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Chinese Nuclear Proliferation: How Global Politics Is Transforming China’s Weapons Buildup and Modernization

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Chinese Nuclear Proliferation: How Global Politics Is Transforming China’s Weapons Buildup and Modernization by Susan Turner Haynes. Potomac Books, 2016, 198 pp. 


In Chinese Nuclear Proliferation, Susan Haynes provides a thoughtful, in-depth look at China’s nuclear force, deftly merging both theory and practice. The author makes academic international relations theory accessible and useful to practitioners while her discursive framework places policy in a lens that will be of interest to academics. Key topics include Chinese nuclear policy and strategy viewed comparatively through the strategies and policies of other nuclear weapon states and states with “latent” nuclear capability (e.g., Japan). Haynes impressively weaves primary sources together with secondary literature, producing credible, authoritative findings.

Her main argument is that the People’s Republic of China is the only signatory to the Nonproliferation Treaty that is presently expanding, diversifying, and modernizing its nuclear arsenal. China does so, by its own account, because of a perceived threat from the United States and for reasons of nuclear prestige. Using a longitudinal analysis of documents produced by the three main groups of nuclear-policy influencers in the People’s Republic of China—Chinese academia, the military, and the state—Haynes shows that the country’s nuclear strategy is in a stage of transformation from minimum deterrence to the more assertive limited deterrence.

This finding rests upon sophisticated theoretical foundations. The author begins by reconceptualizing nuclear proliferation into “horizontal” and “vertical” types (p. 5). Horizontal proliferation is the oft-used idea of the distribution of weapons, technology, and knowledge to new states. Vertical proliferation, Haynes’s primary reconceptualization, is defined as the “buildup and modernization of nuclear weapons within established nuclear weapon states” (p. 5). She then develops an updated and expanded typology of nuclear deterrence strategies that includes existential, minimum, limited, extensive, and maximum deterrence (pp. 14–15). This attention to conceptual and theoretical details extends to the author’s ability to provide an analysis and explanation of China’s position accurately and fairly. One key example is her explanation of the different meanings of deterrence in the Chinese language (assumedly Mandarin). Her discussion demonstrates how the different meanings conflict with, at least, the West’s denotation and how these differences affect Chinese policy influencers’ thinking, policies, and strategies (p. 58).

Granted, Chinese Nuclear Proliferation leaves things to be desired (perhaps in a second edition?). For instance, although the typology of nuclear strategies is an advancement in the literature, it could be better explained. Each category appears to be separate from the others. However, it is implied that as one moves up the chain of strategies, each progressive strategy includes everything that came before. This point is neither explored in detail nor made explicit (nor refuted if this interpretation of the typology is incorrect).

The reader is also left wishing that the contradictions between and within Chinese nuclear-policy-influencing groups had been explored more thoroughly. The military is shown to contradict itself and the state in several key documents, meetings, and interviews. People’s Liberation Army major general Dong Qingfu allows for the “possibility of limited nuclear war,” which is not in line with the state’s no-first-use policy (emphasis in original, p. 70). These contradictions even take place within the same documents. The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns (SSAC) permits the use of nuclear weapons “to restrict the size and scope of war [and to demonstrate] that nuclear war can, in fact, be limited” (p. 69). The SSAC also states that the use of deterrence, especially nuclear, will be constrained by the opinion of international society (pp. 137–38). This second statement is a no-first-use strategy while the first is a no-first-use-of-force strategy.

There is also the issue of Haynes appearing to relax her perceptive analysis somewhat when it comes to the United States. She does not accurately portray it as either a nuclear state that adheres to maximum deterrence (pp. 15, 39–43) or some hybrid of extensive (pp. 15, 36–39) and maximum deterrence. In her analysis, the US strategy clearly has aspects of both types. This idea is conveyed by Haynes’s discussion of nuclear strategy and forces throughout the book as well as her later statement that the United States has a “policy of first-strike ambiguity” (p. 145)—a key criterion of maximum deterrence (p. 15). It is also, as the author deftly points out, one of the main issues in regard to the Sino-US security dilemma (p. 145). This situation complicates matters. Misclassification of the US nuclear strategy within Haynes’s brilliantly updated typology demands that the reader go through the book again with a more critical eye towards the US strategy. Even so, she perceptively points out that there is a Sino-US security dilemma that cuts both ways—one that is often left out of discussions of the situation (pp. 5, 143).

With all of the above in mind, it is clear that this book should be read and reread by both practitioners and academics. Anyone who wants to understand current events, especially those surrounding the world’s nuclear powers, as well as have a better grasp of such topics as the East Asian regional security order, will benefit greatly from Haynes’s impressive work. She has provided the world with both an excellent primer for the freshest greenhorn and a rigorous analysis for the most grizzled veteran. The author’s first book is a tour de force and a clear signal that a promising mind has been brought to bear on one of the most pressing issues of our time. One would be wise to heed her policy recommendations and to incorporate her work into future analyses.


Nicholas K. Sobecki

University of Alabama–Tuscaloosa


Acknowledgements: The reviewer would like to thank Daniel Levine for reading an earlier draft of this book review and providing excellent advice and constructive criticism. He also thanks Potomac Books for making a copy of the book available for review and the ASPJ editorial team for their time and effort. All mistakes are the reviewer’s alone.

"The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."
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