Chinese Nuclear Modernization: Assuring a limited but reliable counterattack capability
By Hui Zhang
Senior Research Associate, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
Since the New START Treaty entered into force on Feb. 5, 2011, concerns have grown about Chinese nuclear modernization. Some are concerned that China would reach nuclear parity with the United States as it cuts down its arsenal along with Russia. Such concerns are greatly increased, in particular, as reports are disseminated on China’s testing a new and more capable generation of intercontinental ballistic missile—Dongfeng-41.
However, China’s nuclear arsenal and its modernization are constrained by its inventory of fissile materials, and most importantly by its nuclear policy—a no-first-use pledge and “minimum deterrence.”
China’s current military inventory of fissile materials would not support an arsenal of more than 1,000 warheads. In practice, this author estimates China has a total inventory of approximately 170 nuclear warheads, including approximately 110 operationally deployed nuclear missiles (mainly land-based nuclear ballistic missiles, of which approximately 35 can reach the continental United States), approximately 60 warheads stored for its submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and bombers (see table 1, p. 20). This estimate is significantly lower than previous appraisals.
It can be expected that China’s future development of nuclear forces will continue to follow China’s nuclear policy of a no-first-use pledge and “minimum deterrence.” The main purpose of China’s nuclear modernization is to assure what it considers to be a “limited,” “reliable,” and “effective” counterattack nuclear capability for deterring a first nuclear strike. To maintain an “effective nuclear deterrent,” China will continue to modernize its nuclear force posture in accord with other countries’ military developments and the international security environment. However, the nuclear force will likely be kept at the minimum level Beijing feels is required to deter a nuclear attack. Specifically, US missile defense plans will be a major driver for China’s nuclear weapon modernization and a nuclear buildup.
To discourage Beijing from increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal, Washington should accept certain measures, including mutual deterrence with Beijing, limiting its missile defenses so they do not threaten the potential effectiveness of China’s small arsenal, a U.S. pledge to adopt a bilateral no-first use policy toward China–particularly one in which both capitals agree to rule out the use of nuclear weapons during a Taiwan conflict, and the U.S. agrees to exclude the possibility of conventional strategic strike against the Chinese nuclear force and other nuclear facilities.
On the other hand, if negotiations between Washington and Moscow proceed and those countries move forward to deeper cuts in their nuclear forces, China will have to reassure both capitals that it will cap its arsenal at a low level, perhaps 200 warheads. Meanwhile, China should officially declare a moratorium on fissile material production for weapons, and make clear the intentions of its nuclear modernization.
Hui Zhang, “China’s Nuclear Weapons Modernization: Intentions, Drivers, and Trends,” Presentation at Institute for Nuclear Materials Management 53rd Annual Meeting, Orlando, July 15-19, 2012.
Hui Zhang, “How US Restraint Can Keep China’s Nuclear Arsenal Small.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 68, no. 4 (July 13, 2012): 73-82.
Hui Zhang, “Nuclear Modernization in China,” in Assuring destruction forever: nuclear weapon modernization around the world, edited by Ray Acheson , published by Reaching Critical Will, a project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, March 2012.