The DEFCON Warning System

Ongoing Geointel and Analysis in the theater of nuclear war. Established 1984

The Possibility of Nuclear War Between China and the United States

The possibility of a nuclear war between China and the United States has become a topic of growing concern due to the increasing tensions over Taiwan. As China continues to assert its influence and strengthen its military capabilities, the risk of a conflict over Taiwan grows, and with it, the potential for a catastrophic nuclear confrontation. In this article, we will assess the expert opinion on the possibility of nuclear war between China and the United States if China invades Taiwan and consider the potential consequences of such a conflict.

Historical Context

Understanding the historical context of the China-Taiwan relationship is crucial in evaluating the likelihood of a nuclear conflict. Taiwan has been a contentious issue between China and the United States since the Chinese Civil War, when the defeated Nationalists retreated to the island and established the Republic of China (ROC) as a separate government from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. Despite the ongoing political dispute, both sides have managed to maintain a fragile balance, largely through the United States’ policy of strategic ambiguity, which has deterred both China from invading Taiwan and Taiwan from declaring independence.

China’s Growing Military Power

China’s growing military power is a key factor in the increasing risk of conflict over Taiwan. Under President Xi Jinping, China has significantly expanded and modernized its armed forces, with a particular focus on its naval and missile capabilities[1]. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has invested heavily in long-range precision-guided missiles, advanced warships, and air defense systems, many of which are specifically designed to target US bases and assets in the Pacific. This military buildup has raised concerns that China might be preparing to use force to achieve its goal of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland.

The United States’ Commitment to Taiwan

The United States has long been a supporter of Taiwan, providing military and economic assistance to the island nation. However, the US has always maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity regarding its commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Recently, U.S. President Joe Biden has indicated that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China attacked[2], a statement that has increased tensions and raised the stakes in the ongoing dispute.

War Gaming Scenarios

To better understand the potential outcomes of a conflict between China and the United States over Taiwan, several think tanks and government organizations have conducted war game simulations[3]. These simulations often involve experienced analysts and former government officials, who assume the roles of key decision-makers for each side. The results of these war games have consistently shown that a conflict over Taiwan would likely result in massive casualties and destruction on both sides, with the potential for the conflict to escalate to the nuclear level.

The Escalation Dilemma

One of the key concerns in these war game scenarios is the escalation dilemma, where both sides face the decision to escalate the conflict in an attempt to achieve victory or to back down and accept a potentially humiliating settlement[4]. This escalation dilemma raises the risk of a conflict over Taiwan turning into a nuclear war, as both China and the United States possess significant nuclear arsenals and may be tempted to use them if they believe it is necessary to secure victory or avoid defeat[5].

The Risk of Accidental Nuclear War

Another concern is the risk of accidental nuclear war, where a conflict between China and the United States could inadvertently escalate to a nuclear exchange due to miscommunications, miscalculations, or technical malfunctions.  The complex and intertwined nature of modern military systems, combined with the high stakes and pressure of a conflict over Taiwan, could create a situation where an accidental nuclear war becomes a real possibility.

China’s Nuclear Doctrine

China’s nuclear doctrine is an important factor in assessing the likelihood of a nuclear conflict over Taiwan. Unlike Russia, China has a publicly stated policy of “no first use” (NFU), which commits it to never use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances[6]. However, there is ambiguity surrounding the conditions under which China’s NFU policy would no longer apply, and some PLA officers have discussed the possibility of using nuclear weapons first in cases where a conventional attack threatens the survival of the PLA’s nuclear force or the Chinese Communist Party.  The DEFCON Warning System has stated that a No First Use Policy can not be relied upon to stop a country from using its nuclear weapons if it so wanted to[7].

The Human Cost

The human cost of a nuclear war between China and the United States would be catastrophic. Even in conventional war scenarios, simulations suggest that both sides would suffer enormous casualties and material losses[8]. A nuclear exchange would only magnify these costs, leading to the deaths of millions of people and the destruction of entire cities.

Expert Opinion

Experts generally agree that the risk of a nuclear war between China and the United States over Taiwan is growing, but still relatively low[9]. Many argue that both sides understand the potentially devastating consequences of a nuclear conflict and would therefore be reluctant to escalate beyond conventional warfare. However, the increasing tensions and military buildup on both sides, combined with the potential for miscommunication and miscalculation, make the possibility of a nuclear conflict a very real concern.


The chance of a nuclear war between China and the United States if China invades Taiwan is a growing concern, driven by escalating tensions, China’s military modernization, and the potential for miscommunication and miscalculation. While the risk is still relatively low, the potentially catastrophic consequences of such a conflict necessitate continued efforts to prevent a war and find a peaceful resolution to the ongoing dispute.









[9] ibid

Ongoing Geointel and Analysis in the theater of nuclear war.

© 2023 The DEFCON Warning System. Established 1984.

The DEFCON Warning System is a private intelligence organization which has monitored and assessed nuclear threats by national entities since 1984. It is not affiliated with any government agency and does not represent the alert status of any military branch. The public should make their own evaluations and not rely on the DEFCON Warning System for any strategic planning. At all times, citizens are urged to learn what steps to take in the event of a nuclear attack.