year 2000: Nuclear Force and SpaceProgram,” in Richard Yang, ed., Yearbook on PLA Affairs 1988-89 (Kaohsiung: Sun Yat-sen Center for Policy Studies, 1989); J. Mohan Malik, “Chinese Debate on Military Strategy: Trends and Portents,” Journal of Northeast Asian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Summer 1990),pp. 3-32; and Xue Litai, ”Evolution of China’s Nuclear Strategy,” in JohnC. Hopkins and Weixing Hu, eds., Strategic Viewsfrom the Second Tier: The Nuclear Weapons Policies of France, Britain, and China (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1995). International Security, Vol. 20, No. 3 Winter 1995/96), pp. 5 4 2 0 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 5 International Security 20:3 I 6 war. If deterrencefails, this capability should be sufficient to control escalation and to compel the enemy to back down. China does not presently have the operational capabilitiesto implement this vision of limited deterrence, however. Rather, the doctrine appears to establish a wish-list of capabilities from which Beijing must choose within the economic, technological, and arms control constraints the nuclear program faces. To the extent that these constraints are lifted or modified, China may well pursue the development of forces to suit this doctrine. Whether or not China’s leaders decide to ”storm” the nuclear program and to double or triple China’s quantitative capabilities depends, in part, on perceptions about the credibility of its deterrent in the face of U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. Even if there is no surge in the size of Chinese forces, we should expect China to continue the development...


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