There seems to be a growing feeling in certain circles in America that a next nuclear arms race at the gates. In recent days, two American journalistic heavyweights, David Ignatius and Fred Kaplan pointed to the ongoing nuclear and missile rearmament process in China. The fundamental point is that according to opinion-makers China has acquired the capability of a second strike, of nuclear reaction.
This is a fundamental point in the balance of nuclear terror. The ability to react after a first nuclear strike means that even if an enemy were to attack first with a nuclear offensive, the attacked country would retain the capacity for a counterattack. So far only the US and Russia have officially such capabilities. If China has acquired it today or is about to acquire it, the global military and political dynamics change.
In fact, China reportedly has trucks always on the road that carry concealed, ballistic missiles capable of being operational in a short time. Given their number and the size of the country, some of them would survive a first strike and could launch their missiles at a possible first attacker.
America and Russia have acquired their arsenals over many years and at the same time have defined their political and military rules of engagement with increasing clarity over the same long period. Today, however, the US and China find themselves with already very robust arsenals (even if the US remains far more armed) but the political and military rules of engagement between them still remain very confused. Hence there is the increased possibility of mutual accidents and errors.
Furthermore, the great rapprochement between the US and China in the last 50 years, since Nixon’s trip to China, has been based on a series of military collaborations (against the USSR at the northern Chinese border, in Afghanistan, and about Vietnam) and a series of strategic “ambiguities”, for lack of better terms, such as those over the Sino-Indian border, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and so on.
Today military collaborations are no longer there or are obsolete. Moscow (formerly common enemy of Beijing and Washington) is linked to China while Vietnam (formerly enemy of the United States) is now close to America. The various terrains of strategic ambiguity are being defined but are still vague, and it is not clear how and when they can be defined.
For instance, What are the true and mutual insurmountable limits (not bluster) on Taiwan, the South China Sea, or the Senkaku? Nobody really knows. That is, we are in a situation like in Europe between 1945 and 1948 when the US, Great Britain, and France were aligned against the USSR. However, then only the US had the bomb, and the world had just emerged from a war, and no one wanted to go back to it. So, the European borders, which became the Iron Curtain, were drawn without major conflicts.
Today they have to track them while all have massive nuclear arsenals. The memory of a great destructive war is far away, so war fantasies could move more freely on their own. Furthermore, back then the 1950 Korean War, and the armistice of 1953, gave the two blocs the opportunity to test each other’s limits. For this reason, in 1956, with the protests in Hungary, the US did not intervene because there was an unwritten agreement that Hungary was Soviet, and a direct intervention would have triggered much greater reactions.
Today, however, we have not had a conflict in which the two sides have established the limits, and even if there were, given the Chinese capacity for nuclear reaction today, many things could quickly degenerate.
Limits should be negotiated quickly, but this could damage the situation even more in a full-fledged Cold War with possible important economic repercussions, whereas the present ambiguities still give room for hope and positive developments. But, if limits are not negotiated, the chances of an accident increase.
Moreover, there are the questions what America will do in response to this new Chinese capacity and what North Korea will do. Opinions are divided in America and a careful observer from Washington like Chris Nelson in his report recommends a halt to US nuclear rearmament. In fact, the US today has a much greater military capacity than China and nuclear rearmament would divert resources from the current American plan to relaunch infrastructure and production.
But North Korea, which is now more under Beijing’s umbrella but could engage in a kind of “privateering war” for itself and for others in this already confused scenario.
Besides all this, there is Russia, whose arsenal, especially if computed together with the Chinese one, could give dramatic results in strategic calculations.
Then, what will America decide to do? And the other Asian countries? Here, in a simplified manner we can say that there was an old division of opinion: military elites fanned the fire, and the business ones were doves attracted by China’s market opportunities.
Until recently, the business elites prevailed. Today the balance is shifting faster and faster in favor of the military elites, also because the business opportunities in the American or European stimulus plans for the post-Covid period could provide many more opportunities than China. Plus, many businessmen grew wary about the realities about dealing with the Chinese in a sustained mutually beneficial way.
And then security concerns always prevail in the end over business concerns in dangerous conditions.
The basic problem is that in Washington the idea that China poses the same sort of strategic threat as the former USSR is getting traction and is gaining increasing acceptance. This is a very complex issue and the statement badly captures the whole set of ideas and concerns building up in Washington about China and also about present Russia, but this consensus, once affirmed, then obeys logic that is difficult to stop or steer.
 See David Ignatius, The wizards of Armageddon may be back, Washington Post 7/05/2021.
 See Fred Kaplan, We Don’t Need a Better Nuclear Arsenal to Take on China, Slate, 23/04/2021.
 For this and other corrections I am deeply grateful to ambassador Donald Keyser,