*I recently wrote this policy memo for the Global Intelligence Trust and decided to post it here as well.
As a major rising power and the only near-peer competitor of the United States, China has increasingly begun to flex its muscles politically and militarily. From its island building in the South China Sea to its One Belt, One Road Policy, China is clearly embracing its new status as a global power (1). One Chinese capability that grants it particular clout is its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, a recent CSIS report on the Chinese arsenal declares that “There is no way to assess the exact probability that China or the United States will ever make threats to use nuclear weapons… This does not mean, however, that the strength and capability of China’s nuclear weapons will not play a steadily greater role in… defining its role as a world power. (2).” As tensions rise within East Asia and between the U.S. and China, a firm understanding of Chinese nuclear capabilities is crucial. As such, this report will analyze the development of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, its current status, and likely future developments.
China tested its first nuclear weapon on October 16, 1964, making it the last of the recognized nuclear powers to acquire nuclear capabilities (3). The primary impetus for China’s development of nuclear weapons was its recurring military crises with the United States. In particular, American nuclear threats during the Korean War and the first Taiwan Crisis demonstrated to China that until they developed their own nuclear capabilities, they would always be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the United States (4). In short, China developed nuclear weapons, in part, to eliminate American escalation dominance in East Asia. Chinese nukes were deemed by Mao to be a hedge against overt U.S. meddling in China’s immediate sphere of influence.
After first demonstrating its nuclear capabilities in the 1964 test of a uranium fission device, China continued to conduct nuclear tests to improve its capabilities and signal these capabilities to rivals like the United States (5). In 1965, China tested a second nuclear device, and on October 25, 1966, China tested a DF-2 ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead. By 1967, China had successfully developed and tested a thermonuclear device, signaling that it had reached the rank of mature nuclear weapons state (5). However, unlike other nuclear powers of the day, such as the United States, China adopted a fairly moderate nuclear stance. Instead of building up a massive arsenal optimized for large-scale first strikes, China relied on furtive deployment patterns and ambiguity to ensure deterrent capabilities, while reducing the chances of an arms race. China adopted a nuclear posture of assured retaliation, andrelied on secrecy and opacity to mask the location of its nuclear warheads, guaranteeing its ability to retaliate in the event of a nuclear strike on mainland China. Deng Xiaoping further clarified China’s nuclear policy when he reaffirmed in 1983 that China’s nuclear forces existed purely for deterrence and were not intended for coercion or asymmetric escalation against large-scale conventional formations (6).
China has largely maintained its nuclear policy of assured retaliation and “no first use” (NFU) (7). Indeed, China’s most recent (2015) report regarding its nuclear forces, China Military Strategy, declares that “China has always pursued the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons and adhered to a self-defensive nuclear strategy that is defensive in nature. China will unconditionally not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or in nuclear-weapon-free zones (8).” Thus, at least officially, it appears that China seeks to maintain its NFU policy and will continue to refrain from nuclear weapon use, except in a deterrent role. Given Chinese regional conventional military superiority, it seems unlikely that China will be forced to rely on nuclear weapons to achieve foreign policy goals. Moreover, given the United States’ clear nuclear superiority over China, it is unlikely that China will find a costly and aggressive nuclear arms race in its long-term interests (9).
Despite China’s assurances, it has built a sizeable nuclear arsenal. While not nearly as large as the Russian and American inventories, the Chinese arsenal is diverse and highly capable. All Chinese missile units – conventional and nuclear – are under the control of the PLA Rocket Force, which replaced the Second Artillery Force as China’s custodian of nuclear and conventional missile forces. Unlike the Second Artillery, the Rocket Force also has direct command over all components of the Chinese nuclear triad, not just the missile forces. This is advantageous in that it creates a centralized command authority through which the Central Military Commission (CMC) is able to direct Chinese strategic forces, decreasing confusion and mitigating the risks of accidents (10). However, by housing both conventional and strategic missile forces within the PLA Rocket Force, China also increases the risks of miscalculation, as it would be nearly impossible for Chinese leadership to differentiate an attack on conventional missile forces and command infrastructure from an attack on nuclear missile forces. In other words, were the United States to launch a pre-emptive attack on conventional Chinese missile forces, China might mistake this attack as an attempted nuclear decapitation strike, as both nuclear and conventional missile forces share infrastructure and command and control networks.
