How to avoid nuclear war with China

By Richard L. Garwin, Frank von Hippel | March 13, 2023

There was a major uprising in Western Europe against the nuclear arms race in parallel with the Nuclear Weapon Free movement in the United States, as can be seen in this October 22, 1983 photo of a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protest in London. Photo by Jean Guichard/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

How to avoid nuclear war with China

By Richard L. Garwin, Frank von Hippel | March 13, 2023

The United States is in a developing military confrontation with China over Taiwan, made more dangerous by the enormous perceived stakes: global leadership and the future of democracy. When the United States was faced with analogous stark choices during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, nuclear threats and even “limited” resort to nuclear weapons became more thinkable.

Objectively, this prospective confrontation is absurd; China and the United States should be focused on improving life for their citizens, not on threatening the future of civilization. Yet Kevin Rudd, a former Australian Prime Minister who spent years in both China and the United States, reports in his 2022 book, An Avoidable War, that “[i]n the American strategic establishment, China has been transformed from a strategic partner into a strategic competitor—and for most parts of the American elite, to a strategic adversary—all roughly in the handful of years since Xi Jinping came to power in China in 2012.”

In a speech to the US intelligence community in July 2021, President Biden noted that he had spent more time with Xi Jinping as a world leader than had anyone else and expressed his concern about Chinese intentions this way:

“[Xi] is deadly earnest about [China] becoming the most powerful military force in the world, as well as the … most prominent economy in the world by… the 2040s… [W]e have to work in cooperation with nations like China and Russia that are our competitors—and possibly mortal competitors… to meet the existential threats, for example, of climate change. There are certain things that are in our mutual interest. But… we can’t be lulled into thinking that that’s enough and that we don’t really have to keep a watchful eye on what the ultimate objective of the other team is.”

Cooperation with China will not be easy. Japan took over Taiwan during China’s “century of humiliation” that ended with World War II. Xi Jinping is intent on restoring the island to Beijing’s control and, with his command of China’s internal media, has mobilized public opinion behind him.

During the US Cold War with the Soviet Union—even after the near-death experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and although the US deplored the Soviet Unions repressions and competed with it for global influence—the two countries avoided direct conflict and worked to limit their nuclear arms race.

A transnational network of scientists played an important role in “track 2” non-governmental discussions, proposing cooperative measures that helped end the US-Russia nuclear arms race (Evangelista 1999). We were part of that diverse effort and have been involved for decades as well in discussions of nuclear arms control and other matters with Chinese counterparts. Track 2 and official diplomatic efforts may be useful in forestalling a US-China military confrontation. Our recommendations on pursuing them follow.


Taiwan, the new West Berlin?

Over the past 10 years under Xi Jinping, China has become repressive at home and domineering regionally. It is explicitly challenging the global leadership the United States used to shape the current institutional and “rules-based” international order (the UN, World Bank, World Trade Organization, etc.) after World War II.

Some of the dynamics involved in the US-China confrontation appear generic. In his 2017 book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? Graham Allison reports that “[r]eviewing the past five hundred years, [we] have identified sixteen cases in which an ascending power challenged an established power. Twelve of these rivalries resulted in war.”

Taiwan, an island less than 200 kilometers off China’s coast, is now a potential flashpoint in the new US-China Cold War—similar to West Berlin in the US-Soviet Cold War, but with Taiwan having a far greater role in the global economy.

From 1945 until 1989, West Berlin was a Western-protected enclave inside Soviet-occupied East Germany. Soviet and East German conventional forces could have quickly overwhelmed West Berlin’s US, UK, and French garrison forces or simply mounted a blockade—which they did on the ground but not in the air—for almost a year over 1948 and 1949. The United States made clear, however, that hostilities over West Berlin could quickly escalate to nuclear war.

The US did not adequately appreciate the pressures behind this confrontation—which almost did result in a nuclear war in 1961 (Kaplan 2020). The fundamental problem became clear only after East Germany built the Berlin Wall and the confrontation cooled: Thousands of highly educated, working-age East German citizens were escaping daily to the West through West Berlin. For another three decades, free West Berlin co-existed with its surrounding repressive neighbor, until the leadership in Moscow changed and, astoundingly, allowed the wall to fall and, eventually, for Germany to be reunited.

Taiwan was part of China for hundreds of years until Japan occupied it for a half-century from 1895 to 1945. China wants it back. Since World War II, Taiwan has been a sensitive issue for the United States, which sided with the Nationalist Party forces in China’s civil war against the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong. After the Nationalists lost the war in 1949, they retreated to Taiwan under the protection of the US Seventh Fleet, and as the US State Department’s Office of the Historian puts it, “[f]or more than 20 years … there were few contacts, limited trade and no diplomatic ties between [China and the United States]” (Office of the Historian n.d.).

