China's Aim to Become a Nuclear Superpower

Masafumi Iida


China has embarked on a comprehensive modernization of its military since the 1990s. Aiming to make US military intervention harder in the event of a conflict involving China―obviously with a Taiwan contingency in mind, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is reinforcing its naval and air force assets ranging from ships and aircraft to diverse missiles, including anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), thereby strengthening its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability. China is also focusing on "informatization" or the application of information and communications technology (ICT) to military operations and enhancing its capability in emerging domains such as space, cyber and electromagnetic spectrum. China is steadily narrowing the military capability gap with the United States.

In addition to the above large-scale reinforcement of conventional forces, China's nuclear arsenal also has recently attracted attention. In a report released in 2022, the US Department of Defense predicted that the number of nuclear warheads possessed by China would increase from the current 400 to around 1,000 in 2030 and 1,500 in 2035. 1 In 2021, the media was busy reporting China's construction of many underground hangars (silos) to deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). China, aiming at building a "world-class military," appears to be striving to become a "nuclear superpower" on par with the United States and Russia regarding nuclear forces.

China, which is rapidly strengthening its nuclear forces, has refused to disclose the present status of its nuclear arsenal or to engage in international dialogue on nuclear weapons control. As "G7 Leaders' Hiroshima Vision on Nuclear Disarmament" notes, "China's accelerating build-up of its nuclear arsenal without transparency nor meaningful dialogue poses a concern to global and regional stability." 2 This paper will review China's current nuclear weapons policy, analyze the actual status of China's recent build-up of its nuclear forces and its future direction, and examine what China, as a would-be nuclear superpower, aims to achieve and what strategy it will adopt.

1. China's Assertion Regarding Its Nuclear Policy

China conducted its first nuclear test on October 16, 1964, becoming the fifth nuclear power after the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France. In conjunction with this test, the Chinese government issued a statement describing the purpose of possessing nuclear weapons and its position regarding nuclear weapons policy. 3 The document justified China's development of nuclear capability, declaring, "Faced with the growing nuclear threat from the United States, China cannot sit idly by. China was forced to conduct nuclear tests and develop nuclear weapons... This is a major achievement of the Chinese people in their struggle to strengthen their national defense forces and oppose the US imperialist policy of nuclear blackmail and nuclear threat." The statement also asserts, "China developed nuclear weapons precisely to break the nuclear monopoly of the nuclear powers and to eliminate them…China's mastery of nuclear weapons is a great encouragement to the revolutionary peoples of all countries in struggle and a great contribution to the defense of world peace."

At the same time, the statement referred to the "no first use of nuclear weapons," which is considered one of the pillars of China's subsequent nuclear strategy. It declares, "China will not be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances," after justifying its nuclear development, "China is developing nuclear weapons for defense, to defend the Chinese people from the threat of a nuclear war launched by the United States." The same statement expresses China's position that nuclear states should undertake the obligation not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states or nuclear-weapon-free zones. This pledge of no-first-use of nuclear weapons and commitment to no use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states and regions has remained China's official position to the present day. Regarding the size of the nuclear arsenal, the "2002 China's National Defense" stated that it is "the minimum level necessary for self-defense." 4 According to "China's National Defense in the New Era," released in 2019, China is always committed to (1) no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances; (2) not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally; (3) not engaging in any nuclear arms race with any other country; (4) keeping its nuclear capability at the minimum level required for national security; (5) pursuing a nuclear strategy of self-defense, the goal of which is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China. 5

Although China has not systematically explained its nuclear strategy, it is generally understood to be aimed at deterring nuclear attacks or blackmail against China by maintaining a credible nuclear-counterattack capability (the second-strike capability) even when suffering a hostile preemptive nuclear strike. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Taylor Fravel names this the "nuclear strategy of assured retaliation," which aims to deter enemy nuclear attacks and blackmail by possessing nuclear weapons that could, small in number as they may be, survive a first nuclear strike and inflict intolerable damage on the enemy. 6 Fan Jishe, Senior Fellow for Division of Strategic Studies, Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, points out that since the sole purpose of China's nuclear development is to deter a nuclear attack by another country, China adopts a policy of maintaining a minimum nuclear deterrent capability to thwart such an attack; China only maintains an "asymmetric nuclear deterrence" against the United States and Russia. 7

