US-China Nuclear Relations: The Impact of Strategic Triangles

  • Published

US-China Nuclear Relations: The Impact of Strategic Triangles edited by David Santoro. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2021, 253 pp.

US-China Nuclear Relations: The Impact of Strategic Triangles is an anthology by five strategy and defense experts analyzing the growing strategic complexities between the United States and China. This work integrates the collective efforts of policy makers and senior advisers from the US government. The book incorporates contemporary problem sets facing the strategic environment in the Indian and Pacific theaters while also providing a framework to understand the complex regional relationships and the requirements for establishing functional nuclear and regional strategies for the future.

The anthology’s central argument is that China’s rapid development in recent history requires the United States to modify its strategic posture relative to the region. This strategic adjustment necessitates a particular focus on nuclear relations and deterrence efforts. The authors analyze strategic triangles between three state actors or regions, including the relationships between the United States, China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and various regional actors. They use nuclear relations as the backdrop for the primary analysis but also incorporate emergent phenomena and issues ranging from the rise in populism to the disruptive nature of a pandemic. Each author adds insights to the strategic complexities between the United States and China by identifying interests and relationships in the region. The book effectively articulates the requirement for the United States to pursue a new approach to achieve its strategic objectives.

The strategic triangle between China, the United States, and Russia demonstrates the growing complexities in the region. The increased cooperation between China and Russia enables both countries to refine their nuclear posture without worrying about one another. This cooperation exists at the expense of the United States, as the bilateral denuclearization efforts with Russia continue to stall and expire. A peaceful China-Russia border also enables a deterrence strategy for both countries to focus pressure on adversaries to protect interests that include expanding territorial claims, furthering revanchist military actions, and decrementing US efforts. Using the triangular analysis method, the authors capture the benefits of multilateral pressure and the challenges for one country to offset a like-minded alliance of two or more states.

The book’s shortcomings orient to the authors’ selection biases and collective background. Attempting to distill great power nuclear competition into a single anthology required scoping the analysis to a restricted number of state actors. The authors also acknowledge their limited perspective in understanding the consequences of emergent issues—such as the COVID-19 pandemic—and how these would affect the strategic environment. While the authors represent vast experience across the whole of government, they are exclusively American. This orientation inherently creates selection bias that could be improved with a wider range of contributors.

Despite these limitations, the authors develop a framework that enables understanding the strategic complexities and relationships inherent to the US-China nuclear situation. The key takeaway from the book is the importance of relationships. The authors argue that the United States must nurture strategic relationships and counter China’s rapidly evolving strategy with partnerships in the theater. A reinvigorated multilateralism would include greater cooperation with regional partners and allies—finding common economic, political, and military opportunities to develop relationships that can withstand strains caused by the growing Chinese endeavors. The United States must pursue multilateralism at a pace that exceeds similar efforts by the Chinese regime.

This book is an essential read for strategists, military professionals in the INDOPACOM area of operation, and regional affairs specialists. It clarifies the region’s history and opportunities for cooperation in meeting future strategic objectives and provides cautionary lessons on the nuclear front. China’s rapid expansion and singular focus on territorial and economic growth to secure interests will cause friction with the United States. America must act immediately to nurture relationships not only with traditional Asian partners but also with China, Russia, and Pakistan to preserve peaceful interests in this increasingly volatile region.

—Lt Col Matthew Wunderlich, USAF






"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."