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Why is China Suddenly Expanding its Nuclear Arsenal?

China first tested a nuclear weapon in 1964. And since then, Chinese authorites have been content with a relatively small nuclear arsenal.

That was, until very recently. There is now mounting evidence that China is substantially expanding its nuclear capabilities.

In this episode, we speak with Tong Zhou, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a Visiting Researcher at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, to explain what is driving Chinese nuclear strategy.

We kick off with a brief history of China’s nuclear weapons program before having an in depth discussion about the intentions and motivations behind China’s expanding nuclear arsenal. We also discuss what steps China’s main rival, the United States, could take to assuage at least some of the concerns driving Chinese nuclear strategy.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

What is the History of Nuclear Defense in China? 

Tong Zhou [00:00:00] The Chinese construction of ICBM silos also don’t really convince me that it is mostly about American missile defense. China felt it was threatened by nuclear weapons from the United States during the Korean War and the Taiwan Strait crisis in the 1950s. China, I think, made a decision to also pursue nuclear weapons. It saw the two major powers, U.S., and Soviet Union, had them. I think that inspired China’s nuclear ambition. The Chinese nuclear program received initial support from Soviet Union but when the China-Soviet relationship went south, Soviet Union cut off its support. But that made China even more determined to acquire its indigenous nuclear capability. So, China, after a few years of working, managed to detonate the first nuclear device in 1964.

Is China currently growing their nuclear arsenal?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:27] And from 1964 until somewhat recently, China has maintained, at least compared to Russia and the United States, a relatively small number of nuclear weapons. I think current estimates are that China has about 350 nuclear warheads compared today to about like over 5000 from the United States. But a recent assessment by the Pentagon suggests that China is rapidly accelerating its nuclear arsenal and will have about 1000 warheads by 2030. First, is this objectively true that China is increasing its nuclear capacity at that pace?

Tong Zhou [00:04:06] Well, it appears that from early on, the first generation of Chinese paramount leaders made a decision to have China’s nuclear weapons play only a limited role in its national security strategy, which is to deter nuclear attack. And therefore, for decades, China felt that it could deter a nuclear attack with a relatively small nuclear arsenal. According to open-source research — because the Chinese government never revealed any numbers about its nuclear arsenal — but according to the most widely used and authoritative open-source research, China had maintained an arsenal of about 200 or so nuclear warheads for decades. But in recent years, China seems to be speeding up its nuclear modernization process, and the number has grown to about 350 today. That’s already a considerable increase from the previous number and the recently reviewed Chinese efforts to build at least three major sites for missile silos that are likely to be deployed towards ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles. It looks like those sites could host more than 300 ICBMs, so that alone could add hundreds of additional warheads to the Chinese arsenal. How much exactly would be the number will depend on whether China would deploy one warhead or multiple warheads on each of the ICBMs. So, it looks like China is on the path to further expand its nuclear arsenal. The DOD prediction is by 2027, China will build up to 700 nuclear warheads and by the end of this decade, 2030, China will have at least 1000 nuclear warheads. We have to note that the US Defense Department and the US intelligence community has a track record of overestimating the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal and so there is still an uncertainty about whether China would indeed grow to a thousand by 2030, but there is no doubt it is already speeding up its nuclear modernization.

Why is China adding more weapons to their nuclear arsenal?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:45] So what are Chinese officials saying about the purpose and intention of this acceleration of the development of its nuclear weapons programs? As you noted earlier, for a long time, the stated policy was just to maintain that minimum deterrence, but this increase seems to suggest something greater than that.

Tong Zhou [00:07:07] The Chinese officials for a very long time refrained from using the term minimum nuclear deterrence to describe this nuclear strategy until very recently. But I think the overall consensus in the research community is that China seeks to maintain its nuclear weapons at the minimum level required for meeting its national security needs, which is to deter nuclear attack. Regarding the recently reported construction of major ICBM silo sites, the initial Chinese official response was very interesting. Director General Fu Cong, who is in charge of the arms control department of the Chinese MFA, came out and said that China needed to strengthen its nuclear capability in order to maintain the safety and the security of the arsenal. So, he didn’t really point to any external security threats as a reason for the nuclear modernization but was using safety and security as a major justification. It’s only later on that Chinese officials started to vaguely point to the deteriorating security environment for China as the justification for continued nuclear modernization. But Chinese government never acknowledged the reported expansion. You know, the Chinese state media caused those reported missile silos windmills, and the government never clarified those constructions and never acknowledged the expansion, but they vaguely pointed to the deteriorating security environment for Chinese media to continue its nuclear modernization.