China possesses a plethora of missile types. The vast majority of Chinese missile forces possess only very limited range, preventing them from striking the U.S. mainland. However, the Chinese nuclear arsenal is sufficiently advanced and complex to warrant a more detailed analysis. China’s older missile types – DF-3A and DF-4 – are gradually being phased out. All the DF-3A units have either been retired or upgraded to the DF-21 medium range ballistic missile (11). China still maintains one brigade of DF-4s, a two-stage liquid fueled missile capable of delivering a 3.3 megaton warhead to most of Southeast Asia and Russia. However, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist estimates that this DF-4 unit will likely be upgraded to the DF-31 in the near future (11). China also maintains around 20 DF-5As, two-stage liquid fueled missiles capable of hitting the United States and Russia. At least some of these missiles carry multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs. The DF-21(A) represents China’s primary medium range nuclear missile, capable of reaching targets in most of Asia. The DF-21 has a range of 1750 kilometers, while the newer DF-21A has an extended range of 2150 kilometers. China also has conventional variants of the DF-21, utilized in anti-ship and ground attack roles (11). However, The DF-21 is slowly being replaced by the DF-31. The DF-31 is road-mobile, carried by transport erector launchers (TELs), making it far harder to target and destroy. With a range of 7,000 kilometers, it is able to target most of Asia, but is unable to reach the American mainland. However, the improved DF-31(A) has an extended range and is thus able to target the continental United States. Despite its significant improvement upon the DF-21, the DF-31 has, somewhat puzzlingly, been deployed very slowly (11). Finally, the DF-26 represents the newest intermediate-range missile in the Chinese arsenal, introduced during a 2015 military parade. Like the DF-31, the DF-26 is a road-mobile system possessing a range of 4,000 kilometers. Moreover, unlike some of the other Chinese nuclear missile systems, the DF-26 is able to launch both conventional and nuclear weapons, making it a far more flexible system (11).
China has also begun to expand its sea-based deterrent force with the deployment of its new Jin-class SSBNs. Maintaining an effective and secure sea-based deterrent is broadly in line with China’s nuclear strategy of assured retaliation, as it grants China secure second-strike capabilities in retaliating against a nuclear first strike (12). China’s first SSBN class, the Xia-class, largely lacked the requisite stealth and range to serve as an effective launch platform. The new Jin-class, however, is significantly more capable and stealthy, granting China a secure, sea-based deterrent for the first time (13). Even with its substantial submarine advancements, China still lags behind other nuclear powers with regard to its sea-based deterrent. The Jin-class possesses fewer missile tubes than its American and Russian peers, and many analysts suspect that the design has suffered from severe technical problems (12). Moreover, Jin-class submarines are still quite loud and detectable, making them less than ideal for a continuous at-sea deterrent posture (14). If China were to attempt a continuous at-sea deterrent posture though, it would require at least five submarines to ensure continuous presence. Currently, China possesses only four Jin-class submarines, but is in the process of building a fifth. This suggests that China might very well attempt to maintain a continuous sea-based deterrent in spite of the Jin-class’ shortcomings (15). If China does consider conducting continuous SSBN patrols in its surrounding waters, it will need to seriously consider its command and control organization. While China has developed a coherent and effective network for controlling its land-based forces, it will need to develop protocols clarifying who holds launch authority over submarine forces, and it will need to decide the degree of decision-making power that is delegated to submarine commanders. With the recent formation of the PLA Rocket Force, it remains unclear exactly how China will integrate its submarine-based deterrent into the overall nuclear command and control infrastructure.
Chinese nuclear capabilities will likely continue to grow concomitantly with Chinese power. Steady modernization efforts like the utilization of MIRVs signal that China is committed to maintaining and improving its nuclear forces (16). With American investment in ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, China continues to improve its missile force, develop BMD countermeasures, and fortify its nuclear infrastructure (17). Despite significant improvement in its missile technology and SSBN development, China does not seem to be pursuing large scale increases in its nuclear capabilities. This is reassuring, as it suggests that China will continue to abide by an NFU policy. Of course, it is impossible to know the future of Chinese nuclear forces with certainty. That being said, it appears that China seeks nothing more than the steady upgrading and modernization of its forces. There is little to suggest that drastic changes are in the offing.