China and the nuclear crisis

14 Mar

China began its nuclear weapons program in 1955, with its first successful tests taking place in 1964. Since then, through the development of their weapons, their designs now consist of smaller, lighter warheads ready for the new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Although China closely guards figures about the advances it has made in the nuclear field over the past decades, the general consensus is that their capabilities are improving; there has, however, been disagreement about the speed of these improvements. Estimating their arsenal has been difficult, nevertheless the U.S Department of Defense approximates China has between 50-75 nuclear-capable ICBMs in addition to nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) and 200 nuclear warheads (NTI: Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2014). It is predicted, by the US intelligence community, that China could possess more than 100 missiles capable of threatening the United States by the mid-2020’s (Norris and Kristensen, 2013, pp. 1-8).


This recent influx in power being demonstrated by China, with regards to their nuclear program, heavily impacts global security and the foreign policies of the countries who once led the race of nuclear arms development; namely the US and Russia. Although China joined these two countries in 1992, along with the United Kingdom and France, by signing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, it stands alone, being the only country still increasing the size of its nuclear forces. The objective of this international treaty is to prevent the spread of not only nuclear weapons but also weapons technology in general. It aims to further nuclear disarmament and promotes international cooperation to enable the use of nuclear energy. It stands as the sole binding multilateral treaty with the goal of disarming nuclear weapon States (, 2014).


In 2002 China went on to be the first state to ratify the Additional Protocol, and two years later in 2004 it joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); an organization that seeks to aid the non-proliferation of nuclear arms by enforcing a two part guideline policy. (, 2014). In 2008 China became the first nation state to publically declared its adoption of a “no first use” (NFU) policy as well as officially pledging to never using their nuclear arsenal against non-nuclear weapons states. Controversy, however, exists around this issue. The phrase “no first-use” was not used by China in their 2013 Defense White Paper, as it was used previously in 2010; leading to the belief that they are no longer authenticating their endorsement in terms of enforcing this policy. According to the Chinese government the position they are currently upholding focuses on ensuring survival and maintain a second-strike capability. Waltz (1990, pp. 731-745) define this as a form of nuclear strategy that acts as the ability to ensure the country is ready to respond with their own nuclear retaliation if they fall under attack first.


Arguably the country that has been most affected by China’s increase in nuclear power is the United States. Although China has had the first-strike nuclear capabilities for the past 30 years, their resources are considerable smaller than those of the US (Lin, 1988). It has been said that the evolution of the strategic relationship between China and the US is essential to moving forward to future stages of international arms control, even if China does not directly participate itself. The United States has argued that it is now time for China to voluntarily adopt a more transparent policy when revealing the capabilities of their military and their development in technology to allow further international cooperation, in turn leading to progress being made in global disarmament. The bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia to responsibly reduce their nuclear arsenal will become increasingly difficult if they do not receive cooperation from other nation states.  The next US-Russia arms treaty could be directly affect by the cooperation of China to unilaterally facilitate negotiations. However this need for Chinas cooperation has not replaced the existing concern from both the US and Russia that reductions of their own nuclear arsenal could lead to China rapidly increasing it’s own (Lewis, 2007). The global community would welcome indications from China that the sole purpose of the development of their nuclear program is to pursue an effective form of deterrence and that regardless of external factors their first strike capabilities will not be implicated.


There are a number of possible cooperative steps that could be undertaken by these countries to improve their mutual confidence in each other. Confidence is needed to prevent any conflicts evolving into wars in which nuclear strikes might be used. These cooperative steps include discussions between key players in the global political community; where they are able to talk about preventing confrontation and how they can reduce the high tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. This discussion would further prevent any potential wars from escalating into conflict involving nuclear weapons. Cooperation would additionally aid the non-proliferation of these nuclear weapons. Moreover, a dialogue could be started on counting and forming rules for nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles; in addition to nuclear warfare in general. It has been argued that this is becoming increasingly necessary due to the drastic change military tactics over the past century. Many new theories about this crucial international cooperation have been recently put forward that complement those previously expressed by Fred Bright Jr (1965). The creation of a mutually accepted counting system could be used to replace that in already in existence under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Other suggestions that could aid the nuclear crisis include countries addressing issues on the back-end of nuclear arms control; for example the verification of the dismantlement of retired nuclear weapons (Woolfe, 2010).


To conclude, although China’s nuclear arsenal is relative small in comparison to the likes of the world’s superpowers such as the United States or Russia, its growth over the past decades has been substantial enough to form concern within the international community. The expansion of nuclear power, in countries such as China, has caused the nuclear crisis to be a key issue within the global political agenda. It is up to the world leaders to form international treaties to ensure cooperation take place to prevent the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons.  



  • Bright Jr, F. 1965. Nuclear weapons as a lawful means of warfare. Mil. L. Rev., 30 p. 1.
  • Lewis, J. G. 2007. The minimum means of reprisal. Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • Lin, C. 1988. China’s nuclear weapons strategy. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books.
  • Norris, R. and Kristensen, H. 2013. Chinese nuclear forces, 2013. [e-book] Sage Publications. pp. 1-8. [Accessed: 12 Mar 2014].
  • NTI: Nuclear Threat Initiative. 2014. Profile for China | NTI. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 11 Mar 2014].
  • 2014. NSG. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 14 Mar 2014].
  • 2014. UNODA – Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). [online] Available at: [Accessed: 12 Mar 2014].
  • Waltz, K. N. 1990. Nuclear myths and political realities. American Political Science Review, 84 (3), pp. 731–745.
  • Woolf, A. F. 2010. The New START Treaty: Central Limits and Key Provisions.

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