At the recent Singapore’s largest annual security forum Shangri-La Dialogue, a tough-talking debate occurred between Patrick Shanahan, Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense and Wei Fenghe, Minister of National Defence PCR. Mr Shanahan accused the Chinese leadership of striving to dominate the region, while General Wei Fenghe said that Washington is interfering in the affairs of other countries around the world. In this regard, a comprehensive assessment of China’s nuclear capacity and its possible use presents a challenging task in view of China’s foreign policy strategy “Community of common destiny for mankind” and the “Belt and Road” initiative. This assessment is discussed in the article.

Nuclear weapons in China: historical overview

Among the five great powers – permanent members of the UN Security Council, the People’s Republic of China was the last to generate and introduce into service nuclear weapons of domestic production. Since the 1930s, Chinese scientists who trained and worked in research centers in France, the United States, and later in the USSR, have accumulated experience in uranium enrichment and setting conditions for a nuclear chain reaction. In the 1950s, nuclear technology was a study subject for hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as thousands of engineers in the USSR. In the late 1950s, the USSR scientists worked at Chinese nuclear facilities; they transferred experience related to the peaceful use of atomic energy thus laying the foundation of the nuclear physics school in China. Thanks to these joint efforts, the PRC constructed an experimental uranium-based nuclear reactor, a cyclotron, and other installations needed to produce enriched uranium. In the second half of the 1950s, the Soviet Union agreed to aid China in the development of prototype nuclear weapons. The Soviet-Chinese cooperation went downhill when Chinese leader Mao Zedong, dissatisfied with Nikita Khrushchev’s campaign against Stalin’s personality cult, announced the “Great War of Ideas between China and the USSR”, which resulted in an almost complete rupture of political and economic ties between the two states. By the early 1960s, Soviet scientists left China but the nuclear program has already gained the necessary momentum and since then has developed independently in the country.

The first Chinese nuclear bomb with a yield of 22 kilotons was successfully tested on November 16, 1964, at the Lop Nur test site, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the west of the country. This came as a sensation for the US intelligence. On June 17, 1967, the first Chinese thermonuclear bomb was tested at the same test site. Being an outsider at the start of the nuclear race, the PRC took huge efforts to join the Nuclear Weapons Club and became a totally independent player in it.
The reasons why Chinese leaders spent such enormous resources (US$ 4.1 billion at the 1956 rate) on the nuclear program at that time were mostly concerned with the perceived threats to the country’s military security. The main concern was that the United States could use nuclear weapons against China just as they did against its neighbor Japan in August 1945. The Korean War (1950-1953), as well as a series of crises over the disputed islands in the Taiwan Strait (1954-1958) exacerbated Sino-American relations, arising global fears of a full-fledged war in the most densely populated region of the world. Taiwan was backed by the US through a Mutual Defense Treaty signed in December 1954. At that time, the US openly discussed the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Chinese army. The sympathies of the USSR were entirely with the PRC, but Moscow strongly refused to discuss the intervention of its armed forces in the “two Chinas” conflict, i.e., between the continental and insular parts.
Already in the first years after receiving the official status of a nuclear power, the PRC specified its vision in this sphere and announced it at the international level. Immediately after the test of the atomic bomb in 1964, the country declared its concept of no-first-use. China, via its official representatives, has repeatedly called on the world to completely ban nuclear weapons; it joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and is the only Nuclear Club country committed “…not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States or nuclear-weapon-free zones at any time or under any circumstances”.  In 2005, the PRC confirmed that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances and pledged to permanently adhere to this principle in the future.

Why does China need nuclear weapons today?

