The recently released annual U.S. Department of Defense report on China’s military posture predicts that China’s nuclear forces will grow substantially in coming years, up to 1,000 nuclear warheads in 2030, roughly one-fifth the size of the current U.S. nuclear arsenal. China is currently estimated to have 350 nuclear weapons. At the upcoming 10th Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, states parties must hold China and all other nuclear weapon states advancing their nuclear arsenals to account for violating their commitment under the treaty to pursue disarmament.
The report is the latest of a series of concerning findings in recent months on the expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal. In the past months, new satellite imagery has emerged of hundreds of new missile silos near three different locations at Yumen, Hami and Ordos in China which are suspected to accommodate missiles armed with multiple warheads. In addition, further construction has been undertaken at the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF)’s training site close to Jilantai revealing a clear connection of these silo fields to PLARF’s missile program. While the Chinese government has not declared a public acknowledgement of this military buildup, the sites which began being built from 2020, appear to be at several differing levels of completion. Using analysis of recent satellite imagery, two non-governmental organisations have declared each to have roughly the following amounts: Yumen (~120 silos), Hami (~110 silos) and Ordos (~40 silos and growing) bearing different types of short, long, rectangular and solid shelter shapes and patterns. These are allegedly supported by military architecture which are thought to possibly comprise launch-control centers, bases, and support facilities. China has also tested a new and sophisticated orbital hypersonic missile adding to concerns. This move is perceived by the United States and allies as an aggressive tactic, and it has escalated geopolitical tensions over China’s covert nuclear proliferation.
For many years, United States defense officials have claimed that China would doubly increase its nuclear warhead stockpile over the next ten years, without any substantiation, however these images may confirm their assertions. According to the Bulletin of Scientists, China is building these silos for several reasons: reducing the vulnerability of China’s ICBMs to a first strike, overcoming potential effects of missile defences, transitioning from liquid fuel to solid fuel missiles, increasing readiness and the balance of the ICBM force, increasing China’s nuclear first strike capability and strike options and finally, building national prestige. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda describe this a new strategy of “medium deterrence”, arguing that this in addition to buildup of the rest of their military arsenal, contradicts their alleged posture of “minimum deterrence” and “no first use” policy. They state that “China’s nuclear posture has entered a new dynamic phase that requires new attention from the international community”.
Commentators across the world are calling the newest iteration of increased nuclear stockpiling as the “new arms race”. With this increase, China will likely now be located in between smaller nuclear-armed states such as France, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea, and the larger ones such as Russia and the United States. The US will likely respond with their next Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) which will be finalised alongside the National Defense Strategy in early 2022. It has definitely inspired many conversations amongst defence officials that since China is “adding to the global nuclear equation”, the United States therefore requires more nuclear weapons too. The forthcoming Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference should view China with its “unparalleled and increasing growth of its nuclear arsenal and its refusal to join nuclear arms limitations talks as certainly in contradiction with the spirit of the treaty and the pledge under Article IV”.
Overall, all states should condemn China’s rapidly increasing and strengthening nuclear arsenal. With the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in conjunction with many other treaties, this goes against international law.
This article was written by ICAN Policy and Research Intern Talei Luscia Mangioni.