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Preparing for Great Power Rivalry with the United States amid Other Threats

Given China’s ongoing modernization of its nuclear deterrent—a process that has manifested itself in successive phases going back to the 1960s—it seems quaint that the country’s leadership initially appeared to be dismissive of nuclear weaponry. Not long after nuclear weapons were first used during World War II, Mao Zedong famously disparaged them as “paper tigers.” This airy dismissal was influenced largely by the impact of China’s traditional strategic thought and the Marxist analysis of war and peace on Mao’s thinking. Traditional Chinese approaches to strategy, as exemplified for instance by Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, did not emphasize technology as critical to military success. Rather, the virtue of the combatants, along with their discipline and courage and the commander’s ability to accurately judge the strategic situation, were believed to be disproportionately responsible for attaining victory in war. Consistent with these beliefs, Mao unfailingly argued that “Weapons are an important factor in war, but not the decisive factor; it is the people, not things, that are decisive. The contest of strength is not only a contest of military and economic power, but also a contest of human power and morale. Military and economic power is necessarily wielded by people.”1

This anthropocentric approach to political competition was only reinforced by Marxist theory, which, for the longest time, found it hard to accommodate the claim that nuclear weapons had effectively transformed the nature of conflict and, by implication, the evolution of the social system itself.2 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had first articulated the foundational proposition that political change occurs principally through class struggles. Vladimir Lenin, further developing this idea, concluded that organized violence alone could produce the socialist revolution that was necessary for political change within countries. After the proletariat acquired national power, however, preparing for interstate conflict remained the only remedy to protect the revolution against the imperialist wars that would be inevitably launched by capitalist classes abroad. Socialist regimes, therefore, had to be prepared for incessant international hostilities, and no military technology per se—including nuclear weapons—could arrest violent class struggles as the motor of social change. Given these iron laws of history, it is not surprising that Mao, in common with most Marxists during the early postwar period, could not admit that nuclear weapons had, in fact, decisively transformed international politics. His own experience of victory, where a communist revolution produced by a “people’s war” had brought a new state into being, further confirmed his ideological conviction that revolutionary action, not technology, drove all large-scale political change.3

Ever the arch-realist, however, Mao soon came to understand both the importance of nuclear weapons and the urgency of acquiring them.4 Although he often displayed a contempt for this new technology in his public comments and sometimes even in his actions—choosing, for example, to confront a nuclear power such as the United States in Korea in 1950 and again in the Taiwan Straits in 1954–55—this belittlement was arguably intended not to signal any renunciation of nuclear weapons but rather to bolster his nation’s confidence in resisting U.S. nuclear intimidation at a time when Beijing itself lacked these instruments. Both the Korean War and the earliest crises in the Taiwan Strait constituted important turning points on this score: the former event forced Mao and his leadership cohort to take seriously the threat posed by advanced military technologies, including nuclear weapons, while the latter, which engendered explicit U.S. nuclear threats against China, exemplified the nuclear coercion that was hard to neutralize simply by threatening a “people’s war.”5

Consequently, Mao followed up on his earlier 1952 decision to build a national civil defense system, which was intended to offer some immunity to U.S. nuclear weapons, by initiating a dedicated program to develop Chinese nuclear weapons with Soviet assistance. Exploiting the Sino-Soviet alliance to advance nuclear cooperation under the guise of peaceful purposes, Mao’s China finally decided in early 1955—roughly a decade after nuclear weapons were first used in war—to develop these capabilities both because they were judged to be essential for protecting Chinese security in the face of intense U.S. threats and because they were, by this time, also seen as critical instruments of national power in the emerging Cold War order. When the Sino-Soviet split ended nuclear cooperation between the two nations in 1960, China continued its quest for nuclear weapons independently, conceiving them as insurance equally against the United States and the Soviet Union.6

The small nuclear force that China initially produced as a result—a few score land-based bombers with gravity weapons complemented by a few tens of medium-, intermediate-, and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles—persisted throughout the Cold War.7 The maintenance of such a modest deterrent suggested that Mao had recognized what would later come to be called “the meaning of the nuclear revolution”8—albeit with a twist. Nuclear weapons were enormously destructive and, as such, their value as a useable instrument for war was suspect. As Mao would declare in 1960: “Our country in the future may produce a few atomic bombs, but we by no means intend to use them. Although we do not intend to use them, why produce them? We will use them as a defensive weapon.”9 Although Mao had initially believed, consistent with both Chinese and Marxist intellectual traditions, that technology was never a decisive factor in either history or warfare, the crises with the United States in the early 1950s had eventually compelled him to recognize that nuclear weapons must be feared because “they really are mass‐destruction weapons.”10