In 1972, President Nixon broke that diplomatic ice with a visit to mainland China. At the end of his visit, which led to US recognition of the Chinese Communist Party as the government of China, the two countries issued the carefully worded “Shanghai Communiqué,” which said, in part: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

In the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, however, Congress added an explicit warning against any military moves by mainland China against Taiwan: “It is the policy of the United States [that] any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, [is] a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

The act furthermore asserted the United States would “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and… maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

This commitment continues to have broad support in the US Congress and executive branch and among US citizens.

During its seven decades under US protection, Taiwan evolved from a repressive dictatorship into a thriving, technologically advanced democracy with a population of 24 million. Among other industries, it hosts the huge Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC, which currently is—thanks to the support of a network of European, Japanese, and US chip designers and equipment and software suppliers—the world leader in the production of high-density computer chips.

Deng Xiaoping, who became China’s leader after Mao Zedong died in 1976, proposed reunification with Taiwan on the basis of “one country, two systems.” Taiwan’s government refused, but in 1997, Britain ceded Hong Kong to China under just such an arrangement, initially set to prevail for 50 years in that city. “One country, two systems” lost all credibility, however, after 2020, when China, under Xi Jinping, suppressed Hong Kong’s democracy movement. The constituency among Taiwan’s population interested in placing their island under Beijing’s control has become very small.

Nevertheless, Xi Jinping appears determined that Taiwan will become part of China during his presidency. This does not create a firm deadline, however; in 2018, China’s National People’s Congress changed the constitution to remove the term limit on the president and, in October 2022, Xi was elected to a third term. At age 69, he, like Mao, may be president for life. Of course, history is full of surprises, and China’s direction could change again.

Following an August 2022 visit to Taiwan by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, China mounted a massive, coordinated demonstration of how it could use its naval, air, and rocket power to blockade Taiwan. These war games were accompanied by an intense domestic and international propaganda effort.

The military balance around Taiwan has shifted. For 70 years, Chinese conventional forces were unable to challenge the US Seventh Fleet’s control of the Taiwan Strait. Now, US ships far beyond Taiwan are exposed to attack by China’s highly capable, long-range anti-ship guided missiles, including maneuvering ballistic missiles and, perhaps, hypersonic boost/glide vehicles, as well. (See Figure 1).

To prevent global catastrophe, governments must first admit there’s a problem
map showing China's anti-ship capabilities
Figure 1. US Government representation of the ranges of China’s anti-ship capabilities out to areas well beyond Taiwan. (CDCMs: coastal defense cruise missiles; ASBMs: anti-ship ballistic missiles; one nm [nautical mile] = 1.852 kilometers [km]). Source: Office of US Naval Intelligence, 2015.

As former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis laid out in his book with co-author Elliot Ackerman, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, if China were to sink—or even disable—a US aircraft carrier, the resulting escalation might lead to nuclear war between China and the United States. How to deter China from invading Taiwan, and how to come to Taiwan’s defense if it is blockaded or invaded, have become major topics of debate within the US national security community.


China’s nuclear buildup

Before Xi Jinping’s rise to the presidency, China appears to have been satisfied with a slowly evolving “minimum nuclear deterrent.” In 2010, according to US estimates, China had about 30 nuclear warheads on “strategic” ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. The attitude of the Chinese leadership, largely shaped by Mao, appears to have been that, if China could credibly threaten to destroy a few Soviet or US cities, that would be enough to deter a nuclear attack by either superpower.

In 2021, however, commercial imaging satellites observed China excavating deep cylindrical “silos” for about 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), mostly in desert areas south of Mongolia (Kristensen and Korda 2021). If those silos were all loaded with China’s latest ICBM, the D-41, which reportedly can carry up to three warheads, they could host up to 900 warheads and bring China’s nuclear arsenal much closer to the number of strategic warheads that the US and Russia each currently deploy (see Figure 2). One obvious interpretation of this buildup: The group around Xi Jinping wishes to disabuse the United States of any idea that it could resort to nuclear threats in a confrontation over Taiwan.

graph showing US vs China deployed nuclear warheads
Figure 2. Historical numbers of US and Chinese deployed nuclear warheads on strategic-range ballistic missiles are indicated by solid lines. A range of projections for China out to 2030 is indicated by dotted red lines; the projections depend in large part on whether China puts three-warhead ICBMs in all the missile silos it has under construction. The numbers shown do not include bomber-carried or reserve and non-strategic warheads. Including those, the US and Russia are estimated to have a total of about 4,000 nuclear warheads each. The US Department of Defense estimated that, in 2021, “China’s operational nuclear warheads stockpile surpassed 400.”

