China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles at a military parade on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019. Photo: AFP via Getty/Greg Baker

There seems to be a growing feeling in certain circles in America that the next nuclear arms race is at the gates.

In recent days, two American journalistic heavyweights, David Ignatius and Fred Kaplan pointed to the ongoing nuclear and missile rearmament process in China. The fundamental point is that according to opinion-makers China has acquired second-strike nuclear reaction capability.

This is a fundamental point in the balance of nuclear terror. The ability to react after a first nuclear strike means that even if an enemy were to attack first with a nuclear offensive, the attacked country would retain the capacity for a counterattack. So far only the US and Russia officially have such capabilities.

If China has acquired it or is about to acquire it, global military and political dynamics will change. In fact, China reportedly has trucks that carry concealed, ballistic missiles capable of being operational in a short time always on the road. Given their number and the size of the country, some of them would survive a first strike and could launch their missiles at a possible first attacker.

America and Russia have built their arsenals over many years and at the same time have defined their political and military rules of engagement with increasing clarity over the same long period.

Today, however, the US and China find themselves with very robust arsenals (even if the US remains far more armed) but their political and military rules of engagement remain very confused. Hence there is an increased possibility of mutual accidents and errors.

Furthermore, the great rapprochement between the US and China over the last 50 years has been based on a series of military collaborations, namely against the USSR at the northern Chinese border, in Afghanistan and over Vietnam, as well as a series of strategic “ambiguities”, for lack of a better term, such as those over the Sino-Indian border, Taiwan, the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Xinhua

Today, US-China military collaborations are no longer or are obsolete. Moscow (formerly a common enemy of Beijing and Washington) is linked to China while Vietnam (previously a battlefield foe of the United States) is now close to Washington. The various terrains of strategic ambiguity are still vague and it is not clear how and when they can be defined.

For instance, What are the true and mutual insurmountable limits (not bluster) on Taiwan, the South China Sea, or the Senkaku? Nobody really knows. That is, we are in a situation like in Europe between 1945 and 1948 when the US, Great Britain, and France were aligned against the USSR.

However, then only the US had the bomb and the world had just emerged from a war that no one wanted to resume. So the European borders, which became the Iron Curtain, were drawn without major conflicts.

Today, the strategic ambiguities must be tracked while all have massive nuclear arsenals. Moreover, the memory of a great destructive war is far away, so war fantasies could move more freely on their own.

Furthermore, back then, the 1950 Korean War and the armistice of 1953 gave the two blocs the opportunity to test each other’s limits. For this reason, the US did not intervene in the 1956 protests in Hungary because there was an unwritten agreement that the country was in the Soviet sphere and a direct intervention would have triggered much greater reactions.

Today, however, we have not had a conflict in which the two sides have established the limits, and even if there was such a conflict, given China’s capacity for nuclear reaction, many things could quickly degenerate.

Limits should be negotiated quickly, but this could tilt the situation even more towards a full-fledged Cold War with possible important economic repercussions, whereas the present ambiguities still give room for hope and positive developments. But if limits are not negotiated, the chance of an accident increases.

Moreover, there are questions about what America will do in response to this new Chinese capacity. There are also questions about what nuclear North Korea will do.

American missiles on pointy display at the war museum in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: AFP/Philippe Lopez

Opinions are divided in America. One careful observer from Washington, Chris Nelson, recommends a halt to US nuclear rearmament. In fact, the US today has a much greater military capacity than China and nuclear rearmament would divert resources from the current American plan to relaunch infrastructure and factory production.

North Korea, which is now more under Beijing’s umbrella, could seek to engage in a kind of “privateering war” for itself and for others in this already confused scenario. Then there is Russia, whose arsenal – especially if computed together with China’s – could cause dramatic new strategic calculations.

So what will America and other Asian countries decide to do? In a simplified manner, we can say that there was an old division of opinion: military elites fanned the fire while the business ones were doves attracted by China’s market opportunities.

Until recently, the business elites prevailed. Today, the balance is shifting faster and faster in favor of the military elites, not least because the business opportunities in the American and European stimulus plans for the post-Covid period could provide more opportunities than China.

Plus, many businessmen grew wary about the realities of dealing with the Chinese in a sustained and mutually beneficial way. And security concerns always prevail in the end over business concerns in dangerous conditions.

The idea that China poses the same sort of strategic threat as the former USSR is gaining traction and increasing acceptance in Washington.

It is a very complex issue and such a comparative statement badly captures the whole set of ideas and concerns building up in Washington about China (and also about Russia.) But this consensus, once affirmed, will obey a logic that is difficult to stop or steer.

This story first appeared on the Settimana News website and is republished with permission. To so the original, please click here.