Despite the opacity and secrecy over China’s nuclear weapons, a public debate has broken out in China about the country’s nuclear arsenal. Hu Xijin, the chief editor of Global Times — reportedly China’s highest-circulation newspaper — made repeated calls for China to quickly and massively build up its nuclear forces. Supporters of nuclear expansion believe that a larger Chinese nuclear arsenal is the key to prevent a war with Washington and “nothing else could work.” The overt nature of the debate is unprecedented and shifts public opinion toward greater enthusiasm for a more robust nuclear posture.
Hawkish, nationalistic opinion leaders add fuel to an already intensifying military competition between the United States and China that now risks spilling over into the nuclear domain. With an active arsenal of about 3,800 warheads, America’s nuclear stockpile is still almost 12 times larger than China’s, according to open-source research. But Beijing’s nuclear modernization efforts have raised the stakes. While it once was the smallest nuclear power among the five nuclear-weapon states under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (i.e., China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), it is now the third largest — behind only the United States and Russia. Worried that its arsenal will at least double before 2029, Washington has threatened to spend Beijing “into oblivion” unless it joins arms control talks. Senior U.S. officials even considered resuming nuclear testing to force China to the negotiation table.