China’s economic rise since the 1970s has been miraculous. With that rise has come greatly increased spending on China’s nuclear arsenal. Is that spending buying China more security, or is it instead bringing the world closer to nuclear Armageddon?

The threat posed by nuclear weapons has been in the spotlight lately. Shortly after launching his invasion of Ukraine in late February, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s nuclear forces to “combat duty.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons, adding that Russia would definitely do so if faced with an existential threat. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s national security council and former Russian president, added that nuclear arms could be used against an enemy even if it did not use such weapons against Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Global Panorama, via Flickr.

Remarking on these developments, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres lamented that “the prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility.”

President Putin is not alone in valuing nuclear weapons. Shortly after becoming chairman of the Central Military Commission in 2012, then soon-to-be Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force was “a strategic pillar of China’s great power status.” 

Last year, he reaffirmed that declaration by commanding the PLA to “accelerate the construction of advanced strategic deterrent” capacities, by which he meant to build a nuclear force capable of rivalling the arsenal of any other country.

Mutually assured destruction

During the Cold War confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, nuclear posture was premised on the notion of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). The idea was simple, albeit frightening: if each side had enough nuclear weapons to survive an initial “first-strike” attack by the other and then to launch a devastating “second-strike” counterattack capable of destroying its opponent’s major population centres, both sides would have overwhelming incentive to avoid attacking each other with nuclear weapons.

They would also be inclined to avoid any kind of direct military confrontation that might escalate into nuclear war. An assumption is that this logic helped to prevent war between Americans and Russians.

A map of the Soviet Union in 1983. Photo: Manhhai, via Flickr.

Many people forgot about MAD during the post-Cold War period – from December 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, until February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine – but the prospect of it never went away.

A lesson that some governments around the world took from the Cold War, and which seems to be reinforced by what is happening in Ukraine now, is that a robust nuclear force creates a shield against direct attack by powerful countries. Many Ukrainians surely regret that their country abandoned its nuclear force in the 1990s. The promise that Russia made at the time to ensure Ukraine’s security was obviously useless.

Nuclear weapons may act as deterrents; to use them means potentially to unleash hell on Earth, but to possess them means potentially to prevent war – or so the logic goes. This explains why smaller countries have acquired nuclear weapons – Pakistan has them to deter India, for example – and why others, notably Iran, want to obtain them. 

Ukranian flags. Photo: Amaury Laporte, via Flickr.

This also helps to explain why China has a nuclear force and wants it to grow bigger. By having enough weapons to survive a nuclear attack and then to retaliate with extreme brutality, China can presumably ensure that no country will ever attack it.

China’s nuclear arsenal

China first began to build a “minimum deterrence” nuclear arsenal in the 1960s. For half a century it was content to have “just enough nuclear weapons to ward off attack, but not enough to actually get into the [nuclear arms] race.” 

However, in recent years it has undertaken a rapid build-up in nuclear capability. Its arsenal of hugely destructive “strategic” nuclear weapons is more than ten times what it was barely a decade ago, and the number of its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) has increased by several times.

At about 350 warheads, China’s nuclear arsenal is the world’s third largest, after Russia and the United States. According to a US Defence Department prediction (which one assumes may be tinged with some paranoia), the number of China’s nuclear warheads could double to about 700 within five years and reach more than 1,000 by 2030.

China’s DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019. Photo: Greg Baker/AFP.

Just as significant as the growing size of China’s nuclear arsenal are developments designed to improve its survivability – to guarantee China a second-strike capability and thus presumably to provide the deterrence of MAD. These developments include deployment of more manoeuvrable mobile launchers that are hard to target, and expanding the number of nuclear missile silos by a factor of ten, including hundreds of new silos in Gansu and Xinjiang that will enable China to play a shell game with missiles, forcing an adversary to target several locations just to destroy one of them. 