The strategy employed by China in nuclear affairs is commonly referred to as the "minimum deterrence strategy." 8 One defining feature of China's nuclear strategy is its emphasis on preventing a first nuclear strike by maintaining the capability to retaliate with nuclear weapons. This indicates that China does not plan on initiating a nuclear attack. Therefore, China can openly declare no first use of nukes. Second, China is bound to acquire highly-capable nuclear weapons, small in number as they are. It stands to reason that the country needs to improve the survivability of its precious nuclear arsenal; to this end, China has been building large-scale underground nuclear bases, improving the mobility of missiles by employing solid fuel and developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with high stealth capability. Third, China will employ its nuclear weapons for counter-value attacks targeting civilian populations and infrastructure in major cities of the enemy country. Given the limited number of nuclear weapons available for counterattacks, neutralizing the enemy's nuclear capability by attacking counterforce targets like nuclear arsenal and related facilities would be challenging, thus rendering effective deterrence uncertain. To deter the enemy with a restricted number of nukes, a counter-value attack is deemed to be the most practical because the resulting damage would be extensive. 9

2. China's Massive Nuclear Buildup

While stressing that it will abide by its policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons and minimal nuclear arsenal, China is rapidly reinforcing its nuclear forces in quality and quantity. Since the 1980s, China has stockpiled a small number of liquid-fueled DF-5A ICBMs as its chief strategic nuclear weapons against the United States, deploying them mainly in silos estimated to number around 20. In the mid-2010s, China newly deployed the DF-5B ICBM that can carry multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). The introduction of MIRVs has enabled China to launch multiple warheads at different targets with a single ICBM. In the mid-2000s, China also began deploying the DF-31—the first Chinese solid-fueled ICBM—and, in the late 2010s, deployed its upgraded version DF-31AG. The solid-fueled DF-31 is ready for launch in a short time; it can be fired from anywhere from a transporter erector launcher (TEL), which has improved its survivability from enemy attack. Furthermore, China has recently begun deploying the newest solid-fueled DF-41 MIRVed ICBM. At present, China appears to have approximately 300 ICBMs in operation. 10

China is also advancing the construction of silos as if in pace with the increased production of ICBMs. China currently operates approximately 20 silos, and it is believed that the country is currently constructing even more of these military structures: 120 at Yumen in Gansu province, 11 110 at Hami in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, 12 and 90 at Ordos in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. 13 China will operate approximately 300 silos shortly. 14 A significant increase in the number of silos will lead to improved survivability of Chinese ICBMs.

China is also deploying intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), shorter in range than ICBMs. The IRBM DF-26, of which deployment began in the mid-2010s, can carry conventional and nuclear warheads and is said to have a flight range of around 4,000km covering Guam. Both the MRBM DF-21A that entered service in the 2000s and its improved version, the DF-21E, have a range of over 2,000 km and are capable of a nuclear attack on China's surrounding areas, including Japan. China is currently reinforcing its nuclear weapons to apply to potential theaters around it—a new notable development since the beginning of the 21st century.

China has also recently deployed the MRBM DF-17 mounted with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) that can travel at speeds over Mach 5. HGVs fly at high speed and change their trajectory while gliding, making it hard for existing missile defense systems to cope with them. The DF-17 is supposed to carry a nuclear warhead; 15 this means that China has now obtained a new nuclear weapon that could penetrate enemy missile defense networks. In July 2021, China also tested a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) mounted with an HGV. Reportedly, the HGV launched by China flew approximately 40,000 km in an Earth orbit. 16 Unlike conventional ballistic missile systems, FOBS can strike targets from any direction, making it hard for missile defense systems to deal with them. China's promotion of the development of HGV and FOBS seemingly aims to establish a nuclear capability to counter US missile defense systems.

