Why is China Modernizing Its Nuclear Arsenal?

April 1, 2015
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

As we approach the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) the 178 nations that have honored their obligation not to develop nuclear weapons are wondering when the five nuclear weapons states who are party to the treaty will honor theirs. The NPT entered into force in 1970. They’ve been waiting a long time.

Article VI of the NPT requires Britain, France, Russia, the United States and China to “pursue negotiations in good faith” on “a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” But instead of negotiating, these five nuclear nations are investing heavily in modernizing their arsenals and making sure they can be kept in good working order for generations to come.

China’s nuclear modernization program receives more attention than the other four even though its several hundred nuclear weapons are technologically inferior to the many thousands of nuclear weapons held by the United States and Russia. It was the only program highlighted at this year’s iteration of the world’s largest non-governmental nuclear policy conference. An international panel of experts, including three technically trained specialists from China, discussed why China is modernizing its nuclear arsenal, despite its NPT obligations.

Chinese Nuclear Modernization a Response to U.S. Pressure

The Chinese panelists explicitly connected China’s nuclear modernization program to concerns about the United States. They explained that China is upgrading its small arsenal of delivery systems to ensure they are not vulnerable to a disarming U.S. first strike. They said that China is experimenting with multiple independent re-entry vehicle (MIRV) technology as a possible counter to U.S. ballistic missile defense. And they noted that China is investing in a stockpile stewardship program to ensure its nuclear weapons are “safe, secure and effective,” just like the United States is doing.

China’s nuclear posture remains the same as it has been since its first nuclear test in 1964. In a declaration immediately following that test China promises never to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states. It claims it will never, under any circumstances, be the first to use nuclear weapons, and that it will only use nuclear weapons to retaliate in response to a foreign nuclear attack. China also claims to be committed to complete nuclear disarmament.

The Chinese panelists implied that China believes its current nuclear modernization program is needed to guarantee its traditional nuclear posture remains viable in the face of massive U.S. investments in military modernization that could render the United States invulnerable to a Chinese retaliatory strike.

One significant change China may be considering is to place its nuclear forces on a higher level of alert. A 2013 book on Chinese military strategy written by a committee of Chinese military scholars claimed that China could, in response to increasing U.S. pressure, launch its retaliatory strike upon warning of an incoming nuclear attack. The Chinese panelists did not publicly comment on the proposed change, but privately expressed the opinion that a Chinese move to launch-on-warning is unlikely because it would require significant technological upgrades that China could not put in place anytime in the near future.

U.S. and Russian Reductions Not Enough to Discourage Chinese Modernization

Both the United States and Russia point to mutually agreed upon reductions in deployed nuclear weapons as a sign of their commitment to the NPT. But those reductions are not enough to convince China to participate in multilateral negotiations on deep nuclear cuts. Chinese analysts point out that the New Start Treaty, which entered into force in 2011, allows both parties to continue to deploy 1,550 nuclear weapons. One of the panelists noted (correctly) that according to the definition of “deployed” in the treaty, the current number of Chinese nuclear weapons would be zero. More importantly, the treaty allows both Russia and the United States to keep much larger numbers of nuclear warheads in reserve. A reliable non-governmental estimate indicates that the nuclear arsenals of both Russia and the United States are still, despite the treaty, nearly 20 times larger than China’s.

But this disparity in numbers may be less relevant to Chinese thinking about the need for nuclear modernization than Chinese perceptions of ongoing U.S. efforts to develop new military capabilities the United States could use to launch a preemptive attack against Chinese nuclear forces. As the Japanese panelist at the conference noted, the United States is unwilling to accept vulnerability to a Chinese retaliatory strike. While the United States regularly attempts to reassure China that the development of what it calls “conventional precision global strike” (CPGS) capabilities are not intended to threaten its nuclear forces, Chinese nuclear strategists are not convinced. The Chinese panelists noted that the primary focus of Chinese nuclear modernization is to increase the mobility of China’s nuclear forces so that they cannot be so easily targeted by advanced U.S. weapons.

The Nuclear Arms Race 2.0

The frenetic stockpiling of large numbers of nuclear weapons ended with the Cold War. But there is a new nuclear arms race underway: a race for improved quality rather than increased quantity.

The United States, for example, plans to develop a new nuclear warhead, despite a public U.S. assurance to the contrary. Although the Obama administration argues the new nuclear warhead makes deeper reductions in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile easier to achieve, other nations—nuclear and non-nuclear—could see it as a violation of the spirit of NPT. The plans for a new warhead are part of a massive new investment in the U.S. nuclear infrastructure, which the Obama administration promised to the U.S. Senate during its debate on the ratification of the New Start agreement with Russia. In exchange for lower numbers of deployed weapons, U.S. nuclear weapons advocates demanded—and received—assurances there will be a virtually indefinite perpetuation of U.S. nuclear modernization. In the words of Gary Samore, who spearheaded President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summits from 2009 to 2013, “Nuclear disarmament is not going to happen. It’s a fantasy. We need our weapons for our safety, and we’re not going to give them up.

Prof. Wu Riqiang, a former missile engineer and one of the Chinese panelists at the conference, noted that in addition to concerns about the vulnerability of China’s existing nuclear forces, a second driver of China’s nuclear modernization program is the desire to keep pace with U.S. military technology. China may not be not engaged in a traditional nuclear arms race with the United States, and may not deploy some of the military capabilities it is developing, such as MIRV and missile defense technologies, but China does not want to be left behind or surprised by the emergence of new military capabilities that could undermine its effort to maintain a credible ability to retaliate in response to a U.S. nuclear attack.

If the Chinese panelists accurately reflect the thinking of China’s decision-makers, China is modernizing its nuclear arsenal in response to continuing U.S. efforts to further advance both nuclear and conventional military technologies. Although both countries claim to remain committed to the long-term goal of nuclear disarmament, they are both engaged in a technological competition that keeps pushing that goal farther into the future.

This is certain to be unwelcome news to the 178 non-nuclear weapons states waiting for China and the United States to finally live up to their obligations under the NPT.