In 1964 China test exploded its first nuclear weapon in Lop Nor, Gobi Desert. In 1967 China detonates its first hydrogen bomb. There is uncertainty about how large China’s nuclear arsenal really is, but according to scientists, China should have approximately 350 nuclear weapons.
China did not join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) until 1992. Since China developed nuclear weapons before the NPT was negotiated in 1968, the country is defined as an official nuclear weapon state by the NPT. That means that China are allowed to keep their nuclear weapons while they pursued effective measures towards disarmament. China has signed but not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). China has not joined the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
China has had nuclear weapons since the 1960s. The country tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964 and conducted its last test in 1996, and in total China reportedly conducted 45 nuclear test explosions in the Lop Nor area in western China. The tests resulted in extensive radioactive fallout and had major consequences for the people living in the area, who are mainly indigenous people.
China has a so-called nuclear triad, which means it can launch nuclear weapons from land, from aircraft and from submarines.
It is difficult to assess the distribution of China’s nuclear weapons, as China does not release this information. Although transparency has improved, there is still uncertainty about how large China’s nuclear arsenal is, how many missiles the country has and how far these can reach.
Upgrading the nuclear weapons
The build-up of China’s nuclear arsenal began as early as the 1980s and is still ongoing. From having approximately 290 nuclear weapons in 2019 to upwards of 350 nuclear weapons in 2022. The number also continues to increase at a rapid pace. China is building up everything from new medium-range ballistic robots to new weapons carriers.
During the summer of 2021, American researchers discovered that China is developing about 300 missile silos in the desert, which are probably intended for, among other things, intercontinental ballistic missiles. According to the Pentagon, within a period of five years, China will double its nuclear arsenal, and American scientists express that China’s total number of intercontinental strategic missiles could potentially exceed those of both Russia and the United States in the foreseeable future.
The role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy
China sees its nuclear arsenal as an important part of its defense strategy. It is about having a credible deterrent, in this case against the United States and its missile defenses. The consequence is an arms race between the US and China.
In 1964, the country’s leadership made it clear that China would follow a no-first-use policy, that is, that the country should not be the first to use nuclear weapons against an enemy. China’s limited nuclear arsenal would deter attack and could be used for counterattack if an enemy used nuclear weapons against China first. In the years since the pledge was made, the Chinese government has repeated this on several occasions. But the development of the country’s nuclear arsenal says the opposite.
Sources and more information
Nuclear Notebook: Chinese Nuclear Weapons 2021, Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda