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China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems

China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems edited by James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt. Georgetown University Press, 2021, 280 pp.

The US-Chinese relationship has become increasingly fragile in recent years. From the tensions over Hong Kong and Taiwan to the onset of the Coronavirus, the United States and China appear to be in a new Cold War.

American leadership and doctrine also point to China as the primary military threat going forward, so it is essential that the United States better understands China’s point of view. How do they view themselves, and how do they view Western military threats? In this context, China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems dives deep into China’s strategic views, practices, and capabilities so that the United States may better understand them. The West cannot treat China like it did Russia during the Cold War, as China’s nuclear doctrine and capabilities drastically differ, so this book aims to paint an accurate picture of China as a strategic power.

As the title suggests, this book is essentially a collection of nine papers on a variety of topics exploring China’s strategic worldview, doctrine, and systems. James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt, both professors at the United States Air Force Academy, selected the subject matter experts and ensured that they represented multiple viewpoints and interpretations of the facts.

While the authors come from the United States, Australia, and Japan, many of them speak, read, and research in Chinese and travel there frequently to engage with their Chinese counterparts. There was not a clear bias or uniform point of view among the collection, and each chapter was extensively researched and cited. Overall, the book isn’t trying to convince the reader of any one view. Instead, it lays out the facts and provides the context to understand them.

The book starts with the editors outlining the historical context for the US-Chinese relationship. This chapter walks through the events from before the Cold War until the Trump administration that summarize the US perspective toward China as a military power. This chapter could stand alone as a primer on the topic and is the most widely relevant section of the book.

From there, each chapter details a particular focus area. Andrew Scobell starts by examining Chinese strategic doctrine including their No First Use policy and how China sees the concept of deterrence differently from the West. Christopher Twomey continues that thread by describing how the Chinese deterrence concept has evolved over time to where it is now. Sugio Takahashi then provides a Japanese perspective to discuss the stability-instability paradox and how China’s regional strategic stability should be considered.

The fifth chapter provides an overview of China’s current nuclear systems and programs. Hans Kristensen uses tables and graphs to survey China’s current stockpiles and future projections and goes on to describe their offensive and defensive capabilities in detail.

In the next chapter, Phillip Saunders and David Logan expand on China’s nuclear capabilities by outlining their nonstrategic nuclear arsenal and their strategic, nonnuclear arsenal. They cover bomber and submarine-delivered systems, hypersonic technologies, counterspace options, offensive cyberattacks, and the future for artificial intelligence. While nuclear weapons are generally the focus of strategic power, China has many nonnuclear options to create strategic effects. This chapter did an excellent job summarizing China’s military options.

In chapter 7, Bates Gill details the evolution of China’s military organizational structure and how it has improved in recent years. He also introduces the concept of organizational entanglement and how the entanglement of nuclear and nonnuclear forces creates challenges for the United States.

China’s current arms control and deterrence policies differ from the West’s, and Nancy Gallagher describes how they have changed with recent American administrations in the eighth chapter. She outlines China’s perspectives and assumptions about nonproliferation, strategic stability, and arms control and contrasts them to how the United States thinks about those topics.

The final chapter wraps up with an outlook for the future. Brad Roberts makes some predictions while acknowledging important uncertainties that make predictions difficult. Along with the introduction, the last chapter is the most generally applicable to readers. After reading eight separate papers on China’s strategic arsenal, the final chapter ties it all up nicely and summarizes the key takeaways from the different focus areas.

Be warned, this book is not a casual read. It reads like a collection of well-researched papers and is best read a chapter at a time to digest the details. Furthermore, if the reader is primarily interested in a particular focus area, there is no penalty for just reading the relevant chapter. The chapters occasionally reference others in the book, but they can easily stand alone. The order of chapters was clearly intentional though, first outlining the necessary history before detailing the current capabilities and finishing with an outlook for the future.

This book is worth reading for government and military leaders who need to better understand China’s military capabilities and students in an academic setting, but it might be overkill for readers with a general interest in China. Overall, it was an extremely well-researched collection that painted a modern picture of China’s strategic arsenal.

Captain Sean R. Kelly, USSF

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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