Why has China sped up their nuclear modernization project?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:01] Well, as an outside expert, what can you infer about the reasons and intentions for the specific kinds of nuclear technology that China is investing in? And more generally, China’s decision to expand its nuclear arsenal?

Tong Zhou [00:09:21] I think at the expert level, China has long felt the need to modernize these nuclear forces because they worry that new technologies developed by Chinese nuclear rivals, especially the United States, such as missile defense and conventional precision strike weapons, and the increasingly advanced long-range sensors that can identify and track Chinese nuclear weapons systems. They worry these new technological capabilities would increase the vulnerability of China’s nuclear arsenal and make China’s nuclear deterrence less credible over time. So, they have always wanted to continue modernizing the Chinese nuclear arsenal, developing more survivable missile systems, and putting missiles on mobile vehicles, diversifying Chinese nuclear arsenal by developing a sea based nuclear deterrence capability. There is also an effort to develop airborne nuclear systems. These technical level efforts, I think, work together to ensure that even under the worst possible scenarios, the U.S. wouldn’t be able to preemptively destroy all Chinese nuclear forces. But these, I think, are not sufficient to explain the recent Chinese nuclear expansion, because if you look at the American side of the equation, that U.S. nuclear policy and capabilities haven’t changed dramatically in recent years. The U.S. missile defense improvement is ongoing, but it is incremental. There is no sudden and dramatic increase of American missile defense capability, and the Chinese construction of ICBM silos also don’t really convince me that it is mostly about American missile defense because silo-based ICBMs are not the most cost-effective solution if the Chinese primary concern is American missile defense. So, I increasingly think that the recent nuclear expansion is driven not only by the technical level factors, but increasingly by a political motivation, meaning that the Chinese leadership seems to increasingly believe that a larger nuclear arsenal can give China a political benefit.

What political benefit could come from China’s rapid nuclear expansion?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:02] And what sort of political benefits does the Chinese leadership believe a large nuclear arsenal might confer it?

Tong Zhou [00:12:12] I think the current Chinese paramount leader, Mr. Xi, has a long-standing belief that the Western countries are not going to allow China to continue rising and to challenge the Western countries predominance in the international system. So, the Western countries will increasingly resort to extreme measures to undermine China, to contain China, and in order to counter that, China needs a stronger military capability in general, but also a stronger nuclear capability in particular. That’s why he proposed this dream of a strong military shortly after he came into power. So, he thought a larger arsenal could help counter the perceived American geopolitical hostility against China. Many Chinese officials and experts seem to agree about the political value of nuclear weapons. In recent years, they look at the Russian example and think that the reason Western countries are treating Russia with more carefulness is because Russia has a large nuclear arsenal. So, I think there is increasing efforts to attach bigger political value to nuclear weapons in the hope that they could make Western countries deal with China with more respect and reduce their so-called political pressure on China.

What is mutual vulnerability?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:50] So you’ve noted that one way to address Chinese concerns over U.S. nuclear intentions would be for the United States to formally accept the concept of mutual vulnerability. Can you explain what you mean by mutual vulnerability and why embracing it might help stabilize the bilateral nuclear relationship between China and the United States?

Tong Zhou [00:14:16] Well, for a long time, I think China has this genuine concern that the U.S. may be interested in acquiring nuclear primacy over China, meaning that the U.S. is interested to be able to preemptively destroy Chinese nuclear weapons and to deny China the capability of launching a nuclear retaliation. So that has been motivating China’s investments into nuclear modernization, and because of the bilateral political distrust, even modest American threats would be interpreted in the worst possible case by Chinese experts. So, we see China invest a lot into nuclear capabilities, embarking on an effort to develop a nuclear triad capability, which is, in fact, a major departure from China’s traditional nuclear posture.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:16] And just to briefly stop you there, the nuclear triad refers to land, sea, and air-based capabilities to launch a nuclear weapon. It’s like the ultimate goal of many nuclear weapons states in terms of deterring a nuclear attack because you can’t take out all three at once.

