China’s nuclear arsenal appears to be expanding substantially for the first time in years. Over the past few decades, China had maintained only about twenty silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). But recent evidence from independent U.S. experts shows that the country is likely constructing more than 200 new missile silos. China’s current program to modernize and update its nuclear weapons is moving at an unprecedented speed and scale.
This expansion is poised to change China’s traditionally small and mostly land-based arsenal across the board. Besides silo-based ICBMs, China also is building more road-mobile ICBMs and strategic nuclear submarines, even as it introduces air-based nuclear capabilities. The possibility that China could use fissile material produced in civil nuclear facilities to build up its nuclear warhead stockpile has raised further concerns because this would eliminate the biggest constraint on China’s warhead stockpiling capacity. The open-ended nature of this expansion, the abrupt departure from China’s long-standing minimalist nuclear policy, and the lack of any official Chinese confirmation or explanation have all contributed to confusion and suspicions about Beijing’s intentions.
Geopolitics Drives China’s Modernization
For decades, China has worried about how U.S. military capabilities—like missile defense and conventional precision strike weapons—could undermine the credibility of China’s capacity to retaliate against a nuclear attack. New improvements to U.S. capabilities constantly remind Chinese nuclear experts of their nuclear deterrent’s potential vulnerability.
As a result, Chinese experts have consistently agreed that Beijing needs to continue gradually modernizing its nuclear forces. For decades, it appeared that China was not investing in a massive nuclear buildup because its top political leaders believed that the country had other more important priorities—especially at a time when China perceived no immediate external threat. But that era is gone now.
The Changed Calculus of Chinese Leaders
Under its current leadership, China’s continued rise is coupled with growing disputes with Western countries over issues like human rights, democratic values, rule of law, and international norms. These developments have led Chinese leadership to conclude that China faces a new geopolitical reality in which Western countries are deliberately creating trouble and making up excuses to demonize and contain China, fearing that the country’s rise could challenge the West’s dominance in the international system. Believing that Western hostility is a result of bigger structural changes in the international system, Beijing feels the only solution is to further consolidate its own power until Western countries acknowledge the new reality—that China’s success and strength are beyond doubt.
Fearing that any weakness would embolden Western countries to destabilize China and threaten its regime’s security, Chinese thought leaders like Hu Xijin (the editor-in-chief of a major state-owned tabloid) stress that it is critical for China to quickly build a much larger nuclear arsenal. Hu argues that a bigger arsenal would make the country’s rivals respect China and exercise more self-restraint when dealing with Beijing.
Hu by no means always represents official Chinese positions on specific policy issues, but his reasoning seems to be striking a chord with the general public. Much more importantly, this line of thinking may also resonate with China’s paramount leader, who has long stressed that China should stand up against perceived Western aggression by showing unequivocal strength and firm determination.
Indeed, shortly after coming to power in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of the Second Artillery—the Chinese military’s missile branch, which was later upgraded to a full military service and renamed the Rocket Force—as “a strategic pillar of China’s great power status.” During an important national political meeting in March 2021, he directed the military to “accelerate the construction of advanced strategic deterrent” capabilities, which was the strongest and most explicit public instruction on the topic to come from China’s highest-ranking leader. With the country’s national decisionmaking power increasingly concentrated in one person, the current paramount leader’s support for greater nuclear capabilities could go a long way to steer China’s nuclear development policy away from its traditional moderate trajectory.
Why Beijing Cares About the Size of Its Arsenal
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union felt that keeping up with the United States’ nuclear arsenal was necessary for it to achieve real political equality with Washington. Today, similar reasoning seems to be behind China’s nuclear buildup—a belief that the United States won’t drop its hostility against China unless its hand is forced by robust Chinese strategic power. So it seems likely that Beijing is building up its permanent capabilities rather than planning to trade them away as a bargaining chip anytime soon in future arms control negotiations with Washington.
China’s changing perceptions about its geopolitical environment come at a time when decades of fast economic development are giving Chinese leadership the ability to make vast investments in the country’s nuclear forces. For example, China in recent years procured a large number of strategic nuclear submarines of its existing model, the 094 class, instead of building a smaller number of them while the more advanced 096 class is still being developed.
This indicates that China has become more willing to invest in quantity, in addition to its traditional focus on quality. Perhaps this is why China wants to use its unique advantages in large-scale infrastructure and industrial manufacturing to build up its silo-based nuclear capabilities.
The Future of U.S.-China Arms Control
It appears less and less hopeful that the two countries can avoid a nuclear arms race unless they can face and jointly examine their fundamental disagreements—such as their severe geopolitical perception gap. As Washington and Beijing talk past each other, they risk harboring wrong assumptions about how the other party would use nuclear weapons in future conflicts. If so, that will generate new tensions and threat perceptions, risking a downward spiral in overall bilateral security relations.
Unfortunately, these risks are not being adequately examined or understood at all. The recent revelations of new Chinese missile silos are rarely reported by Chinese media. Instead, the country’s most authoritative official media platforms—such as the People’s Daily and China Central Television—have dismissed the revelations by suggesting that the United States is demonizing China and that the so-called missile silos are actually windmills on a wind farm.
There has also been very little discussion about these new developments among Chinese citizens, and more importantly, policy experts. Chinese nuclear experts—who are supposed to contribute to policy debates and deliberations—have so far remained almost completely silent. Most experts do not seem to know what is going on and find it too sensitive to even talk about or debate the new revelations. In fact, a number of Chinese security experts have privately asked me whether the rumored silos are actually windmills—and have seemed rather surprised to hear my personal view that, perhaps, they are not. If facts are scarce and ambiguous, experts in any country will struggle to give the best-informed and most sound policy advice to their political leaders.
The scariest part of this great power competition is that in some places it has led to stricter internal security regulations that greatly discourage even domestic academic discussions on basic factual issues. Direct, candid, and substantive exchanges between U.S. and Chinese experts have also become much harder. As the two societies diverge, they will face even greater challenges to building shared views on factual issues, let alone policy matters.
More Escalation Ahead
At a recent public conference panel in China, a senior Chinese nuclear expert made the following observation: when it comes to the nuclear race, the United States and China today are somewhat like the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. This observation implies that the two countries may be in the early stages of a long, intense nuclear arms race. This expert judged that it might take a major crisis—something of similar severity to the Cuban Missile Crisis—to sober up political leaders enough to make them reflect on the dangers of the current course.
The international community was lucky that the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis did not become a massive nuclear exchange, which could have destroyed humanity. But luck is never guaranteed. We should not wait to see whether another major missile crisis will save us or destroy us.