However, all of the above related to China’s nuclear program does not deny the fact that this country is actively using all the available elements of the nuclear triad (intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic air force, nuclear missile submarines) to serve the state security purposes and to curb the US strategic plans regarding China and its interests in the Asia-Pacific region, which Beijing characterizes as aggressive. Since January 2012, the US has been implementing its “Turn East”. This means establishing a kind of “sanitary cordon” along the perimeter of China’s state borders, which would isolate China from the outside world in a critical situation. While such plans have never seems realistic regarding the Russian-Chinese border, the strengthened US presence in Central Asia (military bases deployed by the Pentagon and its allies in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US and the start of NATO’s military operation in Afghanistan) made the PRC perceive the approaching threat. To neutralize this threat, Beijing is now implementing intensively a huge infrastructure project, “One Belt, One Road”. The country also develops diplomatic activities with almost all states in continental Eurasia to cope with security issues bilaterally.
However, the US efforts to isolate China in the future are already clearly visible in such major regions as the East and South China Seas. These are the paths for Chinese export products, as well as imported mineral raw materials and other goods. If these trade routes are closed, China’s economy will fall into a deep crisis and its development would be pushed back for decades. By developing its nuclear capacity, strategic aviation, high seas navy and the military space program, Beijing sends a clear signal to Washington – “Don’t you dare!” Attempts to isolate China from the outside world through the most convenient and expedient sea route will be resolutely suppressed and Beijing has all the necessary means to do so.

Overview of the Chinese nuclear weapons

Hardly any secret in the world is kept more rigorously by any state than exact information on the scale of Chinese nuclear program and separate weapons developed under it. Through stepwise revealing some program facts, the PRC solves two objectives – it demonstrates that the program is alive and implemented, but at the same time it leaves much to speculation and fears regarding its actual volume. Today, the most important indicator of the nuclear program, the number of nuclear warheads in service at the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is estimated between 300 and 3,600 in the scientific expert literature. According to Viktor Esin, retired Colonel-General, former Chief of Staff of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, Chinese nuclear capacity included 1,800 warheads in 2012. However, this estimate is also based on indirect, officially unverified evidence. Until recently, China had no ballistic missile early warning system and thus unable to retaliate upon the enemy. It’s highly likely that today such technologies are available with the Chinese army, but there is no reliable information on this issue.
There are indications that currently China has at least ten advanced road-mobile solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) DF – 31A with a range of 11,200 km, about the same number of solid-fuel three-stage road-mobile ICBMs DF-31 with a range of 7,200 km, as well as several intercontinental ballistic missiles on nuclear submarines. Chinese H-6 bombers, which are replicas of the old Soviet TU-16 bomber with a flying range of 3,100 km, are still in service, but will be probably soon replaced by the advanced Xian H-8 bombers of a futuristic design. Around 100 Russian SU-30 fighters prepared to take tactical nuclear weapons on board are also in service.

China’s program on the construction of nuclear submarines capable of carrying nuclear-tipped missiles is studied better than its missile program and the development of strategic aviation. The information circling the expert community is that China has two 094 Jin and two 093 Shan nuclear submarines. Submarines under 094 project are capable of carrying up to 12 two-stage solid-fuel ballistic missiles with a range of 8,000-12,000 km, while those of 093 project are armed with nuclear torpedoes. Besides, the Chinese Navy possesses around ten Varshavyanka submarines under the Russian Project 636 armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, the maximum range is 2,500 km. They proved to be highly precise and reliable weapons in the Syrian conflict, from September 2015. Kalibr missile modification supplied to China is not intended as nuclear weapons carrier. However, the explosive capacity of the delivered ordnance (warhead weight up to 400 kg), as well as their accuracy, put these cruise missiles on a par with tactical nuclear weapons in terms of their destructive power.
In view of the above information about the threats to China’s security that are located relatively close to the state borders (in the East China and South China Seas), analysts from around the world observe the development of Chinese non-strategic nuclear weapons with particular interest. The matter is that under the most dramatic scenario of the US-China conflict, these weapons will be first used on the battlefield in the East China and South China Seas.
Chinese short- and medium-range missiles are denoted by the acronym DF, short for Dongfeng – East wind. The first three modifications of these missiles produced in the PRC in the 1950s were replicas (sometimes unlicensed) of Soviet R-2 missiles (operational range – 500 km, operational load up to 550 kg), the R-5 Pobeda (operational range – 1.2 km, nuclear warhead of 15-20 kilotons), as well as of the R-14 Chusovaya (operational range – 3.5 km, nuclear warhead of up to three megatons).

Already in the 1960s, China launches its own missile program based on the developments of domestic scientists and design engineers. Today, the US experts and military are convinced that the core of China’s nuclear capacity is made by medium- and shorter-range missiles. The US-Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty came into force in 1988, so the two superpowers ceased the production of such weapons. However, China was not a party to the treaty and thus not restricted to manufacture and improve these weapons. According to Vasily Kashin, Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies RAS, since the early XXIth century, China has produced over two thousand unitary-warhead medium- and shorter-range missiles with nuclear warheads that can instantly destroy the entire US military infrastructure in the Pacific Ocean in case of conflict. Beijing doesn’t intend to abandon such an effective tool of influence on the United States.