The US Department of Defense projects that China could field a total of about 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads in 2030. That is a worst-case projection. China has given no indication of its intent for the 300 new silos—whether they are to house that number of three-warhead ICBMs or perhaps some fraction of that number of single-warhead ICBMs in a deceptive “shell game” basing system to reduce vulnerability to a strategically disarming strike.

This buildup may be partly in response to the long-range, precision-attack capabilities with conventional weapons that the United States demonstrated dramatically in its 1991 destruction of Saddam Hussein’s occupying army in Kuwait, and that have been demonstrated again recently in Ukraine. China has its own capabilities for precision attack.

Some in China’s military may fear that, as some US analysts have suggested, in a future crisis the United States could use accurate long-range cruise or ballistic missiles armed with low-yield nuclear or even conventional warheads for a pre-emptive attack on China’s nuclear deterrent.

China’s worries about the adequacy of its nuclear deterrent were compounded in 2001 when President George W. Bush announced his decision to take the United States out of the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which limited each to 100 interceptor missiles at a single site. This created the concern among Beijing’s analysts that, after absorbing a US first strike, China might have too few surviving nuclear missiles to penetrate a future, potentially much larger and more advanced US ballistic-missile defense system. We believe this fear is exaggerated because simple light-weight decoys and other countermeasures can be deployed to neutralize interception of warheads in space. But we are not Chinese worst-case analysts.

One response to China’s construction of hundreds of ICBM silos has been a call for a new nuclear arms race. Given that the United States will soon confront two hostile nuclear superpowers, this argument goes, Washington should scrap New START and double the number of US deployed strategic warheads.


Lessons from the US Cold War with the Soviet Union

That we would survive our nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union was not a foregone conclusion. In addition to the near misses during the crises over access to Berlin in 1961 and the secret Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, there was a near miss in November 1983, at a time of bellicose rhetoric from the early Reagan Administration. The Soviet leadership was nearly convinced that NATO’s autumn military exercise, Able Archer, was preparation for an actual nuclear attack; Soviet fighter-bombers in East Europe were loaded with nuclear bombs that would have been used in a preemptive strike. Fortunately, the Soviet leadership did not pull the trigger before the exercise ended and both sides relaxed. Over the years, however, early-warning systems have produced many false alarms of incoming nuclear missile attacks, any one of which, if handled differently, could have led to the launch of the hundreds of US and Soviet ICBMs that were (and still are) in a launch-on-warning posture.

One reason that the United States, the Soviet Union, and the world survived the Cold War is obvious: The two nuclear “superpowers” never had a direct armed conflict. The Soviet Union assisted North Korea in the Korean War (1950-53) and North Vietnam during part of the Vietnam War (1964-73), and the United States supported the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89). There was, however, no acknowledged direct combat between the two countries’ forces in those wars. NATO and Russia are observing similar constraints today in Ukraine

The analogous US posture in the case of a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be to provide Taiwan with defensive equipment but not fight Chinese forces directly. The United States has not declared, however, that it will observe such a limit. In fact, in a May 2022 press conference, in response to a question on whether he would be willing to get the United States involved militarily to defend Taiwan, President Biden, answered, “Yes, that’s the commitment we made.” White House staff hastened to state that President Biden’s words did not indicate a change in established US policy. In September, he said it again and the White House staff again stated that US policy had not changed.

Apparently, President Biden has been attempting to deter President Xi by creating uncertainty about what the United States would do.


Nuclear arms control

It is critical that the United States and China not demonize each other in the way the United States and Soviet Union did so dangerously during the 1950s and again in the early 1980s. Fortunately, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as the situation threatened to get out of control, the leaders of the two countries recognized their shared vulnerability and humanity and devised a peaceful resolution to the confrontation.

After that experience, the two countries began to cooperate to control the nuclear danger with arms control agreements, starting with the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which banned nuclear explosion testing everywhere but underground. Ongoing arms-control negotiations can reduce tensions because they signify a shared understanding of the danger of a nuclear confrontation and a willingness to cooperate to reduce that danger.

Many in the United States have seen China’s technological advances as the initiation of an arms race. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, described a Chinese satellite circumnavigating the globe carrying a hypersonic glide reentry vehicle that could fly under US exo-atmospheric missile interceptors as “very close [to] a Sputnik moment.”

