A recent report from the RAND Corporation seeks to elucidate several scenarios by which the United States and China could become embroiled in armed conflict. While much will be made of a single sentence at the beginning of the report that predicts the possibility of a China stronger than Soviet Russia during the Cold War or Nazi Germany during World War II—and despite providing excellent summaries of potential East Asian flashpoints—the authors actually judge the probability of great power conflict in the Asia-Pacific to be relatively low. More interesting are the recommendations offered for decreasing conflict—particularly, the section on the possibility for a state of Mutually Assured Economic Destruction (MAED) to emerge between the U.S. and its burgeoning superpower rival is interesting because of its obvious allusions to the Cold War nuclear standoff. But key differences exist between nuclear strategy and the type of strategic stability the report envisions—differences that could make conflict more likely.
The report—authored by James Dobbins, David Gompert, David Shlapak, and Andrew Scobell—describes MAED as:
[S]omewhat different from classic mutual assured destruction (MAD). It is at least theoretically possible to limit the escalation of a military clash to the subnuclear level. It is not possible to so limit the economic consequences. China is not going to continue buying U.S. Treasury notes while the American and Chinese navies clash somewhere off Taiwan or in the South China Sea. Apple is not going to be shipping iPads from its factories in China. Markets will anticipate widespread disruption in U.S.-Chinese and world trade, and advance the consequences, however much Beijing and Washington seek to limit the damage.
As is the case with MAD, even the weaker party gains deterrent benefit from the mutual, if unevenly distributed, destruction. The point could be reached sometime in the next few decades, however, when the balance of dependency had shifted so far against the United States that it no longer represented an effective deterrent to Chinese advances against important if not vital American interests in East Asia.
James Holmes and Jim Lacey have already offered thoughtful critiques of this idea at The Diplomat and National Review Online, respectively. But given the obvious relationship the authors draw to the precarious stability nuclear weapons provide superpower relations in the Cold War, examining this idea in the context of nuclear strategy may be illuminating. Two questions immediately come to mind: If MAED makes war between the United States and China less likely, will it also make Washington less likely to come to the aid of Taiwan or the Philippines or Vietnam or even Japan in a territorial dispute? And, if not, can MAED prevent escalation to a larger—more catastrophic—strategic conflict?
As far as the first question is concerned, the report discusses one option for the United States to “Build Partner Capacity” but warns that:
In seeking to stimulate greater local self -reliance, the United States will need to avoid two possible pitfalls. First it will want to avoid extending guarantees that it may not wish to deliver on, and in so doing actually decrease incentives for great local defense efforts. Second, were the United States to be seen trying to align East Asia against China—something it has so far been careful not to do—it could stimulate an arms race with China which, at least locally, it would be hard pressed to win.
This presents a problem for the hypothetical stability MAED might offer the Sino-American strategic relationship. The stability-instability paradox—discussed here in a far different context—says that lower levels of violence are, in some ways, facilitated by stability at higher levels of violence. Robert Jervis, in his book The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution, discussed this idea specifically in the context of extended deterrence: “Strategic stability creates instability by making lower levels of violence relatively safe and undermining ‘extended deterrence.’” If MAED fosters an approximate equilibrium to that achieved by the United States and Soviet Union under MAD, then it might prevent strategic conflict between the Washington and Beijing, but it might also make it more difficult for the United States to come to the aid of allies in the region should China turn belligerent. While “greater local self-reliance” would alleviate some of the pressure on the United States to respond to any Chinese aggression, for now, Washington has already extended numerous security guarantees in the region—to Japan, South Korea, and, tacitly, Taiwan—that it might not want to “deliver on” if it were to result in the destruction on its economy. Since it is unlikely those guarantees will be renounced any time in the near future, the consequences for backing up those guarantees may be dire. For China’s part, MAED might produce greater caution amongst Chinese leaders, but, a lack of self-reliant neighbors, and an America cowed by fear of economic destruction, could also lead to greater Chinese aggression. This is particularly precarious since it is quite possible neither side will fully understand the consequences of their actions under an MAED paradigm.
This leads to a second problem for MAED’s potential stabilizing effects: the absence of demonstration effects makes escalation in any Sino-American conflict easier to envisage. The likely outcome of even a low-level nuclear conflict was dramatically demonstrated with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—with the consequences further etched in strategists’ minds by the numerous thermonuclear tests conducted over the subsequent years. While all-out nuclear war was left to the imagination, its likely effects were fairly clear. Also absent from MAED is the suddenness in which the horror of nuclear war under MAD would take place. Early nuclear strategists quickly learned, with the development of ICBMs, the speed with which such devastation could be unleashed that a general—though not absolute—sense of caution was engendered.
While the idea of MAD may have been somewhat abstract, the results of its failure were fairly well understood. MAED is an even more abstract idea because the consequent destruction might not be immediately apparent and therefore less salient to those involved—making the mechanism for preventing escalation much less powerful. Were a condition of MAD reached between the U.S. and China, it is likely both would understand the swift and horrific consequences that each would incur in a conflict over Taiwan or renewed fighting on the Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, economic warfare is likely to build slowly with the effects not necessarily evident to either the aggressor or the defender at the outset of hostilities.
Whereas MAD might have allowed for instability at lower-levels of violence, general fear of the speed and destruction caused by strategic nuclear conflict made escalation less likely. As the RAND report notes, such escalation might not be containable under MAED. While both Washington and Beijing would be well-served by avoiding situations where the consequences include the destruction of one another’s economy, it is easily imaginable how one side or another could stumble into such a scenario given that said consequences might not be as readily apparent as a mushroom cloud. Under such circumstances, MAED would then be much less stable than MAD by providing the illusion of stability while sowing the seeds of its own destruction.