China has an estimated 350 nuclear warheads that can be delivered by air, sea and land, with its nuclear arsenal likely to increase in the next few decades. China’s nuclear strategy centers around deterrence through “assured retaliation.” This means that China believes it has the ability to survive an initial nuclear attack and retaliate proportionately. China keeps its nuclear weapons on low alert, meaning warheads and missiles are stored separately until they are paired in preparation for a strike. Consistent with its nuclear posture, China maintains a No First Use policy (NFU). This longstanding policy states that China will never be the first to use a nuclear weapon in a conflict, and only ever in retaliation of a nuclear attack. Chinese doctrine can and will be affected by the choices of other nuclear weapon states. For example, if the United States continues to expand and strengthen its missile defense program, China may modify its nuclear posture to include a significantly larger nuclear force with the potential to strike the United States. In viewing recent Chinese statements and investments, some experts have begun to question China’s NFU policy.
Only months later, China displayed its military might during its National Day parade by showcasing the three components of a nuclear triad: ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles and air-launched weapons. Like many other nuclear-armed states, China is currently modernizing all three legs of its triad. Many analysts believe that China’s nuclear investments indicate it is more interested in establishing its regional dominance to deter powers like Russia and India, rather than its desire to be a great power competitor. While the Trump administration sought a trilateral arms control deal with China and Russia, Beijing ultimately declined to enter talks given its significantly smaller arsenal.
While China has yet to accept U.S. offers for strategic dialogue, the Biden administration has signaled that it will seek to engage China on nuclear arms control and risk reduction.
Recent Analysis on China
- China to increase nuclear warheads to 1,500, Pentagon warns November 29, 2022
- A World Without Arms Control? June 1, 2022
- Is a New Cold War with China Inevitable? February 20, 2022
- A Minor Step with Major Benefits February 17, 2022
- China and Iran, An Unlikely Constructive Role February 16, 2022
- Why I wrote about jumpstarting a dialogue with China December 9, 2021
- Sam Hickey on China’s Nuclear Weapons and Capabilities December 9, 2021
- Op-ed: How to Jumpstart a Dialogue With China on Arms Control December 3, 2021
- Op-ed: The Pentagon’s China Report: Reading Between the Lines November 28, 2021
- Milley warns of ‘Sputnik moment’ for China October 27, 2021