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Lawrence Wittner

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Is a Nuclear War With China Possible?

Posted: 11/30/11 10:36 PM ET

While nuclear weapons exist, there remains a danger that they will be used. After all, for centuries international conflicts have led to wars, with nations employing their deadliest weapons. The current deterioration of U.S. relations with China might end up providing us with yet another example of this phenomenon.

The gathering tension between the United States and China is clear enough. Disturbed by China's growing economic and military strength, the U.S. government recently challenged China's claims in the South China Sea, increased the U.S. military presence in Australia, and deepened U.S. military ties with other nations in the Pacific region. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the United States was "asserting our own position as a Pacific power."

But need this lead to nuclear war?

Not necessarily. And yet, there are signs that it could. After all, both the United States and China possess large numbers of nuclear weapons. The U.S. government threatened to attack China with nuclear weapons during the Korean War and, later, during their conflict over the future of China's offshore islands, Quemoy and Matsu. In the midst of the latter confrontation, President Dwight Eisenhower declared publicly, and chillingly, that U.S. nuclear weapons would "be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else."

Of course, China didn't have nuclear weapons then. Now that it does, perhaps the behavior of national leaders will be more temperate. But the loose nuclear threats of U.S. and Soviet government officials during the Cold War, when both nations had vast nuclear arsenals, should convince us that, even as the military ante is raised, nuclear saber-rattling persists.

Some pundits argue that nuclear weapons prevent wars between nuclear-armed nations; and, admittedly, there haven't been very many -- at least not yet. But the Kargil War of 1999, between nuclear-armed India and nuclear-armed Pakistan, should convince us that such wars can occur. Indeed, in that case, the conflict almost slipped into a nuclear war. Pakistan's foreign secretary threatened that, if the war escalated, his country felt free to use "any weapon" in its arsenal. During the conflict, Pakistan did move nuclear weapons toward its border, while India, it is claimed, readied its own nuclear missiles for an attack on Pakistan.

At the least, though, don't nuclear weapons deter a nuclear attack? Do they? Obviously, NATO leaders didn't feel deterred, for, throughout the Cold War, NATO's strategy was to respond to a Soviet conventional military attack on Western Europe by launching a Western nuclear attack on the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Furthermore, if U.S. government officials really believed that nuclear deterrence worked, they would not have resorted to championing "Star Wars" and its modern variant, national missile defense. Why are these vastly expensive -- and probably unworkable -- military defense systems needed if other nuclear powers are deterred from attacking by U.S. nuclear might?

Of course, the bottom line for those Americans convinced that nuclear weapons safeguard them from a Chinese nuclear attack might be that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is far greater than its Chinese counterpart. Today, it is estimated that the U.S. government possesses over 5,000 nuclear warheads, while the Chinese government has a total inventory of roughly 300. Moreover, only about 40 of these Chinese nuclear weapons can reach the United States. Surely the United States would "win" any nuclear war with China.

But what would that "victory" entail? An attack with these Chinese nuclear weapons would immediately slaughter at least 10 million Americans in a great storm of blast and fire, while leaving many more dying horribly of sickness and radiation poisoning. The Chinese death toll in a nuclear war would be far higher. Both nations would be reduced to smoldering, radioactive wastelands. Also, radioactive debris sent aloft by the nuclear explosions would blot out the sun and bring on a "nuclear winter" around the globe -- destroying agriculture, creating worldwide famine, and generating chaos and destruction.

Moreover, in another decade the extent of this catastrophe would be far worse. The Chinese government is currently expanding its nuclear arsenal, and by the year 2020 it is expected to more than double its number of nuclear weapons that can hit the United States. The U.S. government, in turn, has plans to spend hundreds of billions of dollars "modernizing" its nuclear weapons and nuclear production facilities over the next decade.

To avert the enormous disaster of a U.S.-China nuclear war, there are two obvious actions that can be taken. The first is to get rid of nuclear weapons, as the nuclear powers have agreed to do but thus far have resisted doing. The second, conducted while the nuclear disarmament process is occurring, is to improve U.S.-China relations. If the American and Chinese people are interested in ensuring their survival and that of the world, they should be working to encourage these policies.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is "Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement" (Stanford University Press).