U.S. President Joe Biden speaks virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the White House, November 2021
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the White House, November 2021
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised the specter of nuclear war, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed his nuclear forces at an elevated state of alert and has warned that any effort by outside parties to interfere in the war would result in “consequences you have never seen.” Such saber-rattling has understandably made headlines and drawn notice in Washington. But if China attempted to forcibly invade Taiwan and the United States came to Taipei’s aid, the threat of escalation could outstrip even the current nerve-wracking situation in Europe.

A recent war game, conducted by the Center for a New American Security in conjunction with the NBC program “Meet the Press,” demonstrated just how quickly such a conflict could escalate. The game posited a fictional crisis set in 2027, with the aim of examining how the United States and China might act under a certain set of conditions. The game demonstrated that China’s military modernization and expansion of its nuclear arsenal—not to mention the importance Beijing places on unification with Taiwan—mean that, in the real world, a fight between China and the United States could very well go nuclear.

Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway republic. If the Chinese Communist Party decides to invade the island, its leaders may not be able to accept failure without seriously harming the regime’s legitimacy. Thus, the CCP might be willing to take significant risks to ensure that the conflict ends on terms that it finds acceptable. That would mean convincing the United States and its allies that the costs of defending Taiwan are so high that it is not worth contesting the invasion. While China has several ways to achieve that goal, from Beijing’s perspective, using nuclear weapons may be the most effective means to keep the United States out of the conflict.

Gearing For Battle

China is several decades into transforming its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into what the Chinese President Xi Jinping has called a “world-class military” that could defeat any third party that comes to Taiwan’s defense. China’s warfighting strategy, known as “anti-access/area denial,” rests on being able to project conventional military power out several thousand miles in order to prevent the American military, in particular, from effectively countering a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Meanwhile, a growing nuclear arsenal provides Beijing with coercive leverage as well as potentially new warfighting capabilities, which could increase the risks of war and escalation.

China has historically possessed only a few hundred ground-based nuclear weapons. But last year, nuclear scholars at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Federation of American Scientists identified three missile silo fields under construction in the Xinjiang region. The Financial Times reported that China might have carried out tests of hypersonic gliders as a part of an orbital bombardment system that could evade missile defenses and deliver nuclear weapons to targets in the continental United States. The U.S. Department of Defense projects that by 2030, China will have around 1,000 deliverable warheads—more than triple the number it currently possesses. Based on these projections, Chinese leaders may believe that as early as five years from now the PLA will have made enough conventional and nuclear gains that it could fight and win a war to unify with Taiwan.

A fight between China and the United States could very well go nuclear.

Our recent war game—in which members of Congress, former government officials, and subject matter experts assumed the roles of senior national security decision makers in China and the United States—illustrated that a U.S.-Chinese war could escalate quickly. For one thing, it showed that both countries would face operational incentives to strike military forces on the other’s territory. In the game, such strikes were intended to be calibrated to avoid escalation; both sides tried to walk a fine line by attacking only military targets. But such attacks crossed red lines for both countries, and produced a tit-for-tat cycle of attacks that broadened the scope and intensity of the conflict.

For instance, in the simulation, China launched a preemptive attack against key U.S. bases in the Indo-Pacific region. The attacks targeted Guam, in particular, because it is a forward operating base critical to U.S. military operations in Asia, and because since it is a territory, and not a U.S. state, the Chinese team viewed striking it as less escalatory than attacking other possible targets. In response, the United States targeted Chinese military ships in ports and surrounding facilities, but refrained from other attacks on the Chinese mainland. Nevertheless, both sides perceived these strikes as attacks on their home territory, crossing an important threshold. Instead of mirror-imaging their own concerns about attacks on their territory, each side justified the initial blows as military necessities that were limited in nature and would be seen by the other as such. Responses to the initial strikes only escalated things further as the U.S. team responded to China’s moves by hitting targets in mainland China, and the Chinese team responded to Washington’s strikes by attacking sites in Hawaii.

