On Tuesday, a Chinese military newspaper urged the stockpiling of nuclear weapons to counter growing global instability. They emphasised the development of nuclear deterrence and counterstrike capabilities to maintain China’s strategic position as a global and regional power.
China’s first nuclear weapons test was in 1964, these tests continued until the mid-90s. Since then, the nation has regulated its Nuclear Weapons policy. A defence white paper published in 2011 mentions the maintenance of a “minimum deterrent” and a no-first-use pledge. The criteria of this “minimum deterrent” is not, however, specified.
While the current global scenario isn’t that of an outright arms race reminiscent of the cold war, Russian, American, and North Korean governments are intent on expanding nuclear capabilities.
The Draft of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) written by the pentagon and currently being reviewed by the White House, leaked earlier this month by Huffington Post, cited Russian, North Korean, and Chinese nuclear advances as threats to the United States. The report detailed Russian developments in nuclear technologies in particular, and emphasised a need to both increase American capabilities and modernise existing weapons for greater ease of use. Additionally, the draft redefined the “extreme circumstances” that justified use of these weapons to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks”.
As of 2017, the Arms Control Association has estimated that the United States and Russia have approximately 7000 warheads each. China is 4th in the world with 270, followed by Pakistan and India with 140 and 130 respectively.
The official newspaper of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the PLA Daily, said in an Op-Ed piece on Tuesday (30th January): “To enhance China’s strategic counterbalance in the region and maintain China’s status as a great power, and protect national security, China has to beef up and develop a reliable nuclear deterrence capability.”
Authored by researchers from the PLA Academy of Military Science, the piece was written in the context of the leaked NPR draft and the anticipated reveal of Trump’s weapons policy. The authors believe that Beijing has the necessary capabilities to avoid “bullying” from other nuclear powers.
The article cites the U.S. Congressional Budget Office's 30 year estimate for the maintenance and upgrade of the United States nuclear stockpile ($1.2 trillion), and a corresponding increase in Russian focus on the same. Military analyst Zhou Chenming does not believe that China will adopt similar expenditure policies on nuclear weapons as it is too “pragmatic”, instead adding only enough warheads to effectively counter threats from the US and India.
What China intends is therefore not an arms race- the article specifies no intention to match Moocow or Washington’s capabilities, only to boost their own. The authors believe that it is important to maintain a nuclear arsenal that is “not just for show.” This means an intention to strive towards usability in combat in a similar approach to that taken by the Washington and Moscow in recent years.
“The PLA’s ultimate goal is to strengthen the effectiveness of its nuclear counterstrike power,” Song Zhonping, former member of the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps, stated. Song and Zhou mention integration of land, sea, air missiles, and the conversion of single to multi warhead missiles as amongst the technological upgrades being considered. The op-ed also specifically mentions drawing “inspirations” from the approaches of the other two nations, such as developing a “specialized attack weapon system” similar to the Russians.
Our assessment is that the recommendation of the article is to improve nuclear deterrence and counterstrike abilities to maintain China’s status as a global power, we believe that this is particularly to counter the aggressive foreign policy adopted by the United States. Maintaining a balance of power with other nuclear nations is a key part of the country’s military strategy. It is also likely that Beijing is apprehensive about the role of the US navy in the South China Sea and views this as credible threat in their backyard.