Magazine Article - The Economist

China’s Nuclear Arsenal Was Strikingly Modest, But That Is Changing

Nov. 21, 2019

“I’m not afraid of nuclear war,” boasted Mao Zedong, China’s leader, in Moscow in 1957. Mao noted that even if half of China’s population were to perish in a radioactive inferno, 300m would remain. His Soviet hosts, who were hardly known for their softhearted devotion to human rights, were shocked. Yet despite Mao’s insouciance, China did not follow America and Russia into the arms race that saw them pile up 60,000 nuclear weapons in the three decades after that speech.

China is a military behemoth, but a nuclear minnow. It accounts for well over half the increase in global defence spending since 1990, but its nuclear stockpile is just 2% of the world’s total, with a paltry 290 bombs—about the same as France or Britain. Nor does it have much to deliver them with. The country is thought to have fewer than 90 launchers for its land-based missiles (compared with America’s 400) and just 20 nuclear-capable bombers (America has 66), according to the Federation of American Scientists, a research group.

China’s nuclear modesty is striking in other ways, too. America and Russia both keep their weapons on high alert, with nuclear warheads attached to missiles even in peacetime. They reserve the right to be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. And they have lots of tactical weapons (less destructive ones) that can be used on the battlefield instead of against cities.

The PLA Rocket Force—the unit in charge of nuclear weapons—does not appear to do any of this. It is not thought to keep warheads attached to missiles, even though that makes them slower to use and more vulnerable to pre-emption in a crisis. China also says it has a policy of No First Use, meaning that it would launch nuclear weapons only in retaliation for a nuclear strike from another country (although American officials are sceptical). And it does not seem to have any tactical nuclear weapons, perhaps because it doubts they could be used without escalating a conflict.

China has a conservative view of deterrence. “China’s attitudes toward nuclear weapons have remained relatively constant from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping,” note Fiona Cunningham of George Washington University and Taylor Fravel of MIT. “China has sought to maintain the smallest possible force capable of surviving a first strike and being able to conduct a retaliatory strike.” But what has sufficed in the past may not in the future.

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“China’s Nuclear Arsenal Was Strikingly Modest, But That Is Changing,” Economist, November 21, 2019.