China pushes for biggest expansion of its nuclear arsenal to date

China is moving forward with the biggest expansion of its nuclear arsenal to date, experts say – Copyright AFP/File GREG BAKER

Oliver Hotham

China is moving ahead with the biggest ever expansion of its nuclear arsenal, modernizing its atomic deterrent for future conflicts with the United States, experts say.

The SIPRI think tank estimates that China has a stockpile of around 350 nuclear warheads, a meager compared to the United States and Russia.

But it is growing rapidly and could have 1,500 warheads by 2035, according to a Pentagon estimate released in November.

“It seems that China is no longer satisfied with a few hundred nuclear weapons to ensure its security,” Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists told AFP.

Since its first nuclear test in 1964, China has been content to maintain a comparatively modest arsenal and has maintained that it will never be the first to use nuclear weapons in conflict.

But in recent years, under President Xi Jinping, it has begun a massive military modernization campaign that includes upgrading its nuclear weapons not only to deter enemies, but also to be able to strike back if the deterrence fails.

“China is carrying out the most significant expansion and modernization of its nuclear forces in the country’s history,” David Logan, an assistant professor at the US Naval War College, told AFP.

This involves not only increasing the production of warheads, but also improving the ability to deliver them with a nuclear triad: missiles, aircraft and submarines.

“The changes that are occurring or underway are very significant” and “will turn China from a state that has a nuclear retaliatory capability to one that is the third largest nuclear power in the world,” Eric Heginbotham, senior research scientist at the Center of International Studies, he told AFP.

“This will be the first time in history that the major nuclear powers will need to consider not one potential nuclear competitor, but two, and it will have implications for nuclear planning and stability everywhere.”

China is “rapidly” building ICBM launch facilities, with more than 300 silos in all, the Pentagon said last year.

– ‘Lower level required’ –

China has stressed that it maintains “its nuclear force at the lowest level required for national security.”

And Xi said in a joint statement with Russian leader Vladimir Putin last month that nuclear war “must never be unleashed.”

The data is not publicly available, but the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons has estimated that China spent $11.7 billion on its nuclear program in 2021, less than a third of what the United States is believed to have spent.

In addition, experts say there are obstacles to any rapid buildup of China’s atomic reserves, primarily its limited means of producing the fissile materials needed for warheads.

A possible helping hand could come from Russia.

Beijing and Moscow pledged to step up nuclear cooperation at the recent summit between Xi and Putin.

Senior Russian atomic energy officials have agreed to help China complete “fast reactors,” which can generate fissile material at a much faster rate than they consume it.

Beijing insisted the deal was for its civilian nuclear program, but experts say it could also be used to build up reserves of fissile material for warheads.

“It would technically be possible for China to substantially increase its plutonium reserves with its new civil fast breeder reactors under development using Russian-supplied fuel,” Korda said.

“However, there are no publicly available indications that China intends to do this.”

China has “very limited reserves that would limit rapid buildup,” Gregory Kulacki, China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told AFP.

“Based on public information on the rate of development of the rapid breeder program…it will be difficult for China to produce the plutonium it needs quickly.”

– Anxiety for the US –

China has plenty of reasons for its adversaries to believe that its nuclear reach extends beyond what it is, and the Pentagon has a history of exaggerating it.

But Beijing has good reason to increase its capabilities.

“Chinese strategists have been anxious about the possibility that the United States could execute a disarming first strike against Beijing’s nuclear forces,” said Logan of the Naval War College.

“The nuclear buildup is likely to partly ensure that the United States cannot remove China’s nuclear deterrent.”

China’s assessment of what constitutes a credible nuclear deterrent may also be changing, experts say, and will be encouraged by substantial improvements to its nuclear forces, particularly over self-rule Taiwan or in the disputed South China Sea.

Beijing has increased pressure on Taiwan and has recently carried out two major rounds of military exercises around the island, which it claims as its territory, which will one day be taken.

“One important factor is probably the assessment that a larger nuclear force is needed to deter US involvement in a potential future conflict in the Taiwan Strait,” Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told AFP.

“China may well believe that a larger nuclear force will moderate the amount of risk the United States is willing to tolerate in a limited conventional conflict.”

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