Even if they had meager utility for warfare—because they could only destroy “big objects or targets such as big cities, industrial complexes, and naval vessels concentrated in large numbers,”11 but could not enable physical occupation or secure political control of a country or stifle the revolutionary spirit of its defenders—they were nonetheless essential for China if, as Mao put it, “we don’t want to be bullied by others.” Hence, it was necessary that China “should have atomic weapons by all means.”12 Not possessing them in circumstances where Beijing’s adversaries had already deployed them and even threatened their use was dangerous because it opened China to the hazards of nuclear attack and nuclear coercion. Mao had recognized this problem during the onset of the Korean War when he noted, “If the U.S. strikes with atomic bombs, we have none and can only allow it to strike. This is something that we cannot resolve.”13

China acquired nuclear weapons because, given its long history of weakness and vulnerability to threats from the outside, the Maoist state needed to immunize itself against such perils.

China, therefore, acquired nuclear weapons because, given its long history of weakness and vulnerability to threats from the outside, the Maoist state needed to immunize itself against such perils. Their very presence was judged to be an effective deterrent even amidst the intense competition of the Cold War, and, for that purpose, possession alone seemed to be enough. As Mao emphasized, “the success [of China’s nuclear weapons program] will boost our courage and scare others,” and since the size of the Chinese inventory appeared to be immaterial for producing these effects, he declared that China “won’t build more atomic bombs and missiles than others.”14 A few months after China’s first nuclear test in 1964, he reiterated the latter conclusion when he declared “We don’t wish to have too many atomic bombs ourselves. What would we do with so many? To have a few is just fine.”15

On this count, Mao was as good as his word. China built and maintained only a modest nuclear inventory throughout the Cold War, and Mao’s successors, at least until the advent of Xi Jinping, persisted with his conviction that large numbers of nuclear weapons were unnecessary for the realization of China’s strategic aims. These strategic aims were circumscribed as well. Mao understood that despite the formidable destructiveness of nuclear weaponry, they could not by themselves ensure the successful occupation of an adversary’s territory—clearly the most dangerous threat that one state could levy on another in a rivalrous international system. The nuclear revolution, accordingly, still left space for a “people’s war”: it could not erase the necessity of the armed struggle that would be carried out in the aftermath of any nuclear attacks by China’s huge population in defense of what is a vast and, by implication, hard-to-occupy territory. By thus declaring, “With only atomic bombs and without people’s struggles, then atomic bombs are meaningless,”16 Mao in effect reconciled the nuclear revolution with his Marxist commitment to the centrality of class struggle. As he summarized this synthesis, “We are afraid of atomic weapons and at the same time we are not afraid of them. . . . We do not fear them because they cannot fundamentally decide the outcome of a war; we fear them because they really are mass destruction weapons. Therefore, we have to deal with [the atomic bomb] with a scientific attitude.”17

If nuclear weapons were deemed irrelevant because “they cannot fundamentally decide the outcome of a war”—meaning that they cannot be used for the conclusive occupation and exploitation of territory—they were nevertheless important because their capacity to lay waste to population, economic, and military centers made it necessary to possess them as antidotes to nuclear attack. Deterring nuclear aggression, and the larger possibility of war against China, thus functioned as the chief reason why Mao would pursue the acquisition of these “paper tigers,” which, as he later concluded, happened to also dialectically exist as “living tigers, iron tigers, real tigers which can eat people.”18 If these latter breeds were to be defanged, China would have to produce nuclear weapons because even though they “won’t be used, the more they are produced, the more unlikely [it is] that a nuclear war would take place.”19 Elaborating this idea in a meeting with a delegation from North Vietnam in 1970, Mao noted that “although the possibility of the major powers fighting a world war remains, everyone does not dare to start such a war only because they have nuclear weapons.”20