China is also upgrading its SLBMs and strategic bombers, which constitute the so-called "nuclear triad" with land-launched ballistic missiles. In the late 2000s, China began deploying a new type of ballistic missile submarine nuclear-powered (SSBN), the Type 094 (Jin-class); four Type 094s entered service by the early 2010s. The Type 094 SSBN is estimated to carry JL-2 (Ju Lang-2) SLBMs, which are likely to have an approximately 7,000 km range; the general estimation was that the submarine must navigate to the Pacific Ocean to attack the US mainland. China has recently commissioned two improved Type 094s and started continuous nuclear deterrence patrols with six SSBNs. Moreover, JL-2 SLBMs previously carried by the Type 094s appear to have been replaced by new JL-3 (Ju Lang-3) SLBMs, which boast a range of over 9,000 km. With this enhancement of missile capability, China is acquiring the ability to attack the US mainland with SLBMs from the South China Sea, the Bohai Sea, and other neighboring waters. 17 Furthermore, China is seemingly developing the Type 096 (Tang-class) SSBN, the successor to the Type 094 SSBN.

Compared to US nuclear forces, China lags farthest behind in terms of strategic bombers. The H-6K, the mainstay of China's strategic bomber fleet, is inferior in range and payload; the only nuclear weapons it can carry appear to be free-fall nuclear bombs. 18 Consequently, China is focusing on improving the capability of its strategic bombers. Recently China has begun operating a new type of strategic bomber, the H-6N, which is an improved version of the H-6K, provided with in-flight refueling capability. The new bomber is supposed to have acquired a significantly improved range. The H-6N is also estimated to be capable of carrying air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBMs) that China is developing, which will likely enhance China's strategic bombing capability a great deal. China also appears to be developing a new stealthy strategic bomber, the H-20, of which many photos appear on the Internet.

3. China's Nuclear Strategy Shifting

The recent rapid buildup of China's nuclear capability, both in quality and quantity, represents a significant digression from its supposed nuclear weapons policy. If, as the Pentagon predicts, China has a stockpile of 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, it will be able to deploy as many nuclear warheads as the United States and Russia, which are restricted to deploying 1,550 pieces each under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). In addition, China is attempting to enhance and diversify the capability of and to increase the deployment of its ground-based ballistic missiles, SLBMs, and strategic bombers—the means of delivery of nuclear warheads. Thus, the country will be on par with the United States and Russia regarding nuclear triad capability. Then, it can no longer be true that China's nuclear weapons are fewer than those of the United States and Russia; such a development is a significant departure from its supposed position of deterring hostile nuclear attacks by maintaining a minimal second-strike capability. China seems to be aiming to acquire nuclear capability symmetrical with those of the United States and Russia in terms of quality and quantity; the country is effectively abandoning its previous policy of contenting itself with the "asymmetrical" nuclear relationship with the United States and Russia.

If China were to possess nuclear capabilities symmetrical with those of the United States and Russia, it would mean reaching a so-called mutually assured destruction (MAD) situation between China and the United States. China has significantly improved its means of delivery of nuclear warheads, enhancing the counterforce capability of its nuclear forces. By many accounts, China aims to adopt a so-called "launch on warning (LOW)" posture by strengthening its ground-based radars and by launching early warning satellites. 19 All these steps will strengthen China's strategic nuclear deterrence against the United States, accelerating a process to reach a MAD situation between the United States and China. China's creation of a robust deterrent against the United States could potentially give rise to a situation referred to as the "stability-instability paradox". This could make it easy for China to use conventional forces at the regional and theater levels. China is said to have an advantage over the United States in conventional forces in the Western Pacific theater. Moreover, China has a stockpile of many IRBMs and MRBMs and is considered to work on developing low-yield nuclear warheads; its tactical nuclear capability is also being strengthened.