Tong Zhou [00:15:34] Exactly. And China used to criticize the United States and Russia for maintaining a nuclear triad capability as a symbol of their pursuit of nuclear hegemonism, but today, China itself is pursuing nuclear triad capability. So, my concern was when we have new technological developments, missile defense, conventional precision strike weapons, even artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons systems — as cyber technologies can all be used, at least theoretically, to threaten China’s nuclear deterrence. So, can the U.S. and China agree on the degree of the impact of new military technologies in order to maintain a stable bilateral relationship? My concern was given all these new technologies and given the political distrust, it is very hard for the two sides to agree on the degree of their impact and therefore it is almost inevitable that China will build nuclear capabilities that would appear excessive to the United States and that introduces instability in the bilateral nuclear relationship. So, my thought was if the U.S. could more explicitly commit to a mutual nuclear vulnerability relationship with China that would help reduce Chinese concern about American intent, and therefore, they won’t engage in this worst-case scenario thinking and they wouldn’t need to have an unnecessary nuclear competition. But I think in recent months, new developments increasingly indicate that China is moving beyond pursuing mutual nuclear vulnerability relationship with the United States. As I said, China is increasingly using nuclear weapons in order to put some political pressure on the United States.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:38] You know, this idea of mutual vulnerability, I mean, it’s essentially what the United States and the Soviet Union and now Russia have, which is this acknowledgment that a nuclear confrontation between the two would be so ruinous that we shouldn’t engage in it. We’re both vulnerable to a near existential threat from the adversary that we acknowledge this and that is a way to prevent the adversary from wanting to develop further technologies to deter a nuclear attack. It’s a way to perhaps slow down the development of nuclear technologies as a way to sort of assure the other side of its intent. Is that a fair assessment?

Tong Zhou [00:18:18] Yes, that’s a very accurate description of the meaning of mutual nuclear vulnerability. Sometimes people also use the term strategic stability to refer to the same idea, and it’s a Western terminology in Western security studies. Chinese nuclear community since the Cold War era, has gradually embraced this concept and so they gradually agree that U.S.-China should try to maintain a strategic stability relationship, meaning that they both accept a de facto mutual vulnerability relationship at the nuclear level.

Why have the United States and China refused to enter a mutual vulnerability agreement?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:01] I guess I’m surprised that such a thing doesn’t already exist, given that China already has like 350 nuclear weapons, which is sufficient to inflict incredible harm on the United States. Why is that? Why has that acknowledgment never been made?

Tong Zhou [00:19:21] Well, I think many American officials and experts recognize the de facto existence of mutual vulnerability in nuclear relationship with China. And they, I think, are satisfied with living under a MAD relationship, a mutually assured destruction relationship, with China. But I think for a number of reasons, they are reluctant to explicitly make that commitment. One factor is the concern of American regional allies. They worry about the so-called stability/instability paradox, which means if the nuclear relationship between US and China is stable, that would make China less concerned about the danger of nuclear escalation in a conventional war with the United States. And that means China may be emboldened to conduct more aggressive conventional level military operations in the region where American allies have vital interests; so, countries like Japan, they tend to oppose U.S. explicit commitments to strategic stability with China. They also oppose American adoption of no first use policy, primarily because they worry such measures could embolden China’s conventional military aggressiveness.

Why is a mutual vulnerability agreement important for the US-China relationship?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:50] But yet, it seems that the most plausible opportunity for nuclear escalation between the United States and China, if it happens, would come in the context of a conventional conflict of some sort that would escalate, or accidents would happen, and signals would be missed, and intentions would be misunderstood, and the nuclear escalation threshold would increase. The ladder would scale up.

Tong Zhou [00:21:16] Yes, I think it’s highly important that US and China recognize their common interest in preventing a nuclear conflict, but the U.S. always needs to address the security concerns of its security allies. Another political factor I think, that becomes increasingly important in recent years is that the U.S. has growing trouble with China’s political system, as they believe China is becoming a more authoritarian country and is violating a lot of basic international principles, human rights, norms, etc. And therefore, for the U.S. government to explicitly say we accept mutual nuclear vulnerability with China, I think it’s become increasingly politically difficult for the U.S. executive branch. So that’s part of the non-security factors preventing the United States making an explicit commitment.

