China has an estimated 320 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.
While Beijing’s long-term vision for its nuclear arsenal is unclear, recent actions indicate a build-up in the short term. It seems exaggerated that China would double the size of its nuclear arsenal, but it is reasonable to be cautious of China’s nuclear aspirations. In 2019, U.S. Department of Defense sources warned that China was coming close to deploying a nuclear triad. 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. The Trump Administration asserts that this is proof of China’s desire to be a great power competitor, while many analysts say that China’s nuclear investments indicate it is more interested in establishing its regional dominance to deter powers like Russia and India. China isn’t negotiating a nuclear deal with the United States and Russia because the Trump Administration has suggested a reduction in Chinese nuclear forces. Since its arsenal is many times smaller than that of Russia and the United States, China believes it is not on the same level as the two Cold War powers.
The best way to clarify China’s intentions is through a sustained strategic dialogue. China has said that it is not interested in negotiating a nuclear reduction deal with the United States and Russia, given its much smaller arsenal. It also has yet to accept U.S. invitations for a general dialogue on nuclear issues.
Recent Analysis on China
- Op-ed: India, China, Pakistan: Three nuclear powers hurtling towards the boiling point September 25, 2020
- Op-Ed: How the Arms Trade Treaty has influenced the US-China diplomatic chessboard August 31, 2020
- Nuclear testing: Just say no June 18, 2020
- Assessing the 2020 Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Compliance Report April 17, 2020
- Rampant mistrust in wake of pandemic underscores need for accountability April 15, 2020
- Fact Sheet: China’s Nuclear Arsenal April 2, 2020
- Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) March 5, 2020
- Why Does Trump Want to Spend Billions on New Nukes? February 12, 2020
- Op-ed: The US has a backup plan to kill the Iran nuclear deal. It could spark a crisis at the UN. January 30, 2020
- A quick guide to the JCPOA Dispute Resolution Mechanism January 22, 2020