David Santoro, ed. US-China Nuclear Relations: The Impact of Strategic Triangles. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2021. 262 pp. $95.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-62637-952-7.
Reviewed by Donald Davenport (Air University, Air War College)
Published on H-War (June, 2022)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
This book provides insight into four strategic nuclear triangles that affect US-China nuclear relations: US-China-Russia, US-China-so-called pariah states (Iran and North Korea), US-China-US regional allies, and US-China-South Asia (India and Pakistan). It analyzes the growing US-China rivalry's effect on the Asian and international nuclear orders. The editor, David Santoro, with contributors John K. Warden, Robert Einhorn, Brad Glasserman, and Toby Dalton, assess that the nuclear future will not be that of the Cold War era, where the United States and Soviet Union determined the outcome. The United States and China will not solely determine the nuclear future. Other states will help shape that future. The authors argue that the US-China nuclear relationship is “ripe for rivalry” and will intensify. The outlook does not look great, but there are opportunities to stabilize the Asian and international nuclear orders.
This book is for practitioners seeking to better understand the current and future “nuclear geometry” of the United States, China, and other key states, amidst increasing strategic competition. The book has a logical flow that is easy for readers to follow. Santoro first examines the US-China bilateral nuclear relationship from the inception of China’s nuclear weapons program to the present. He highlights the expansion of China’s nuclear program and the challenges associated with China’s quietness about the growth of its arsenal. One important aspect of Santoro’s description of the US-China strategic nuclear relationship is China’s refusal to “engage in any form of strategic dialogue and arms control with the United States” (p. 51), which intensifies the strategic competition between the two states.
In chapter 3, Warden analyzes the major power nuclear triangle between the United States, China, and Russia. He argues that this is the most important of the four triangles because it consists of the three major nuclear-armed states. This chapter also addresses the different challenges associated with US-China, US-Russia, and China-Russia political and military relationships. Multiple possibilities exist in this strategic triangle, and Warden suggests that regardless of the security environment, the “US-Russia and China-Russia dynamics should remain a key consideration in US nuclear policy and its approach to China” (p. 84). The chapter assesses that a strengthened China-Russia alliance could present the most significant challenge for the US-China nuclear relationship. The detailed summary of the US-China-Russia strategic nuclear triangle and its implications and recommendations for the United States are interesting and helpful to understand the importance of interaction and interconnectedness.
In chapter 4, Einhorn presents a significant challenge that deals with the assessment that the United States and China share interests in limiting North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and preventing Iran from obtaining one. This chapter argues that US-China interests diverge when addressing the current and looming proliferation concerns of the US-China-pariah states triangle. Both US and Chinese policies toward North Korea and Iran limit opportunities for US-China cooperation.
Additionally, the authors suggest that understanding the dynamics of the pariah state dimension requires a broader explanation that they do not completely address. They write that “while the triangular approach is useful to analyze the pariah state problem in the context of rising US-China strategic competition, it is not sufficient because the approach does not account for all the dimensions of the problem” (p. 203).
Another strength of this work is chapter 6, where Dalton describes nuclear competition in South Asia using three models: the Top-Down Inverted Triangle, the Strategic Chain, and the Stratified Quadrilateral Model. The models highlight “distinct and competing ideas about the nature and geometry of nuclear competition in Southern Asia” (p. 163). This chapter explains the strategic US-India and China-Pakistan partnerships. It also suggests that the India-Pakistan nuclear competition will continue and that the strategic US-China competition should not affect the India-Pakistan dynamic, or vice versa.
This book has significance for analyzing US-China nuclear relations, particularly regarding the Asian and global nuclear orders. The current environment is largely based on strategic competition, with limited interaction and cooperative efforts of the United States and China to regulate the nuclear dynamic. Although the authors suggest that there is currently no nuclear jungle and the situation is not out of control, there are several reasons for the United States to be concerned. Santoro explains that “nuclear weapons moving from the background to the foreground of the US-China strategic relationship without any guardrails are uncharted and potentially dangerous territory” (p. 208). This book does not focus solely on US-China nuclear relations, and the authors do not attempt to classify the US-China dynamic as a new Cold War, bipolar system. The book highlights the interconnectedness of “nuclear geometry” and the ripening US-China nuclear rivalry. This approach and analysis are commendable.
Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within this paper are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.
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Donald Davenport. Review of Santoro, David, ed., US-China Nuclear Relations: The Impact of Strategic Triangles.
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