China to modernize its nuclear arsenal

As reported by Liu Xuanzun, Fan Anqi and Bai Yunyi in Global Times, China has no plan to drastically expand its nuclear arsenal but will continue to modernize it under the changing security environment, a senior Chinese diplomat said on Tuesday, January 4, in response to recent foreign reports that have been speculating and hyping China’s nuclear weapon development, including those on the alleged missile silo buildups in Northwest China and the alleged hypersonic tests.
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China revealed its most advanced nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile, the DF-41, at the National Day parade in Beijing on October 1, 2019. (Picture source: Global Times/Fan Lingzhi)

When asked about the topic at a press briefing on Tuesday, January 4, introducing the joint statement on preventing nuclear war and avoiding arms races issued on Monday by the leaders of five Nuclear-Weapon States, Fu Cong, Director General of the Arms Control Department at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that China is not dramatically expanding its nuclear capabilities, since China maintains its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level that is required for national defense. But it does not mean China is not modernizing, because China has taken measures to modernize its nuclear arsenal for reliability and safety reasons, Fu said.

China is improving the quality of its nuclear weapons dynamically with the development of technology, so as to ensure they are accurate, sharp, powerful, and difficult to intercept, Xu Guangyu, Chinese military expert, told the Global Times on Tuesday. About the silos, Fu said he was not in a position to confirm any of the reports, but he does not think it is a serious business to try to calculate the size of the Chinese nuclear forces based on those pictures. “As in quantity, China has no intention to engage in an arms race, but the specific number of our nuclear weapons is a military secret. The vagueness itself serves deterrent purposes as well,” Xu noted.

The first of China's nuclear weapons tests took place in 1964, and its first hydrogen bomb test occurred in 1967. Tests continued until 1996 when China signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). China has acceded to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1984 and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997.

The number of nuclear warheads in China's arsenal is a state secret. There are varying estimates of the size of China's arsenal. China was estimated by the Federation of American Scientists to have an arsenal of about 260 total warheads as of 2015, the fourth largest nuclear arsenal amongst the five nuclear-weapon states acknowledged by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and one of 320 total warheads by the SIPRI Yearbook 2020, the third-largest. According to some estimates, the country could "more than double" the "number of warheads on missiles that could threaten the United States by the mid-2020s".

Early in 2011, China published a defense white paper, which repeated its nuclear policies of maintaining a minimum deterrent with a no-first-use pledge. China has yet to define what it means by a "minimum deterrent posture". This, together with the fact that "it is deploying four new nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, invites concern as to the scale and intention of China’s nuclear upgrade".

When it comes to hypersonic weapons, many countries are developing related capabilities, Fu said :
“Hypersonic missiles mean faster in speed and greater capability. China does not advocate such weapons and would not use them in general circumstances”, Xu noted.