Paradox of Power: Sino American Strategic Restraint in an Age of Vulnerability

David C. Gompert, Phillip C. Saunders
Content Type
Institute for National Strategic Studies
The United States and China each have or will soon have the ability to inflict grave harm upon the other by nuclear attack, attacks on satellites, or attacks on computer networks. Paradoxically, despite each country's power, its strategic vulnerability is growing. Particularly since September 11, 2001, Americans have sensed this vulnerability. The extent to which the Chinese sense it is unclear. Vulnerability to nuclear attack is familiar to both countries. But the United States and China are also becoming exposed to damage in space and cyberspace because of their growing reliance on those domains for their prosperity and security, as well as each side's increasing antisatellite (ASAT) and cyber war capabilities. For China, economic integration, production, and commerce-and thus, sustained growth and perhaps political stability-depend vitally on data sharing, making networks and satellites as strategic as they are for the United States. All three strategic domains are "offense dominant"-technologically, economically, and operationally. Defenses against nuclear, ASAT, and cyber weapons are difficult and yield diminishing results against the offensive capabilities of large, advanced, and determined states such as the United States and China. Nuclear weapons are patently offense dominant because a single explosion can destroy a city. Moreover, it is easier and cheaper for China to improve the survivability of its strategic missile launchers, to multiply deliverable weapons, and to penetrate U.S. missile defenses than it is for the United States to maintain a nuclear first-strike capability. Though it has yet to admit it, the United States cannot deny the Chinese the second-strike nuclear deterrent they are determined to have. Satellites are inherently vulnerable: conspicuous, easy to track, and fragile. Destroying them or degrading their performance is easier than protecting them. ASAT interceptors are much cheaper than satellites. Likewise, defending computer networks becomes harder and more expensive as the scale and sophistication of the attacker increase. The woes of the cyber defender are compounded by integrated global markets and supply chains for digital components and equipment-in which U.S. and state-affiliated Chinese corporations are leading competitors-increasing the potential for strategic degradation of network infrastructure and disruption of services. In general, strategic offense dominance gives each country an incentive to invest in offense, which in turn spurs the other to keep pace. Apart from offense dominance, the advance of technology has slashed the costs in lives and treasure of strategic attack, as capabilities have graduated from mass invasion to heavy bombing to nuclear weapons to ASAT and cyber war. If one ignores possible deaths resulting from disruption of public services, ASAT and cyber war might even be considered "nonviolent." As the number of expected casualties from strategic attack options drops, so could international opprobrium and the inhibitions of decisionmakers. Absent deterrence, thresholds for war in space and cyberspace could become perilously low as offenses improve.
Conflict Prevention, Security, Foreign Policy, Communism, Intelligence, Nuclear Weapons, Science and Technology, Weapons of Mass Destruction
Political Geography
United States, China, Asia