The original Sputnik moment occurred in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the first Earth satellite, “Sputnik I,” which dramatized the possibility of intercontinental nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. The Soviet Union and United States raced to deploy more than 1,000 ICBMs each during the subsequent decade. Similarly, the United States has responded to recent Chinese and Russian interest in hypersonic glide vehicles with a proliferation of competing Navy, Army, Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Project Agency hypersonic development programs (all focused initially on conventional attack) and launched a Missile Defense Agency program to develop defenses against Chinese and Russian hypersonic weapons. The United States considered hypersonic glide vehicles in the 1960s but did not deploy them because simpler countermeasures to ballistic missile defenses appeared adequate. They still are.


What about nuclear arms control with China?

The Trump administration insisted that China join the US and Russia in trilateral negotiations over future nuclear arms reductions. China’s response was the same as it has been for decades, but with resettings of the goal posts as Washington and Moscow reduced their nuclear arsenals: China will be willing to join only when the United States and Russia have reduced their nuclear-weapon stocks closer to China’s level.

But there are possibilities for progress in regard to arms control efforts and China. As Figure 2 shows, the United States and Russia have come down a long way, while the recent discovery of missile silos under construction suggests China plans to considerably increase its deployments.

Nuclear-free NYC: How New Yorkers are disarming the legacies of the Manhattan Project

China could agree that, if Russia and the US continue to reduce, it will not exceed a self-imposed limit on the size of its nuclear arsenal, and that, when Russia and the US approach that limit, it will join in the reductions process. It could also indicate a willingness to increase transparency about the size of its nuclear force.

For their parts, Russia and the United States could join China in declaring no-first-use policies for nuclear weapons. Such a declaration signals a recognition that crossing the boundary from conventional to nuclear war is extraordinarily dangerous. President Biden made this clear in his response to nuclear threats President Putin made to buttress Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”

As our late colleague Freeman Dyson pointed out, even if a country’s adversaries cannot rely on a no-first-use declaration, its own military must develop contingency plans in case it is not allowed to resort to nuclear weapons in a crisis. Under pressure from key foreign allies, factions in Congress, and the Pentagon not to take any options off the table, however, the Biden administration’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review pointedly avoided such a declaration.

Russia and the United States have mutual but perhaps exaggerated concerns about the other’s first-strike abilities. These concerns have resulted in their silo-based ICBMs being maintained in launch-on-warning postures. China’s decision to build hundreds of missile silos, technically vulnerable to even a non-nuclear first strike, suggests that it too may adopt that same dangerous posture. The United States, which always has about 800 warheads in ballistic missile submarines, untargetable at sea, could take the lead by unilaterally renouncing launch on warning and agreeing to discuss the associated dangers with China and Russia. Once again, Russia and China could not have confidence that the United States would adhere to this policy in a crisis. But the US military would have to plan for the possibility that the country’s ICBMs would not be launched unless another country had used nuclear weapons against America or its allies first. In the most optimistic imagining of such a policy future, the Pentagon and its congressional supporters might even decide—as arms controllers led by former Secretary of Defense William Perry have urged—to retire the vulnerable ICBMs.

China and Russia are also concerned by the lack of limits on US ballistic missile defense since 2002, when President George W. Bush abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). Given the ineffectiveness of current and foreseeable US ballistic missile defenses against Russia (and even against current Chinese strategic forces), the US should be willing to limit its deployments to levels that do not provoke Chinese and Russian buildups. This could be included in the initial agenda for arms-control discussions between China and the United States. The 1972 Soviet-US ABM Treaty was coupled with their first treaty, SALT I, limiting the buildup of their offensive strategic forces. This could be a useful precedent for arms control negotiations between China and the United States.[1]

China, Russia, and the United States also should engage in “strategic stability” talks—perhaps in pairs or, with France and the United Kingdom, as the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The US and Russia began such talks after the Biden-Putin June 2021 summit in Geneva. Two sessions were held before the United States suspended the talks in February 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine. The talks should be resumed in parallel with “track 2” non-governmental brainstorming—perhaps also including governmental experts in their personal capacities (track 1.5). Infrequent in-person meetings can be much more productive if augmented by more frequent virtual meetings, as has become the norm in the COVID-19 era.

Postures that increase incentives for a first strike are of particular concern. Missile defense has that effect; it increases the concerns of an adversary that, after absorbing the losses from a first strike, its surviving offensive missiles might be too depleted to penetrate the attacking country’s defenses. Similarly, silo-based multiple-warhead missiles increase the incentive for a first strike by an adversary country because, if its warheads are accurate enough, one attacking warhead can destroy multiple warheads. This is the logic that led the United States to decrease the number of warheads on each of its silo-based missiles from three to one. This should have allowed US Strategic Command to take its ICBMs off a launch-on-warning posture.[2] Unfortunately, it did not.