Regulatory documents in the development of China’s nuclear forces

Starting from 1949 onwards, Chinese leaders have never been eager to publicize their strategic views on military security and army development. Therefore, experts know little about the future developments in the country’s nuclear forces. Since 1964, when the PRC has got the status of a nuclear power, it pursues a “minimum deterrence” strategy, as it is described by American experts. This strategy was formulated more than 50 years ago and is still at place today. Its core is a pointed refusal to enter the struggle for nuclear forces parity with similar armaments that appear in the USSR (later – Russia), and the US armed forces while retaining the technical capabilities for delivering a guaranteed retaliatory strike if the enemy uses nuclear weapons or nuclear blackmail against the PRC. The thesis that China undertakes only a limited development of the national nuclear arsenal and has no intentions to enter into competition with other countries still dominates Beijing’s foreign policy discourse and will remain such in the near future.
A White Paper on China’s Military Strategy published by Beijing in 2015 came unexpected to many experts and brought a little information on the theme. It mentions that nuclear forces are a strategic cornerstone in ensuring national sovereignty and security of the PRC. This document announced Beijing’s plans to optimize the structure of its nuclear forces, to improve the early warning system, to improve the system of monitoring and control over nuclear forces, as well as to enhance its missile capability to overcome the BMD. Other mid-term priorities in nuclear weapons declared by China are: to increase the response speed to a possible nuclear weapon attack, to increase the survival rate of all elements of nuclear deterrence, to deter other countries from attempts to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.

The problem of China’s refusal to participate in international treaties on the limitation or prohibition of certain types of nuclear weapons

China received its current “running free” status among the global nuclear powers for historical reasons. In the mid-1970s when over 80% of its population lived below the UN-recognized poverty line and hundreds of millions suffered from malnutrition, the country was not regarded as a threat to nuclear stability, even in abstract terms. Moreover, from the very beginning, China viewed itself as a smaller member of the NSG, like Britain and France that also refused to become party to the Soviet-American negotiations on limiting and then reducing (eliminating) nuclear weapons.
Today, this cautious policy yields some dividends to Beijing. The very fact of consent to enter discussion on limiting the number of medium- and shorter-range missiles in service represents a diplomatic asset that Beijing could potentially exchange for real concessions, not only from the US and Russia, but also from other states, including the “unrecognized nuclear powers” ​​neighboring China (North Korea, India and Pakistan). China’s attitude to the “internationalization” of its program on production and introducing into service of medium- and shorter-range missiles is a litmus test of Beijing’s long-term strategy in the international arena of today. While the threats of isolating China from ocean transport routes are predominantly hypothetical, the accelerated rearmament with the latest missile systems of all types suggests that Beijing believes in the inevitability of an armed conflict with Washington in the struggle for dominance in the Asia-Pacific region and for leadership in global affairs. Indications of readiness to start discussing the issues of limiting and reducing nuclear armaments will give evidence of a change in perception, which underlies Beijing’s domestic and foreign policy.


Beijing has faced vigorous US efforts to deploy military infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific region, which includes, in addition to Japan, its traditional ally, some new and unanticipated opponents – Australia and India. China’s response has been prompt and extensive. It can be argued that the PRC is currently entering the phase of the development of mass production and a quantitative build-up of its nuclear forces. The capacity for such a breakthrough has been prepared since the late 1970s. It included establishing a system of R&D institutes, a state-of-the-art production base, as well as training of a new generation of proficient military. So far, it is impossible to imagine a scenario, under which China will abandon the implementation of its strategy of priority enhancement of the nuclear triad and large-scale introduction of medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles. Beijing’s interest is to deprive the US of any illusions about the possibility of isolating China and stopping the China’s peaceful rise, as it is referred in the Celestial Empire. The question is whether China can establish itself as the leading world economy and deprive the United States of this status, enjoyed since the 1870s. Nuclear weapons are only instruments in this dispute, albeit deadly, if applied in practice.