Commentary | Strategic Stability in U.S.-China Relations

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The following is adopted from a speech in December at the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing, China.

The United States is committed to maintaining strategic stability in U.S.-China relations and supports initiation of a dialogue on strategic stability and nuclear affairs aimed at fostering a more stable, resilient and transparent security relationship with China.

That idea — “strategic stability” — is a term we use a lot, but one that is difficult to define, particularly when talking about China and the Asia-Pacific region.

During the Cold War, many associated strategic stability with what we called “mutual assured destruction,” the notion that the incentive to initiate nuclear use would be discouraged by the fear of suffering unacceptable retaliatory damage. This notion, of course, is ill-suited and too narrow to fully capture the U.S.-China relationship given our multifaceted, shared interests. In today’s world, strategic stability encompasses much more than just nuclear relations, and reflects the fact that the U.S.-China relationship, while competitive, is not adversarial.

The strategic relationship between the U.S. and China is complex, and we each view stability differently. Thus, it is important that we have frank and open dialogue about how our nations define and view strategic stability, and how we perceive our nuclear postures and policies impacting this balance.

As part of these discussions, the United States is willing to discuss all issues, including missile defense, space-related issues, conventional precision strike capabilities and nuclear weapons issues, with the goal of improving the conditions for a more predictable and safer security environment.

A sustained and substantive discussion of our national approaches to maintaining effective deterrent postures and modernization of associated strategic capabilities can increase understanding, enhance confidence and reduce mistrust.

Our view is that U.S. nuclear policy is consistent with enhancing strategic stability with China, and we are committed to keeping China informed of major developments regarding our policy and plans. We also want to encourage China to be more open and forthcoming about its nuclear policies and plans.

There are other important elements to maintaining strategic stability with China. We acknowledge that China is concerned that U.S. and allied ballistic missile defense deployments may undermine China’s strategic deterrent. We disagree with this assessment, and we welcome the opportunity to clarify what we are doing and why.

The U.S. homeland ballistic missile defense system is not intended to affect the strategic balance with China. We are encouraged by the beginning of a more robust conversation on this matter with our Chinese government counterparts. But for today’s purposes, let’s begin at the beginning.

SeaofJapanMap_Wikipedia
In 1998, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile that overflew Japan. Credit: Via Wikipedia

In 1998, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile that irresponsibly overflew Japan and irresponsibly dropped a rocket stage very near Japanese territory on its intended course directed toward the West Coast of the United States. The launch was not successful, but it did succeed in being highly provocative and, as a result, the United States and its allies initiated a more concerted effort to monitor, deter and counter North Korean capabilities.

Through North Korea’s provocative missile tests and nuclear tests and through its official public statements, it has made clear its intentions to threaten the U.S. with long-range nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. North Korea has unveiled a road-mobile ICBM, while continuing development of ICBMs, intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and development of a new short-range ballistic missile. Unfortunately, the ballistic missile threat to U.S. and allied interests is growing, and the response must as well.

In the absence of a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s growing missile threat, the United States, along with our allies and partners, must act to protect their citizens and national interests.

Some might say that the regional response is not proportional and this could be a reason for strategic instability. Again, we disagree. The response is measured and based on the threat we see from North Korea.

The regional missile defenses we have in the Asia-Pacific region help to reassure our allies and to deter North Korea from seeking to coerce or attack its neighbors. Missile defenses in fact contribute to regional stability because they can reduce the desire for a pre-emptive strike, or a large retaliation to provocation during a crisis. We have encouraged our allies to contribute to their own defense but also to provide capabilities that can enhance their own security and contribute to stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Ours is a measured and limited response to a growing threat.

At the same time, we note that China is exploring advanced ballistic missile defense technologies.

It is important that our nations have a sustained dialogue on the role our missile defense systems have to both Chinese and American defense policies and strategies. We would welcome an opportunity to learn more about how ballistic missile defense fits into China’s defense policy and strategy.

More broadly, a sustained dialogue would improve our understanding of China’s strategic perspective and enhance China’s understanding of U.S. policy and strategy. Institutionalizing discussions of strategic issues is a prudent long-term approach to strengthening strategic stability and exploring means for strengthening mutual trust and risk reduction.

Another domain that we should explore in the U.S.-China strategic relationship is outer space.

The benefits derived from space-based systems permeate almost every aspect of our daily life. For example, the utilization of space-based information helps us here on Earth by:

  • Warning of natural disasters.
  • Facilitating navigation and transportation globally.
  • Expanding our scientific frontiers.
  • Monitoring strategic and military developments as well as supporting treaty monitoring and arms control verification.
  • Providing global access to financial operations.
  • Aiding scores of other activities worldwide.

However, space, a domain that no nation owns but on which all rely, is increasingly at risk from the growth of space debris and irresponsible actions.

As two of the principal spacefaring nations that derive significant benefits from the use of space, the United States and China have a mutual interest in protecting and preserving the long-term safety, security, stability and sustainability of the space domain for all nations.

I believe that there are a number of concrete areas where the United States and China can work together in this area. One of these is preventing the growth of orbital debris in space. The continued growth of debris in outer space presents a threat to the space systems of all nations, and preventing further growth of debris and collisions in outer space is in our mutual interest.

On that note, I’m pleased that at the recent U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July, the United States and China reaffirmed that “orbital collision avoidance serves our common interest of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes,” and agreed to take practical steps to improve coordination in this area. Both sides also committed to establish bilateral government-to-government consultation mechanisms and hold regular meetings on outer space activities.

That said, while we seek to work cooperatively with China in outer space, I want to be clear that the United States remains seriously concerned about China’s continued development and testing of debris generating anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities. On July 23, the Chinese government conducted a nondestructive test of a missile designed to destroy satellites in low Earth orbit. Despite China’s claims that this was not an ASAT test, let me assure you the United States has high confidence in its assessment.

Known orbit planes of Fengyun-1C debris one month after impacted the Chinese ASAT (orbits exaggerated for visibility). Credit:  NASA
Known orbit planes of the debris from the Chinese telecommunications satellite impacted by the Chinese ASAT (orbits exaggerated for visibility) one month after the collision. Credit: NASA

The United States believes that these activities, which include the continued development and testing of destructive anti-satellite systems, are destabilizing and threaten the long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment. A previous destructive test of the Chinese system in 2007 created thousands of pieces of debris, which continue to present an ongoing danger to the space systems — as well as astronauts — of all nations, including China.

Debris-generating ASAT weapons present a host of threats to the space environment that threaten all who benefit from outer space: the civil, commercial, military and scientific space endeavors of all nations. On the security side, ASAT weapons directly threaten individual satellites and the strategic and tactical information they provide, and their use could be escalatory in a crisis.

The destructive nature of debris-generating weapons has decades-long consequences as well: They can increase the potential for further collisions in the future, which only create more debris. A debris-forming test or attack may only be minutes in duration, but the consequences can last decades, threatening all space systems. It is for these reasons that the United States opposes testing debris-generating ASAT systems.

We look forward to continuing and expanding our dialogue with China on this critical issue.

Frank A. Rose serves as U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, and formerly was deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy.