Opinion | Greater Expectations: Why China Is Going Nuclear 'Faster Than Ever'

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Recent data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that the world's nuclear powers are continuing to expand investment in strengthening their arsenals. While the total number of warheads around the world is declining, the number of operational nuclear warheads is increasing. The US and Russia, of course, account for an overwhelming majority of nuclear warheads.

However, it is China that is reportedly expanding its nuclear arsenal "faster than any other country". SIPRI's researchers estimated the Chinese arsenal to be around 500 warheads, as of January 2024. As per the US Defense Department's estimate, China will likely have over 1,000 operational warheads by 2030. More importantly, the SIPRI report argues that for the first time, China is believed to have some warheads on high operational alert. In addition, over the past few years, there have been increasing reports on Chinese efforts to expand the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based delivery platforms and infrastructure, such as Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos.

"Assured Retaliation"

The Chinese nuclear strategy centres around deterrence through "assured retaliation", which is the ability to survive an initial attack and retaliate with nuclear strikes that inflict unacceptable damage on the aggressor. Moreover, like India, China has a long-standing no-first-use policy. Despite this, as detailed above, there has been a steady effort by Beijing to expand and modernise its nuclear forces. Three factors are important to grasp to understand why this has been the case.

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First, Chinese assessments of the international security landscape, particularly US policy, have undergone tremendous changes over the past decade. China's 2019 defence white paper was critical of adjustments in the American national security and defence strategies, while also warning of arms races. The Sino-US relationship has only worsened since. Increasingly, Beijing has come to believe that the US is pursuing a strategy of containment. Part of this approach entails strengthening American conventional military superiority while modernising strategic forces. Of particular concern has been the American discourse around 'low-yield' or tactical nuclear weapons. Chinese analysts have argued that US policy appears to be lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the concern in Beijing appears to be that American missile defence capabilities and new conventional systems, along with improvements in cyber and electronic warfare, could undermine China's retaliatory strike capability.

"Maintain Readiness"

The 2019 defence white paper, therefore, called on the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to "maintain the appropriate level of readiness and enhance strategic deterrence capability". Subsequently, in March 2021, Xi Jinping directed the military to "accelerate the construction of advanced strategic deterrent" capabilities. Finally, in his work report to the 20th Party Congress, Xi committed to establishing "a strong system of strategic deterrence" and increasing "the proportion of new-domain forces with new combat capabilities". This is particularly critical given the heightened tensions around Taiwan. A modernised Chinese nuclear force potentially provides greater room for manoeuvre for Beijing in case of conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

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Second, as per the 2019 defence white paper, one of the goals of enhancing strategic deterrence capability is to "maintain international strategic stability". This, of course, is a significant expansion of the goals of Chinese defence policy from simply safeguarding national sovereignty and security. It also is indicative of what Beijing views as necessary instruments of power that great powers must possess. In other words, there is an element of status-seeking that is driving the Chinese nuclear modernisation programme. For instance, early in his reign in December 2012, Xi had termed the Second Artillery Corps, which was later upgraded to the PLA Rocket Force, as "a strategic pillar of China's great power status". This does not mean that Beijing desires nuclear parity with the US or Russia. Rather, it implies that nuclear power is being viewed as an instrument of power that needs to be cultivated to achieve political equality among major powers.

The Stalled US-China Talks

This dovetails into the third and final point, i.e., building negotiation power and setting global rules. After an extremely long hiatus, China and the US resumed official nuclear dialogue in November last year. Both sides described the dialogue as "candid" and "in-depth", but there were no significant outcomes. The US side demanded greater "transparency" and "substantive engagement" from China, while Beijing stressed the importance of "mutual respect" and the need to adhere to "the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security". More substantive talks have since not progressed, although the first Track II dialogue between the two sides in five years was held in March. China, meanwhile, has moved to call on nuclear-armed states to negotiate a no-first-use treaty or political declaration. Beijing understands that shaping new rules can only be done from a position of strength.

From an Indian perspective, therefore, it is important to not view China's nuclear force modernisation simply from the prism of parity and asymmetry. There are broader issues, such as great power conflagrations leading to a nuclear exchange, which must be taken into account. Some of these issues, such as the threat of increased proliferation and support for Pakistan, are a matter of deeper concern. Others, meanwhile, such as the call for a no-first-use treaty, can provide opportunities for making common cause.

(Manoj Kewalramani is the Chairperson of the Indo-Pacific Studies Programme at the Takshashila Institution.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author