- A Chinese diplomat has publicly denied that China is engaged in a major nuclear-weapons buildup.
- However, his exact words don’t amount to a denial that China is not building more nukes.
- China has traditionally kept its nuclear arsenal to the bare minimum it needs to deter enemies, but that could be changing.
A senior Chinese official denied reports earlier this month that China is engaged in what he calls a “remarkable” expansion of the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal—but stopped short of denying the country was building more nukes period. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defense claims that China will effectively triple its inventory of nuclear warheads by 2030.
Fu Cong, the Director General of the Department of Arms Control at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, told Chinese state television that China is still committed to the “minimum level [of nuclear weapons in its arsenal] that is required for national defense,” according to a report from the Associated Press.
Last summer, the Pentagon’s annual report on China warned that the country was aiming to build a total of 700 deployable thermonuclear warheads by 2027, and 1,000 warheads by 2030. The report states that China’s pace of warhead construction is so rapid that its previous estimate from 2020 had become obsolete in just one year.
In addition to new warheads, the report warns that China is developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are long-range missiles capable of hitting the U.S. homeland. Additionally, a new H-20 nuclear-capable, strategic long-range bomber—comparable to the American B-2A Spirit stealth bomber—and a new Type-096 ballistic-missile submarine are under development, per the report.
China currently has about 100 ICBMs, including the DF-41 (pictured above) and six Type-04 Jin-class ballistic-missile submarines, each with 12 JL-2 missiles. China currently has a single type of strategic bomber, the H-6, capable of carrying nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Together, all three form a nuclear triad of air, land, and sea-launched nuclear weapons. China reportedly has about 350 nuclear warheads to arm these delivery systems.
One concrete measurement of China’s growing nuclear arsenal is the uncovering of 229 new ICBM silos in 2021. Researchers studying the country’s western desert, using commercially available satellite imagery, discovered the silos. China was previously known to have just 100 ICBMs, both in silos and mounted on heavy duty truck launchers. The United States, by comparison, has 400 Minuteman III missiles in silos scattered across the American West. As of March 2021, Russia is thought to have 310 ICBMs split between silos and truck launchers.
That being said, Cong’s assertion does not really match up with the hard reality of 229 new missile silos, nor did he even address them. But he does leave himself a considerable amount of wiggle room. Cong uses the word “remarkable,” while at the same time pointing out that China’s arsenal of hundreds of nuclear weapons is “not at the same level” as the United States’ total inventory of 5,550 nuclear weapons, including 1,800 deployed nuclear weapons on missiles, ships, and planes. One could easily argue that unless China’s buildup exceeds several thousand warheads, it is not, relatively speaking, “remarkable.”
Why is China building more nuclear weapons? One likely reason is the continued U.S. development of anti-ballistic missile systems such as the SM-3 interceptor and the Ground-Based Interceptor missile. Both are designed to stop limited missile attacks from countries like Iran and North Korea, but Russia and China worry either system could be scaled up to stop larger attacks. Beijing might also believe that an evolving great power like China needs more fully modernized nuclear weapons to address a range of contingencies—especially as it finds itself increasingly at loggerheads with the United States.
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