What political factors are driving China to expand their nuclear arsenal?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:15] And even if the United States does make that explicit commitment to mutual vulnerability, you argue that there are other factors, political factors, that still may not assuage China to slow down the pace of its nuclear development based simply on a U.S. declaration of mutual vulnerability. What are some of those political factors that are driving China’s decision to continue to accelerate its nuclear capacity?

Tong Zhou [00:22:45] I think the Chinese leaders are now so convinced that the U.S. and large Western countries are bound to undermine China and to contain China in order to protect their geopolitical interests, to protect their predominance in the international system. So, China is no longer that worried only about nuclear stability with the United States, they are really worried about the perceived growing political pressure from the Western countries that their criticisms on China — on issues of Xinjiang, human rights, Hong Kong and Taiwan — those are the issues that really worry China and make China worry about its regime security and political security. And for that reason, they, I think, are moving beyond the goal of only maintaining stability with United States at the nuclear level but increasingly think that they face a much more imminent threat at the political level. So, a bigger nuclear arsenal, from their perspective, could perhaps help contain American political hostility against China, just like the nuclear weapons have worked to stabilize the US-Russian political relationship. At least that’s how Chinese leaders understand the role of nuclear weapons today.

What could American politicians do to encourage China to slow their nuclear expansion?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:12] Is there anything that American leaders can do, therefore, to reduce that kind of perceived anxiety on the part of the Chinese and perhaps induce or suggest ways that they might not want to develop their nuclear weapons programs at pace. Are there any sort of policy options the United States can take to address some of these political concerns that you think might result in China dropping its sprint to develop 1000 nuclear weapons by 2030?

Tong Zhou [00:24:51] So I think the Chinese goal is now moving beyond simply maintaining nuclear stability and China increasingly wants to use nuclear weapons to help maintain political stability between the two sides. But there is a way to connect the two issues, because I think both countries can still agree that they have a common interest in maintaining bilateral strategic stability. In the Western definition of the term, strategic stability refers primarily to nuclear stability — that’s what Washington cares most about today. But to Chinese political leaders, the term stability has always been a broader term. It refers to the general status of a bilateral relationship, including not only the nuclear aspect, but also the economic, diplomatic, and political aspects of the bilateral relationship. So maybe the US could offer China to have a bilateral strategic stability dialog, just like US-Russian bilateral strategic stability dialog, so that the US can talk about nuclear issues that it cares about, but also gives China the opportunity to discuss the broader strategic and political concerns that Beijing has. I think currently China does not have a clear idea of what core national interests it wants China’s nuclear weapons to help protect and maybe such a dialog offers an opportunity for Beijing to clarify its thinking and a position and therefore make it easier for the two sides to agree on important issues related to their nuclear weapons and the overall critical relationship.

Why do the United States and China not have a mechanism for dialogue?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:46] It’s sort of shocking to me that such a kind of dialog doesn’t even exist. I mean, when you look at the U.S. and Soviet Union and the United States and Russia, there have been decades and decades of these kinds of dialogs happening and presumably that’s part of the reason there hasn’t been like a nuclear confrontation between the United States and when there have been incidents and accidents, there have been ways to discuss that with each other. But no such mechanism exists between the United States and China. And considering China’s rapid growth and its accelerating nuclear program, the lack of such a mechanism, it seems sort of shocking and dangerous to me.

Tong Zhou [00:27:28] Yes, indeed. I think one of the reasons is that China has not experienced a really dangerous nuclear crisis in its history unlike the US and Soviet Union, they had Cuban missile crisis, Berlin crises, etc. Their leaders had firsthand experience understanding how likely a nuclear conflict could break out either deliberately or unintentionally. But I’m afraid the Chinese leaders do not necessarily appreciate the risk of nuclear conflict, and therefore they have less incentive to discuss these issues. In fact, I think recent developments indicate that China seems to believe there is a need to further raise nuclear risk in order to force the United States to reduce its geopolitical pressure on China.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:28] Well, Tong, with that somewhat downbeat note, we’ll leave it there. Thank you so much for your time.

Tong Zhou [00:28:34] Thank you so much for having me.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:42] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.

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