China-U.S. inadvertent escalation has been a focus of recent international relations literature. The current debate, however, has not paid sufficient attention to two important factors: the survivability of China's nuclear forces under unintentional conventional attacks; and China's nuclear command, control, and communication (NC3) system. Based on detailed analysis of these two variables, three potential mechanisms of China-U.S. inadvertent escalation are examined: use-it-or-lose-it, unauthorized/accidental, and damage-limitation. Although the possibility of a major China-U.S. conventional war inadvertently escalating to a nuclear level cannot be excluded, the risk is extremely low. China's nuclear forces would survive U.S. inadvertent conventional attacks and, thus, are unlikely to be significantly undermined. Even though China's NC3 system might be degraded during a conventional war with the United States, Chinese leadership would likely maintain minimum emergency communications with its nuclear forces. Moreover, China's NC3 system is highly centralized, and it prioritizes “negative control,” which can help to prevent escalation. China's nuclear retaliatory capability, although limited, could impede U.S. damage-limitation strikes to some extent. To keep the risk of inadvertent escalation low, both sides must take appropriate precautions and exercise self-restraint in their planning and operations.

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