The Increasing Nuclear Weapons Stockpile of China
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Issue Courtesy: CLAWS | Date : 13 Feb , 2018


China has always perpetuated the policy of ‘minimum deterrence’ since it carried out its first nuclear weapons test in 1964.[i]

It was astonishing for the world to observe that China has never involved itself in the mad race of the armaments, even during the cold war era, when the superpowers were busy stockpiling nuclear weapons. Instead, China has always upheld the fact that it wishes to have minimum numbers of nuclear weapons which will be adequate for the purpose of deterrence only.[ii]

The adoption of the concepts like ‘minimum nuclear deterrence,’ ‘no first use policy’ and ‘counter-value’ exemplify that China is not engrossed in giving its nuclear weapons a primary or ‘decisive role’ in the conflict.  In fact, China has never made use of the terms ‘nuclear strategy’ or ‘nuclear deterrence.’ Instead, it has used terms like ‘nuclear policy’ which talks more about the management of its nuclear weapons. The fact that China has never used its nuclear weapons in solving its territorial disputes proves that its weapons are simply for deterrence purposes. However, the recent reports by the PLA Dailyshow that China’s military is attracted to the idea of increasing the total number of the nuclear weapons stockpiled by it.[iii]

This article will discuss the reasons for such a shift in the Chinese policy and the probable impact it could have in the Asian region.

Why China needs new nuclear Warheads?    

The article published by PLA Daily says that China needs more nuclear weapons to keep its pace with the ever growing nuclear weapons arsenals of the US and Russia. The rationale for such a change in policy are three – first, the US and Russia are busy modernizing their nuclear weapons, and, while theyhave reduced the total number of nuclear weapons with the facilitation of treaties like START Ithey have amplified the quality of nuclear weapons. This time, the increase in qualities of nuclear weapons will make the nuclear weapons more precise and compact making them perfect for the battlefield use. One of such development is of the B61-12 nuclear bomb which has a ‘dial a yield’ capability. This means that ground crew could adjust the yield of the nuclear bomb and thus adjusting the ‘explosive power’ of the bomb which can range from 300 tons to 50 kilotons.[iv]

This characteristic makes this bomb ‘usable’ which means that it could be used as earth penetrator, tactical bomb or even as a strategic bomb. Besides this, the increase in the accuracy of the missile has enabled the US to use some segment of the nuclear bombs for the destruction of enemy’s hardened targets while preserving rest of the stockpile for the later use. Such a capability will give the US adequate domination in the realm of nuclear weapons. Secondly, the recent National Security Strategy (NSS) of the Trump administration was released on December 2017. This report talks about ‘China’ 23 times which is approximately twice more than it got a reference from the Obama administration.  It was not even one time that the US has framed China in a positive light. The NSS abruptly said that the US has supported the rise of China in the anticipation that its political system will open up.  However, China is becoming closer as a society and has started threatening its neighbors. Further, the US has brought up of the term ‘nuclear weapons’ 63 times in the NSS which clearly explains the kind of priority which the Trump administration desires to give to its nuclear weapon stockpile.[v]

Together taken, the threat of nuclear weapon of the US for China is mounting. Thirdly, the leaked Nuclear Posture Review of the US by Huffington Post shows that the Trump administration wishes to increase the role of nuclear weapons in the US strategy, rather than reducing it. It calls for nuclear modernization by modernizing 450 Minuteman III-ICBM, replacing the existing Ohio-class submarines with a new generation of subs and introducing the new strategic bomber B-21 Raider. The leaked reports also talk about the new ‘mini nukes’ which are perfect for battlefield use. For building such a capability, the NPR calls for doubling the amount spent on nuclear weapons from approximately 3 percent of the military budget to 6 or 7 percent.[vi]

All these taken together, the present nuclear strategy of the US is not in support of China. China fears the ‘US nuclear hegemony’ and losing its capability of retaliation in face of the new technological developments by the US. As a result, China is showing interest in increasing the nuclear weapons arsenals.

Impact of Chinese Stockpile in Asia

The expanding Chinese stockpile of nuclear weapons could have an impact on the Asian region. Although, China aims at big powers it does have an impact on the strategy of India which has started developing and building nuclear weapons by keeping eye on China. The most common view is that increase in Chinese nuclear arsenal will have ‘spill-over effect in Asia’ which means India will also feel pressurized to increase its nuclear and this will be soon followed by Pakistan. By this angle, the south Asian region will soon be engaged in a mad race for nuclear armament. It could also trigger another debate whether India needs to amend its draft nuclear doctrine or not. However, India should not engage in such debates and should not stockpile nuclear weapons. Instead, the stress should be on preserving the survivability of nuclear weapons by building newer technologies. The current scenario of the Global Nuclear Order clearly lays more stress on the ‘quality’ of the nuclear weapons, rather than on the ‘quantity’ of the nuclear weapons. Further, it is important to note that increasing the quality of the nuclear weapons does not require any change or revision in the nuclear doctrine. The second reason that why India should not be alarmed about the increasing stockpiling of the Chinese nuclear weapon is that India has never considered China as a ‘nuclear threat’ because of the fact that both the countries share the policy of ‘No First Use’ (NFU). The territorial disputes of both the countries never had a nuclear weapons angle since decades.

Another possible impact of the Chinese nuclear buildup in Asia is that it will bring a kind of conflict between the US and Russia pushing further the North Korean nuclear question. It will also give sense to other states and to North Korean leaders that nuclear weapons are still the ‘most important weapon’ which should not be given up at all cost.


India could save itself from the ‘mad race of armaments’ by paying more attention to quality rather than quantity of nuclear weapons. Just like China, the aim of India should be to preserve the second strike capability. Further, it would have been better if the US chose its nuclear policies very cautiously. The US should consider the fact that its NPR frames the nuclear policies and nuclear proliferation policies of other countries which is quite more important than its policy of ‘America First.’

*Primary Sources   


[i] Yao Yunzhu (2008) ‘’ Chinese Nuclear Policy and the Future of Minimum Deterrence’  in Twomey, Chrishtopher M. (ed) Perspectives on Sino American Strategic Nuclear Issues, Palgrave Macmillan: US

[ii] The exact language which China uses is having nuclear weapons ‘lean and effective.’ This was mentioned first time in the White Defense Paper of China 2006.  ‘China White Defence Paper’ (online: web), URL:, Accessed on 20th Jan 2018.

[iii]* Lixian Rong Yang Min (2018), ‘What are the major measures to strengthen nuclear deterrence,’ URL:, Accessed on 30th Jan 2018.

[iv] Kristensen, Hans M (2014), ‘The B61 family of nuclear bombs,’ Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, (online: web), URL:, Accessed 14th Jan 2018.

[v] *National Security Strategy of the United States (2017), (online: web), URL:, Accessed on 20th December 2018.

[vi] *’Leaked Nuclear Posture Review of the United States’ (2018), (online: web), URL:, Accessed on 12th Jan 2018.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Neha Kumar Tiwari

PhD scholar from JNU and author of 'The US ballistic missiles: International chaos or deterrence.'

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