A New Era

One particularly alarming finding from the war game is that China found it necessary to threaten to go nuclear from the start in order to ward off outside support for Taiwan. This threat was repeated throughout the game, particularly after mainland China had been attacked. At times, efforts to erode Washington’s will so that it would back down from the fight received greater attention by the China team than the invasion of Taiwan itself. But China had difficulty convincing the United States that its nuclear threats were credible. In real life, China’s significant and recent changes to its nuclear posture and readiness may impact other nations’ views, as its nuclear threats may not be viewed as credible given its stated doctrine of no first use, its smaller but burgeoning nuclear arsenal, and lack of experience making nuclear threats. This may push China to preemptively detonate a nuclear weapon to reinforce the credibility of its warning.

China might also resort to a demonstration of its nuclear might because of constraints on its long-range conventional strike capabilities. Five years from now, the PLA still will have a very limited ability to launch conventional attacks beyond locations in the “second island chain” in the Pacific; namely, Guam and Palau. Unable to strike the U.S. homeland with conventional weapons, China would struggle to impose costs on the American people. Up until a certain point in the game, the U.S. team felt its larger nuclear arsenal was sufficient to deter escalation and did not fully appreciate the seriousness of China’s threats. As a result, China felt it needed to escalate significantly to send a message that the U.S. homeland could be at risk if Washington did not back down. Despite China’s stated “no-first use” nuclear policy, the war game resulted in Beijing detonating a nuclear weapon off the coast of Hawaii as a demonstration. The attack caused relatively little destruction, as the electromagnetic pulse only damaged the electronics of ships in the immediate vicinity but did not directly impact the U.S. state. The war game ended before the U.S. team could respond, but it is likely that the first use of a nuclear weapon since World War II would have provoked a response.

The most likely paths to nuclear escalation in a fight between the United States and China are different from those that were most likely during the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the United States feared a massive, bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack, which would precipitate a full-scale strategic exchange. In a confrontation over Taiwan, however, Beijing could employ nuclear weapons in a more limited way to signal resolve or to improve its chances of winning on the battlefield. It is unclear how a war would proceed after that kind of limited nuclear use and whether the United States could de-escalate the situation while still achieving its objectives.   

An Ounce of Prevention

The clear lesson from the war game is that the United States needs to strengthen its conventional capabilities in the Indo-Pacific to ensure that China never views an invasion of Taiwan as a prudent tactical move. To do so, the United States will need to commit to maintaining its conventional military superiority by expanding its stockpiles of long-range munitions and investing in undersea capabilities. Washington must also be able to conduct offensive operations inside the first and second island chains even while under attack. This will require access to new bases to distribute U.S. forces, enhance their survivability, and ensure that they can effectively defend Taiwan in the face of China’s attacks.

Moreover, the United States needs to develop an integrated network of partners willing to contribute to Taiwan’s defense. Allies are an asymmetric advantage: the United States has them, and China does not. The United States should deepen strategic and operational planning with key partners to send a strong signal of resolve to China. As part of these planning efforts, the United States and its allies will need to develop war-winning military strategies that do not cross Chinese red-lines. The game highlighted just how difficult this task may be; what it did not highlight is the complexity of developing military strategies that integrate the strategic objectives and military capacities of multiple nations.

Moving forward, military planners in the United States and in Washington’s allies and partners must grapple with the fact that, in a conflict over Taiwan, China would consider all conventional and nuclear options to be on the table. And the United States is running out of time to strengthen deterrence and keep China from believing an invasion of Taiwan could be successful. The biggest risk is that Washington and its friends choose not to seize the moment and act: a year or two from now, it might already be too late.

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  • STACIE L. PETTYJOHN is a senior fellow and director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. 
  • BECCA WASSER is a fellow in the defense program and co-lead of The Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security.
  • More By Stacie L. Pettyjohn
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