Counterforce Dilemmas and the Risk of Nuclear War in East Asia
Nuclear Weapon Use Risk Reduction

Counterforce Dilemmas and the Risk of Nuclear War in East Asia

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In this APLN Special Report titled “Counterforce Dilemmas and the Risk of Nuclear War in East Asia”, Dr. Ian Bowers, Associate Professor at the Royal Danish Defence College, argues that the most dangerous threat to strategic stability is a counterforce dilemma where the conventional weapons of the United States, China, and regional East Asian actors may create strategic instability by their intentional or inadvertent use to target the nuclear forces of another state. 

Conventional capabilities form the heart of conventional warfighting and deterrence strategies in various flashpoints across the region. Bowers argues that arms control initiatives are unlikely to succeed due to the confluence of different conflictual or competitive relationships across the region. It is therefore impossible to separate the wider question of China-US nuclear stability and control from the various nuclear and conventional security crises that characterize the region and involve the US, China, US allies and other regional actors. 

However, Bowers also argues that the maritime nature of the geostrategic environment and the lack of existential threat that the United States and China pose to each other are reasons for limited optimism about escalation dynamics and the risk of nuclear war. Even with the increasing number of actors operating on the seas of East Asia and the absence of arms control, unlike during the Cold War, there are fewer natural pathways to the use of nuclear weapons for either China or the US. 

Despite these factors, flashpoints such as China’s land-based missiles and the US’ efforts to counter them, as well as the DPRK’s continued pursuit of nuclear missile capabilities and the ROK’s conventional counterforce approach, have raised the risk of conventional and nuclear conflict. The entanglement of conventional and nuclear doctrines and the different strategic relationships in East Asia will likely continue to be determining factors in the future stability of the region. 

This report is a part of a joint project on Reducing the Risk of Nuclear Weapon Use in Northeast Asia (NU-NEA) and has been cross-posted by the Nautilus Institutethe Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition (RECNA), and the Panel on Peace and Security of North East Asia (PSNA). The year 1 final report of the project is now available here.


About the Author

Ian Bowers is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Joint Operations at the Royal Danish Defense College. His research focuses on deterrence, the future operational environment, sea power, and East Asian security. His research has been published in several international journals including International Security, the Journal of Strategic Studies, the Naval War College Review, and the Korean Journal of Defense Analysis. His most recent co-authored work, titled “Conventional Counterforce Dilemmas: South Korea’s Deterrence Strategy and Stability on the Korean Peninsula,” was published in International Security. Bowers has also published a monograph on the modernization of the Republic of Korea Navy, and edited volumes on sea power and military change. Bowers holds a PhD in War Studies from King’s College London. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.

Image: Unsplash/ Burgess Milner