The need for a new generation of informed activists

Physicists have historically had a special relationship to nuclear arms control through their technical and analytical expertise. After the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, young physicists from the US World War II nuclear-weapon effort (the Manhattan Project) made major efforts to help inform Congress on the dangers of a nuclear arms race and how they might be mitigated. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, US physicists and engineers helped informthe public and Congress about the limitations of ballistic missile defenses, which helped lay the basis for the 1972 US-Soviet treaty limiting ballistic missile defense and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) with which it was paired.

In that tradition, the two of us joined with Steve Fetter in a 2018 article, “Nuclear weapons dangers and policy options.” We warned that, contrary to hopes at the end of the Cold War, the danger from nuclear weapons has not gone away and urged physicists to inform themselves and reengage in the policy debate. Physicists have reengaged to some degree, including through a new Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction, which now has a membership of about 900. But many more activists are needed.

All concerned citizens should educate themselves on these matters. As J. Robert Oppenheimer said in 1948, “What we don’t understand, we explain to each other.”

As a result of the early 1980s public uprising against the nuclear arms race—the US nuclear-weapon “freeze” movement (see Figure at top of page)—Congress became quite knowledgeable and active in nuclear arms control. For example, a congressional requirement in 1992 gave the final push toward the 1996 Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty that, although not yet legally in force, has been signed but not ratified by the United States and complied with since 1998 by every state possessing nuclear weapons, except North Korea.

Three decades later, however, with a few notable exceptions, the generation in Congress knowledgeable about nuclear arms control has moved on, leaving US nuclear-weapons policy in control of those congressmen with nuclear-weapon-related jobs (at major nuclear bases, nuclear-weapon laboratories, and production facilities) in their districts or states.

Although a growing number of countries without nuclear weapons have joined the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, renewed large-scale anti-nuclear-arms-race activism has not yet penetrated the nuclear-armed countries. As a result, Congress has not for decades focused on reducing the existential danger from nuclear weapons.

To inform Congress and engage colleagues from other nuclear weapon states—including China—on the nuclear threat, citizens and scientists must educate themselves on that issue. We have ourselves for decades been involved in discussions with our Chinese colleagues on nuclear dangers without either side being accused of violating secrecy requirements. Such discussions can, for example, include the potential dangers from hair-trigger nuclear postures, offense-defense arms races, space debris from anti-satellite tests, and the potential climate impacts of stratospheric black soot from cities set on fire by nuclear explosions.

Our late colleague, Sidney D. Drell, made a commitment that nuclear war would not happen “on my watch” and spent much of his life’s effort on making this resolve a reality. If we are to continue to avoid a nuclear holocaust, a significant number in younger generations must display equal determination in insisting that it not happen on their watch, either. Such personal resolve includes support for and, if possible, engagement in the hard work of actual negotiations between China, Russia, and the United States and the achievement of effective unilateral risk-reduction actions. Success—and survival—are not foreordained.



[1] It is worth noting in this regard that the Biden Administration’s 2022 Missile Defense Review (MDR) does not contain a key sentence in the Trump Administration 2019 MDR: “The United States will not accept any limitations on the development or deployment of missile defense capabilities.” Instead, the Biden Administration’s MDR states “the United States recognizes the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defense systems. Strengthening mutual transparency and predictability with regard to these systems could help reduce the risk of conflict.”

[2] The “use ‘em or lose ‘em” instability of US silo-based ICBMs applies only in the context of Russian strategic forces and not in regard to the currently much smaller Chinese force.

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1 year ago

In my lifetime, I’ve seen the Cold War, been on the Frontline of nuclear disarmament and other campaigns to save the earth, and met amazing warriors and seen the beauty that lies in the hearts of the compassionate. That the threats of nuclear war, that nations feel comfortable using those threats, is anathema. All I can think is WTF? It’s time to decide once and for all: life or death? Yes, it IS that simple.

Gary Childress
Gary Childress
1 year ago
Reply to  Raven

I’m sorry for the way you feel, Raven. I wish there were something I as an individual ordinary US citizen could do to stop what at least some world leaders seem to be pushing us toward (or perhaps this is a cooperative disaster that most if not all of us all responsible for). But I feel very hopeless and unable to affect the amount of positive change that is needed in this situation. I’m agnostic with regards to religion and stuff but if there is a God out there somewhere, then all I want, all I’ll ever ask for from… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by Gary Childress