It is likely that many of China’s ICBMs have multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, with some of those vehicles being warheads and others being decoys to confuse American anti-missile defences, thereby increasing the likelihood that warheads reach their intended targets.

It has worked to develop a credible air-launched nuclear missile and advanced and expanded its submarine-launch capabilities. It recently tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. China may even have plans to deploy “doomsday trains” with multiple rocket launchers along its vast highspeed rail network.

It is probable that China’s rapid increase in nuclear capabilities is largely intended to deter any US attempts to undermine the PLA’s freedom of action in Asia generally and across the Taiwan Strait specifically. It may be unwise to overstate the parallels between Russian designs on Ukraine and Chinese designs on Taiwan. Nevertheless, one takeaway from the Ukraine war could be that China’s options for taking Taiwan by force are enhanced by the ability of China’s enlarged nuclear arsenal to deter US forces from coming to the direct aid of Taiwan. 

A People’s Liberation Army Air Force J-16 jet. Photo: Taiwan Ministry of Defence via Wikipedia.

Another reason for China’s buildup in nuclear missile capabilities must surely be a desire to thwart US antimissile systems, not least those deployed in East Asia. The best way to do that is to have more missiles, ideally with as many re-entry vehicles and warheads as possible, so that more of them are likely to survive defences and reach their targets, thus preserving China’s nuclear deterrent. 

China may also plan a warfighting role for its expanded nuclear forces – to use them in times of otherwise conventional conflict, much as there is concern now that Putin might do so if he feels cornered in Ukraine.

Efforts to persuade China to join negotiations with Russia and the United States to limit nuclear weapons have come to naught, with China arguing that it is “unrealistic” for those countries to expect China to do so, and that they should cut their arsenals before asking China to stop increasing its.

Pitfalls of China’s nuclear build-up

China’s official nuclear posture is to maintain a “moderate state of alert” in peacetime and to “mount a resolute counter-attack against the enemy” if subject to nuclear attack. It has a “no-first-use” policy, meaning that it promises not to use nuclear weapons unless attacked by them. 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping gives a speech on July 1, 2021 as the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centenary. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

However, no foreign country would believe this promise, not least because China has proven to be untrustworthy in many less important issue areas. This is not to suggest that the policy is an intentional lie, but rather that it is not useful in preventing nuclear conflict precipitated by another country’s perceptions of China’s intentions.

China probably has roughly 200 warheads that could hit the United States. Even if not all of them can reach every part of the United States, and even if many of them were to be intercepted by US defences – a very unlikely scenario given current anti-missile technologies – this number is adequate to destroy most major US cities.

Assurance of massive destruction in the United States should be a deterrent to an American attack on China’s vital interests. Chinese war planners may be assuming that this deterrent effect will increase as China’s nuclear arsenal grows in size and sophistication. 

However, if Sino-US relations continue to deteriorate, the prospect of China inflicting even greater devastation on the United States in the future might be a stimulus for a pre-emptive US attack to destroy as many Chinese nuclear weapons as possible. If so, more of them could mean less security for China. The line between MAD preventing nuclear war and MAD encouraging it may be a fine one. 

The White House in Washington, D.C. Photo: Frank Camp via Flickr.

Potentially adding to instability, China possesses dual-capable intermediate-range missiles that can carry conventional explosives or nuclear warheads. Those missiles can reach countries across East Asia and US forces based there. If conventionally armed Chinese missiles were to be launched toward US military bases, for example those located on Guam – as featured in a PLA propaganda video – American commanders might assume that those missiles are carrying nuclear warheads, potentially precipitating a hair-trigger US nuclear response that could escalate to a full-scale nuclear confrontation. 

Furthermore, China’s hypersonic missile programme is concerning because it might give an opponent greater incentive to strike first out of fear that it could not defend itself, although hypersonic missiles might also give an opponent pause knowing that a Chinese retaliatory strike could be more difficult to intercept.