For the Communist Party of China (CPC) government, which is increasing its nuclear arsenal a great deal, the primary security challenge is the reunification of Taiwan. In his work report at the 20th National Congress of the CPC held in October 2022, General Secretary Xi Jinping stated, "Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China's complete reunification is, for the Party, a historic mission and an unshakable commitment." He articulated that the use of force is "directed solely at interference by outside forces and the few separatists seeking ‘Taiwan independence' and their separatist activities." During a meeting with US President Biden in November of the same year, President Xi Jinping warned that "the Taiwan issue is the core of China's core interests; the first red line that cannot be crossed in the US-China relationship." 20 The primary mission of the rapidly modernizing People's Liberation Army (PLA) is to prevent interference in the Taiwan issue by the United States, an outside power.

Given these strategic goals of the CPC government in conjunction with the massive buildup of Chinese nuclear forces in recent years, it is safe to say that China aims to establish a powerful nuclear deterrent capability against the United States, thereby deterring US military intervention in, among other regional issues, the Taiwan issue and implementing its military operations with advantage. By not only reaching a MAD situation with the United States but also enhancing its tactical nuclear capability and increasing options on the use of nukes, the credibility of China's use of theater-level nuclear weapons will rise. China's increased nuclear credibility would make it easier for China to launch an attack on the United States, its allies, or Taiwan with conventional weapons without the fear of escalation to nuclear war. 21 The effect of nuclear threats to deter US intervention in regional war is noted in Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Wu Dahui, Deputy Director of Russian Research Institute of Tsinghua University, points out that the effect of Russia's nuclear threats in deterring the United States and NATO countries from entering the war in Ukraine is apparent. 22

A major potential obstacle to China's use of its nuclear arsenal as a means of intimidating other countries is nothing but its previously declared policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. If "China will not be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances," then it logically follows that China should be unable to intimidate other countries by implying the use of nuclear weapons. Sha Zukang, Former Chinese Ambassador for Arms Control to the United Nations and an authority on China's nuclear policy, made a notable statement regarding this self-imposed hurdle. At a symposium held in September 2021, Sha said, "Unconditional non-use does not apply to the United States unless China and the United States negotiate a mutual understanding on no-first-use of nuclear weapons or the United States does not take any more negative measures that undermine the effectiveness of China's strategic forces." 23 If China were to abandon the no-first-use of nuclear weapons against the United States, it would be entitled to use nuclear intimidation against the United States and its allies under the US extended deterrence. Sha Zukang is a former diplomat, and his statements do not represent the official position of the Chinese government. However, it is significant to note that an opinion at stark odds with the official government policy is attracting wide attention in China. We should pay attention to whether similar views will arise from now.

As discussed above, China's nuclear strategy has undoubtedly reached a major turning point. Previously, China's nuclear strategy was an asymmetrical one, focusing on preventing nuclear attacks and intimidation by other countries by possessing reliable second-strike weapons, though smaller in number compared to the United States and Russia. However, as far as China's nuclear policy in recent years is concerned, the country is moving in the direction of aiming to force its demands on other countries, backed by its capability to carry out nuclear attacks or intimidation by possessing a nuclear arsenal symmetrical in quality and quantity with those of the United States and Russia.


If China, which is strikingly enhancing its nuclear capability, shifts from the so-called "minimum deterrence strategy" to a "nuclear coercion strategy," Japan's security will confront an extremely harsh situation. Once China's nuclear arsenal rivals the US nuclear arsenal, not only at the strategic level but also at the tactical level, the hurdle for China to overcome in using nukes on a battlefield will be lowered; the unease among US allies about the US extended deterrence will increase. China has already built powerful conventional forces that could overwhelm neighboring countries; the country is expected to mount its military pressure on Japan a great deal over the Senkaku Islands. Some argue that China's nuclear superpower status will change the existing bipolar system dominated by the United States and Russia to a tripolar system led by the United States, China, and Russia, which will likely increase the incentives for an arms race over nuclear weapons and their use. 24 Military intimidation by China over the Taiwan Strait, the East, and South China Seas, and the Korean Peninsula will likely increase as time passes. Japan will need to strengthen its deterrence capabilities, including a counterattack capability, and to concurrently deepen dialogue with the United States over nuclear deterrence.

Masafumi Iida is a head of China Division at the National Institute for Defense Studies.

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