Jeffrey LewisLi Bin on Strategic Stability

Gregory Kulacki and I often grouse about which portions of the Chinese arms control discussion get translated into English. (I grouse especially, since I can’t work in Chinese.)

Gregory has taken matters into his own hands, beginning a translation project. The first article he translated is An Investigation of China – U.S. Strategic Stability by Li Bin and Nie Hongyi. He also prepared a brief summary.

What is fascinating is how much more direct, in Chinese, Li and Nie are about the threat of nuclear weapons being nuclear coercion, not nuclear use.

General offense-defense theory and classic arms control theory are the same in assuming a nation selects behavior based solely on the magnitude of its interest. This is a bit different than the reality of strategic weaponry. Classic arms control theory predicts that when a nuclear country is going to lose a conventional war and does not worry about nuclear relation, the possibility saving the situation with a nuclear attack is great. But the Korean, Vietnam and Afghan wars all demonstrate that this prediction does not reflect actual conditions in international society. The theory of the nuclear taboo in constructivist theory postulates a norm in international society against the use of nuclear weapons, a norm known as the nuclear taboo. Under the conditions of this nuclear taboo, just because a country has the ability to carry out a preemptive nuclear attack does not mean they can carryout out this type of nuclear attack at will. However, the existence of the nuclear taboo does not prevent a nuclear weapon state from using the superiority of its nuclear weapons to engage in coercion. Consequently, the most direct result of a strategic imbalance is nuclear coercion.

This is, I think, the core difference in how Americans and Chinese talk about deterrence.

The difference is an important one — think about “no first use.” Americans think about the pledge as a hollow promise. After all, if you need to use them, you are going to do so no matter what you’ve said. On the other hand, if you think nuclear weapons are weapons of coercion, then forswearing their first-use does constrain your ability to use them to coerce.

I’ve observed the implicit difference before, but I’ve never seen it stated explicitly.

Late Update: Here is the Chinese language version.


  1. Carl (History)

    Nuclear taboo would be an excellent band name.

    Any chance you could provide a link to the original article in Chinese?

  2. Cristina Hansell (History)

    Hat’s off to UCS for doing this! Translating key documents (well!) is such an important task, but so difficult to do. And thanks to Jeffrey for spreading the news about this UCS effort!

  3. bradley laing (History)

    SEOUL/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – North Korea is preparing to move an intercontinental ballistic missile from a factory near Pyongyang to a launch site on the east coast, a South Korean newspaper quoted a source in Washington as saying on Saturday.

  4. Josh Narins (History)

    Another nod to the translator.

    Carefully handled, I’m sure translation is key to preventing some kinds of wars.

    Translating Rush Limbaugh into the language of the enemy could easily lengthen any conflict.

  5. JK (History)

    Dr. Li Bin has his publications (after 1999) here:

  6. Nick Ritchie (History)

    On nuclear coercion General Sir Hugh Beach in the UK recently penned a piece on “what price nuclear blackmail?” in Disarmament Diplomacy at

  7. Rajesh Rajagopalan (History)

    Interesting essay, though it is odd that the authors feel that the strategic balance is shifting against China, just as the US is reducing its strategic arsenal! Sounds like a good rationalisation for an expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, since that would be the only way to prevent ‘coercion’. It remains to be seen what a rapid expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal would do to any sense of strategic balance in New Delhi vis-à-vis Beijing.

  8. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    US reductions are not intended to reduce capability.

    In fact, rather the opposite — increases in capability are one factor driving reductions.