China is upgrading its early-warning system to detect incoming missile attacks. This may seem to be prudent. However, a danger is that this system might produce false alarms – as happened in Russia during the Cold War – leading to China’s “resolute counter-attack” being initiated in error, in turn precipitating a hair-trigger response from the targeted country – presumably the United States – and potentially an inadvertent all-out nuclear war.

If China and the United States were involved in a conflict over Taiwan (or any other issue) and the Americans, in seeking to degrade China’s conventional capabilities, were to unintentionally hit its nuclear arsenal, China might respond with an attack on US nuclear forces. What’s more, as Caitlin Talmadge at Washington DC’s Georgetown University has argued, “it is not inconceivable to think that Chinese leaders losing a war over Taiwan could engage in asymmetric nuclear escalation to try to get the United States to back down or simply to halt the U.S. conventional campaign.” A MAD scenario might then ensue. 

Taiwanese military and their fighter jets. Photo: Makoto Lin/Taiwan Presidential Office, via Flickr.

Such a threat would simply not exist if China’s limited nuclear force of decades past were still its only strategic deterrent.

In addition to making nuclear war potentially more likely, and possibly making that war far more apocalyptic than it might be otherwise, China’s nuclear buildup may increase the likelihood of conventional war. That’s because Chinese war planners may see nuclear weapons as shields that give them more options to undertake the type of military adventurism that we see Russia undertaking in Ukraine.

China’s growing “nuclear arsenal could embolden rather than inhibit Chinese aggression,” particularly in East Asia where China’s conventional military capabilities exceed those of the United States, or will do so soon.

It is increasingly difficult for China to avoid creating a “security dilemma” whereby other countries view its nuclear buildup as a threat. American President Joe Biden came into office hoping to reduce the size of the US strategic arsenal. China’s buildup has put paid to those plans

Photo: via Flickr.

We may be reaching a point where the growing Chinese nuclear arsenal provokes other countries in the region, possibly including Japan, to develop their own nuclear forces to deter China. China’s nuclear buildup is hardly likely to do anything but stimulate India, with which China has violently clashed in recent years, to bolster its existing arsenal. 

China is laying the foundation for an Asian nuclear arms race that will result in a region bristling with weapons of mass destruction. This is hardly conducive to Asian security generally or China’s security specifically.

The dangerous mix of MAD and hubris

Questions are being asked nowadays regarding the Kremlin’s rationality when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons. Some may have similar worries about Beijing’s rationality in this respect. As China’s nuclear buildup accelerates alongside Beijing’s expanding hubris, the danger of a catastrophic nuclear war is rising. 

Might the obvious and growing self-confidence of China’s leaders, their fierce sense of national victimhood arising from their “century of humiliation” and their desire to reverse perceived historical wrongs, such as the alienation of Taiwan – not to mention China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats and jingoistic “little pinks” – add up to irrationality and a dangerous inclination to use nuclear weapons? 

Photo: Taiwan Office of the President, via Flickr.

At the very least, the apparent rationality that prevented nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War may not be guaranteed during the new cold war between China and the West. Because the consequences are so great – potentially a full-scale nuclear confrontation leading to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, and total economic devastation – even a very small chance of irrationality is frightening.

The only good strategic nuclear weapon is one that’s never used; if used, such a weapon has failed its function of deterrence. While that logic seems to have been influential during the Cold War – or maybe the world just got lucky – it may have less relevance today. Instead, China’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and systems for delivering them may be creating an environment in which highly destructive armed conflict between China and other countries is becoming more likely. 

By building up its nuclear arsenal, China is giving in to its paranoias and hubris, in the process setting the stage for nuclear war. That war would likely result in the MAD that is supposed to deter its outbreak. It would be a mad war indeed.


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Paul G. Harris

Paul G. Harris is the Chair Professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. He is the author/editor of two dozen books on global environmental politics, policy and ethics. Learn more about Paul's work on his website.