In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump commits to “maintaining strategic stability in Europe and Asia.”1 However, as the strategic competition and rivalry between the United States and China continues to intensify, it is becoming significantly harder to maintain a stable nuclear relationship between the two major powers in the Asia Pacific region. This challenge was not made easier when the 2018 NPR report refrained from pledging explicitly to strengthen the U.S.-China bilateral strategic stability relationship that had been an important commitment in the 2010 NPR report under former president Barack Obama.
In addition to the uncertainties introduced by new geopolitical factors, the task of maintaining a stable U.S.-China nuclear relationship faces considerable challenges generated by new technology and new capabilities being developed in both countries. Compared with the beginning of the twenty-first century, the most significant change in China’s nuclear capability today is the induction of a young but rapidly growing fleet of nuclear ballistic missile submarines (often known as SSBNs, shorthand for ship submersible ballistic nuclear). Between Chinese efforts to create a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent and U.S. endeavors to strengthen anti-submarine countermeasures, tensions are brewing under the surface of the South China Sea and the broader Pacific Ocean, where existing territorial disputes and rising maritime military confrontations add further to the complexity of maintaining peace and stability. This development will affect China’s national security posture and how the United States and other countries respond in turn. Consequently, China’s nuclear-armed submarines have the potential to substantially reshape the national security landscape and the strategic stability of the Asia Pacific region.
Although China is just in the early stages of deploying its SSBNs, the rapid pace of technological and operational advances and the lengthy nature of military procurement timelines are already exacerbating existing threat perceptions and generating important policy reactions in the United States and other regional countries. Such interactions are posing important challenges to U.S.-China strategic stability that are not yet well understood. U.S. and Chinese analysts, military brass, and policymakers alike should carefully reassess and (when necessary) recalibrate their strategic assumptions, national security policies, and operational practices. There are constructive steps that Beijing and Washington can take—both by themselves and in concert—to responsibly manage the challenges to strategic stability posed by China’s evolving deployment of nuclear assets at sea and the subsequent policy responses of the United States and its allies in Asia.
1 U.S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, February 2018).