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One Reason China Intends to Bulk Up its Nuclear Arsenal

FILE - Spectators wave Chinese flags as military vehicles carrying DF-41 nuclear ballistic missiles roll during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019.

China will bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal in the years ahead, mainly to match the United States, experts predict.

Beijing will continue to “modernize its nuclear arsenal for reliability and safety issues,” Fu Cong, director general of arms control at the Chinese foreign ministry, told reporters Tuesday.

The Pentagon had warned less than two years ago about China’s nuclear capability after learning that Beijing was building 110 more missile silos.

Signs of nuclear weapons growth in a country that seldom discusses its military developments means Beijing hopes at least to show its arsenal can resist that of Washington, if not catch up, scholars say. China has no other major rivals, they say, as its relations with nuclear power Russia are improving.

“I think that is a signal to the United States that China is not happy with [the] U.S. position of enjoying nuclear superiority,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Hawaii.

Great power competition

An atomic bomb test in 1964 got China started with nuclear weapons. As of 2020, the country was developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, that would “significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces,” the Pentagon said in an annual report to Congress.

The number of warheads on land-based ICBMs “capable of threatening the United States is expected to” reach about 200 over the next five years, the Pentagon report said. Beijing had previously maintained just 20 or so silo-based ICBMs, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a 2021 study.

A mobile, ground-launched, intermediate-range ballistic missile system that could swap conventional and nuclear warheads is expanding, too, the Pentagon report said.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal totaled 3,750 warheads as of 2020. Since 2017, 711 U.S. nuclear warheads have been dismantled. At its peak during the Cold War, the stockpile totaled around 31,000, the State Department said in an October news release. The department called for “increasing the transparency of states’ nuclear stockpiles” as part of their nonproliferation and disarmament efforts.

Washington still leads Beijing in the development of the world's deadliest type of weaponry, experts said. “New improvements to U.S. capabilities constantly remind Chinese nuclear experts of their nuclear deterrent’s potential vulnerability,” the Carnegie study said. “As a result, Chinese experts have consistently agreed that Beijing needs to continue gradually modernizing its nuclear forces.”

More nuclear weapons authorized by Beijing would reflect a wider U.S.-China arms race, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school. Weaker countries in Asia may chafe but should not feel surprised, he said.

“I think there’s already an arms race. This is not new. This is just an extension, whether it’s submarine building, whether it’s cyber capabilities, or now a competition for satellite powers. Nuclear weapons capability is just a continuation of the bigger scheme of things in U.S.-China rivalry,” Araral said.

Scenarios for using nukes

China and four other permanent U.N. Security Council members – a group known as the P5 – said Monday that they would work together to stop the further spread of nuclear arms and avoid nuclear conflict.

Officials in Beijing have maintained over the years that their nuclear weapons are for national security only, not an offensive strike.

China might use nuclear weapons, however, if the United States threatened to overwhelm it with tactical weapons in a real conflict, said Scott Harold, a Washington-based senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation research group. He pointed to development of intermediate-range missiles and the role of submarines and stealth bombers in nuclear weaponry as signs that China is preparing for a fight if needed.

Chinese President Xi Jinping may want better nuclear weapons as part of his bigger plans for China, too, Harold said. “Xi Jinping is all about making China great again, restoring China to a position of what he calls national rejuvenation, or achieving the China dream, one part of which is to have a world-class military by midcentury,” he said.

Nuclear weapons will further help Beijing to discourage any attacks on its territory and get what it wants during Sino-foreign diplomatic negotiations, analysts say.

Statements from China about modernizing its arsenal could spark other countries to make deals with Beijing now while it’s “weaker” and easier to engage, Harold said.

The updated arsenal will ultimately help China in any diplomatic talks as “backup by hard power,” Araral said. Other Asian countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, are modernizing their militaries, partly so they can keep up diplomatically at the bargaining table with China, he said.