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Photo from The Hudson Institute Report, Modernizing the Nuclear Triad

The Tripolar Problem

Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr.—

The past year has witnessed the continuing decline in U.S.-China relations. Last February, Chinese president Xi Jinping declared his friendship with Vladimir Putin had “no limits,” only days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In August, angered by a U.S. congressional delegation’s visit to Taiwan, China conducted large-scale military exercises surrounding the island as part of an ongoing campaign of intimidation. Now there are revelations of a Chinese reconnaissance balloon breaching U.S. airspace. Despite Beijing’s denials that the balloon was for meteorological research, Washington declared it to be on a surveillance mission. Indeed, once the U.S. declared the balloon’s presence over Montana, it quickly ceased loitering and began moving toward the East Coast.

Although these events captured the headlines, arguably the most provocative of China’s actions came last summer with revelations that it is rapidly expanding is nuclear forces, from a few hundred weapons to perhaps 1,500 or more by the mid-2030s. A strategic arsenal of this size would match those of both Russia and the United States. In so doing, China would displace the two-power nuclear system established some sixty years ago with a tripolar system comprising of three major nuclear powers. This tripolar system promises to be significantly less stable than the existing bipolar system. Put simply, it will likely make deterring a nuclear war more difficult while increasing the prospects of a nuclear-arms race.

For example, “parity”—a rough equivalence in nuclear forces—has been viewed by both America and Soviet Russia as enhancing stability between them for the last half century. The idea is that if neither side enjoys a significant advantage in the size of its arsenal, the temptation to exploit that advantage to intimidate, or even attack, the other is reduced. Yet parity is not possible when the rivalry expands from two states to three, since each nuclear power’s arsenal cannot be equal in size to the other two arsenals combined. For the United States, which views both China and Russia as hostile states, a tripolar system where each power possesses 1,500 strategic nuclear weapons finds Washington having to plan against a combined force of 3,000. To maintain parity, then, the U.S. would have to double its current arsenal, an act that could trigger similar responses from Beijing and Moscow, leading to an arms race with no clear winner.

The risk of undermining the delicate nuclear balance of terror does not end with the parity problem. There is also the matter of “assured destruction.” This holds that a nuclear-armed state’s incentive to attack its rival is greatly reduced when the potential victim can withstand a full-scale nuclear surprise attack, and still retain enough weapons to destroy the attacker’s society as a functioning entity in a retaliatory strike. Robert Oppenheimer likened the situation as comparable to two scorpions in a bottle. Each could threaten the other’s survival, but only at the risk of its own. But, as with parity, in a tripolar system it’s far from clear how all three states could arrive at a stable solution with respect to an assured destruction capability.

We are only scratching the surface when it comes to the implications of China’s decision to supersize its nuclear arsenal. India, another nuclear rival of China, also has the means to ramp up its nuclear forces, possibly triggering a similar action by its rival, Pakistan. It’s also possible that an arms race may lead us back to a bipolar system. The Cold War found Soviet Russia and the United States with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. It may be that, despite Putin’s move to suspend its participation in the New START treaty, an economically crippled Russia would not be able to keep pace were China and America to build arsenals well beyond today’s 1,550 treaty-limited constraints.

Fortunately, we have some time to think through the implications of these and other changes in the character of the strategic competition, before China’s nuclear buildup moves us into a tripolar system. Yet given the wicked problems the three-power system will pose, there is no time to lose. Keeping the Nuclear Genie in his bottle will require sustained intellectual effort by our best strategic thinkers.

Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., is a West Point and Harvard graduate, award-winning author, and prominent military strategist. His books on military strategy and history include The Last WarriorSeven Deadly Scenarios, and The Army and Vietnam. He lives in Leesburg, VA.

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