Obama Visits Hiroshima Amid Growing Risk of Nuclear War With China

Japanese school children contemplate ground zero in Nagasaki.

A sitting US president who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to nuclear disarmament is preparing to visit Hiroshima. Mr. Obama is expected to visit privately with survivors of the atomic bombings and to make brief remarks after visiting a museum documenting the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. Unfortunately, as the president ponders the past, his policies are increasing the risk that nuclear weapons may be used again in the future.

A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) concludes there is a troubling lack of urgency about the possibility that the United States and China could become involved in a military conflict that escalates rapidly and ends in a nuclear exchange. Both governments are deploying weapons and pursuing military strategies that make this more likely. Neither side is willing to invest anywhere near as much time and resources on diplomatic efforts to reduce the risk of war as they spend preparing to fight it.

The Pentagon plans to spend more than a trillion dollars upgrading its nuclear forces. This includes a new nuclear cruise missile the United States plans to make available for use against targets in China during a future military conflict. Concerns about China contributed to a recent decision by both houses of Congress to authorize a massive expansion of the US national missile defense program. New US investments in military space technology aim to counter perceived Chinese threats to US dominance in outer space. US research and development of conventional precision strike weapons could encourage US decision-makers to attempt a preemptive strike targeting China's nuclear forces in the event of a major military confrontation.

China plans to counter US technical advances by increasing the number and diversifying the basing modes of its nuclear-capable missiles. Chinese military strategists are considering placing their nuclear forces on high alert so they can be launched on warning of an incoming US nuclear attack. Chinese research, development and testing of anti-satellite weapons, missile defenses and hypersonic guide vehicles are aimed at eroding what Chinese military planners see as a US effort to contain China and restrict its development.

Both sides appear willing to initiate a military conflict over contentious disputes. For example, the United States recently warned China it would risk military escalation to prevent or stop a proposed Chinese island reclamation project in the Scarborough Shoal. Chinese authorities reportedly responded by committing to move ahead with the project anyway. This particular contest of wills is part of a steadily increasing number of unresolved diplomatic spats that have escalated to the level of overt military posturing reminiscent of U.S.¬-Soviet jousting during the Cold War.

Chinese military planners believe they can prosecute a large-scale conventional military conflict with the Unites States without the threat of nuclear escalation. They believe no nation, including the United States, would risk nuclear retaliation by resorting to a first use of nuclear weapons. US military planners believe they can threaten "limited" nuclear attacks against China if a military conflict escalates to a level where the United States or its military bases in allied Asian countries come under Chinese conventional attack. US decision-makers think their Chinese counterparts would never risk launching a retaliatory nuclear strike against the United States or its allies in response to a limited US nuclear attack against Chinese military targets.

It is not difficult to imagine situations that could trigger an inadvertent or accidental nuclear escalation. For example, China's leaders could underestimate US willingness to use nuclear weapons to stop a conventional war. US leaders could underestimate Chinese willingness to retaliate after a limited US nuclear attack. China could launch a retaliatory nuclear attack if the United States were to launch conventional missile strikes that China mistakenly believed were nuclear. The United States could make the same mistake. Equipment in the command and control network of either nation could be destroyed or malfunction, especially given the interest of both countries in anti-satellite weapons. Decision makers may not have timely access to accurate information in the fog of a conflict.

Compared to round-the-clock preparations for war involving tens of thousands of people and hundreds of billions of dollars in annual expenditures, a handful of US and Chinese diplomats meet for a few hours several times a year to discuss their respective policies on nuclear weapons, missile defenses, anti-satellite weapons and other advanced military technologies. These bilateral dialogues focus on how to manage the military competition between the United States and China rather than on how to resolve the disagreements both sides are attempting to settle with coercion rather than negotiation. The UCS report recommends the leaders of both governments address the growing risk of nuclear war with a greater sense of purpose.

Sadly, as the Nobel laureate and outgoing US president contemplates the horror of nuclear war, his advisors and his generals may be setting Asia up for a tragic reprise of the terrible suffering nuclear weapons caused at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Let's hope the next US administration is wiser, and more willing to learn from history rather than repeat it.