Analysis & Opinions - Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Why China stopped making fissile material for nukes

| Mar. 15, 2018

Some western scholars have expressed growing concern about China’s expansion of its nuclear arsenal and what they see as a “sprint to parity” with the United States. One scholareven claimed that China could have built as many as 3,000 nuclear weapons, far above the estimate of Western intelligence agencies, which assume that China has between 200 and 300. As a comparison, the United States and Russia each keep roughly 7,000 nuclear weapons. If China had any interest in parity, that would leave it with an awfully long way to go.

It is true, though, that Beijing has been expanding its arsenal of nuclear warheads at a modest pace. In practice, however, this is less cause for alarm than might at first seem to be the case. China’s decision-making about the size of its nuclear arsenal and whether to undertake modernization is determined mainly by its policies of no first use and minimum deterrence. “No first use” is fairly self-explanatory: Beijing has declared that it will not strike another country with nuclear weapons unless that country does so to China first. The goal of China’s “minimum deterrence” policy, meanwhile, is to have a small arsenal of nuclear warheads capable of counterattack, enough that at least some survive an initial nuclear attack by an enemy.

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For Academic Citation: Zhang, Hui.“Why China stopped making fissile material for nukes.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 15, 2018.