SUBSCRIBER+ EXCLUSIVE REPORTING — As the United States mulls deploying nuclear-armed, sea-launched missiles as a deterrent to its adversaries, China is building and modernizing its nuclear  arsenal at an unprecedented pace.


The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists estimates China now has roughly 500 nuclear warheads, a number that experts believe will grow quickly in the coming years. A 2023 Pentagon report highlights a significant increase in China’s operational nuclear weapons under President Xi Jinping, and projects an arsenal of over 1,000 warheads by 2030 and 1,500 by 2035.

The rapid rise in China’s nuclear stockpile has sparked alarm in the United States – U.S. officials have described  the growth as “breathtaking” – though China’s motivations remain a topic of intense debate: Is the nuclear push part of a defensive modernization effort, aimed at matching U.S. levels; or is it evidence of a more aggressive posture on the world stage?

“What is most concerning about the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal is that Beijing has not been clear about why the change and what this means for China’s long-standing policies and views of nuclear weapons,” Mark Cozad, a Senior International Defense Researcher at the RAND Corporation, told  The Cipher Brief. “The quantitative and qualitative improvements to China’s nuclear arsenal appear to go well beyond what is needed to prevent coercion and ensure a limited second strike.”

China’s nuclear history

For decades, China was a relatively minor player in the global nuclear arms race, lagging far behind the Cold War levels of the U.S. and the Soviet Union. China prioritized economic growth and regional influence while  maintaining a  “minimum deterrence” strategy, according to U.S. assessments, and thus only a limited nuclear arsenal. Officials in China have consistently stressed that their weapons exist for purely defensive reasons and have pledged never to initiate a nuclear attack (a pledge that has never been matched by the U.S.).

China’s recent expansion of its nuclear arsenal, including a rapid growth in its stockpile of nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, marks a historic shift, experts say, disrupting the longstanding two-power dynamic of the nuclear age.

A  new report  by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) said that China’s nuclear arsenal now includes land-based missiles, submarines, and bombers – with the numbers rising in each category. The FAS report also details China’s advancements in missile technology, with key findings including a rapid buildup in new silo fields for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), new ICBM variants, and the expansion of its intermediate-range ballistic missile force.

The report also emphasized that beyond sheer numbers, China is also modernizing its nuclear arsenal by equipping submarines with longer-range missiles and preparing bombers for nuclear strike missions. As Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA Director of East Asia Operations, noted recently in The Cipher Brief, satellite images have revealed that China is building two large ICBM silo fields: one in Gansu province with an estimated 120 silos, and another in Eastern Xinjiang with 110 silos.

“This significant increase in nuclear weapons and doctrinal shift from maintaining a ‘minimal’ nuclear deterrent to a ‘sizable’ nuclear deterrent is meaningful,” DeTrani wrote. He added that China’s ICBMs “could potentially carry more than 875 warheads when these two missile silo fields are operational.”

Understanding Beijing’s motives

Assessments of China’s nuclear strategy involve its plans for Taiwan, its relations with other regional neighbors, and its overall ambitions on the world stage.

“One should not underestimate Xi’s desire to elevate China’s global standing,” Andrew Scobell, Distinguished Fellow for China at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), told The Cipher Brief.  “China is clearly considered a great power economically, diplomatically, technologically, and indeed militarily but only conventionally.” The nuclear push, Scobell suggested, may be one more push to achieve parity with the U.S.

Scobell believes China may also be motivated by the nuclear gains made by other countries in Asia. “China’s threat environment has become more complicated,” he said, “with multiple nuclear states appearing around its periphery – not just Russia, but also India, Pakistan, and North Korea.”

Cozad also pointed out that for the first time, China has the resources and conventional capabilities to both enhance and maintain a major nuclear force.

“Beijing has long been reluctant to build up its nuclear arsenal due to concerns over the cost that an arms race would impose on China as it is trying to modernize its economy,” Cozad said. “It could be that Beijing now sees its conventional capabilities as being at a level of development and possessing enough capability that it is now time to devote increased resources to China’s nuclear forces.”

The Taiwan factor

China’s nuclear buildup comes as the country is engaged in a broad buildup of its conventional military that is widely seen as preparation for a possible invasion or blockade of Taiwan. Experts say the nuclear
Christopher Sharman, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, told The Cipher Brief that a more robust nuclear capability would force the U.S. to think twice before intervening on Taiwan’s behalf in the event of war.

“A potential intervention in a Taiwan contingency must not only account for the threat posed by long-range conventional weapons systems,” Sharman said, “but also must consider China’s rapidly advancing nuclear strike options, including strikes that can carried out from within Chinese waters.”

Scobell also surmised that among the lessons Beijing may have learned from the war in Ukraine is that Russia’s nuclear arsenal has deterred direct U.S. or NATO intervention. In this view, that lesson is extra motivation to boost its own nuclear capabilities.

“In a Taiwan contingency, a greater Chinese nuclear capacity could help deter or dissuade the United States from intervening,” Scobell added. “At the very least, it might make Washington think twice about intervention or considering horizontal escalation.”

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief.



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