Preventing the nuclear coercion of China closely followed the deterrence of nuclear aggression as a strategic objective in large part because Beijing felt itself victimized by U.S. nuclear threats at various moments during the early Cold War. One Chinese scholar has in fact argued that “if China had not suffered from nuclear coercion in the first place, perhaps it would not have chosen to develop nuclear weapons.”21 Although this conclusion is debatable, the fact remains that defeating nuclear blackmail constituted an important motivation underlying China’s quest for the bomb. Mao conveyed his concern about this vulnerability when he declaimed, “Imperialists assess that we only have a few things and then they come to bully us. They say, ‘how many atomic bombs do you have?’”22 To which the only sensible response from Mao’s perspective was his defiant utterance in 1956: “We want to have not only more planes and heavy artillery, but also the atomic bomb. In today’s world, if we don’t want to be bullied, then we cannot do without this thing.”23

While acquiring nuclear weapons was thus essential to protecting China’s security in the face of threatened nuclear attacks and coercion, the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence for Mao did not derive from any calculations about the need for a “credible second-strike capability.”24 Rather, the enormous destruction that these weapons could inflict was seen as sufficient to produce the requisite political immunity to aggression and coercion. Nor would the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence derive from their offensive employment. As the first objective enunciated in “The Guidelines for Developing Nuclear Weapons,” the document supervised by Mao in 1958, stated, “Our country is developing nuclear weapons in order to warn our enemies against making war on us, not in order to use nuclear weapons to attack them.”25 In fact, the actual use of nuclear weapons became more and more unthinkable in the post-Hiroshima era. As Mao, combining sharp political acuity with traditional Chinese notions of rectitude, would exclaim, “How can an atomic bomb be used indiscriminately? If we have one, it could not be used indiscriminately, for to do so would be a crime.”26 Yet the very possibility of their use in extremis was what vested them with potent effectiveness as the ultimate safeguard of national security.

The power of nuclear weapons brought in trail other benefits as well: they were, especially in their thermonuclear variants, not only insanely destructive but they also represented the acme of technological sophistication (at least during the Cold War). Hence, their possession was judged by Mao as providing China with both successful deterrence and exceptional prestige in the international system: as he stated plainly in 1958, “[we] also want that atomic bomb. I hear that with such a big thing, if you don’t have it, then others will say that you don’t count. Fine, we should build a few.”27 If possessing nuclear weapons then bestowed on China the prestige of being a state that “counts,” they also simultaneously advanced Mao’s aim of breaking the nuclear duopoly that would have otherwise accrued to the United States and Russia. This consideration was very important to China as a revolutionary state: it animated Beijing’s resistance toward all monopolies of power internationally and strengthened its early belief that proliferating nuclear weapons beyond its borders represented a “manifestation of proletarian internationalism.”28 As Zhou Enlai, repeating Mao’s ideas, would declare in 1961, “If all countries have nuclear weapons, the possibility of nuclear wars would decrease.”29

Where deterrence specifically was concerned, Mao concluded early on that a gigantic number of nuclear weapons—as the United States and the Soviet Union were then pursuing—was unnecessary for preventing nuclear attacks and nuclear threats against China. Zhou Enlai, echoing Mao again, would note that “the key does not lie with their quantity, rather, we need to have a minimum amount, quality, and variety.”30 Consequently, when China finally stood up a nuclear force during the Maoist period, it settled on a relatively small arsenal of high-yield weapons intended to support a strategy of relatively languid retaliation. The hydrogen bomb, in particular, brought diverse benefits simultaneously: it permitted China to stand shoulder to shoulder with the great powers where demonstrating technological excellence was concerned, while maximizing the destructiveness that could be inflicted on China’s adversaries without requiring a huge arsenal for effective deterrence.

The development of thermonuclear devices, accordingly, allowed China to persist with a small nuclear force, even though this capability was, by conventional standards, quite vulnerable to counterforce strikes by its more powerful adversaries. Yet deterrence was successfully obtained because even the comparatively weak Chinese nuclear arsenal constituted, in marshal Nie Rongzhen’s inimitable phrase, which Jeffrey Lewis has fittingly popularized, “the minimum means of reprisal.”31 By their very presence, and irrespective of their specific vulnerabilities, they served to induce caution on the part of stronger rivals like the United States and the Soviet Union even during serious crises. This became evident when more-powerful Moscow was compelled to stay its hand in the face of serious temptations to attack what were obviously weak Chinese nuclear forces during the acute Sino-Soviet crisis of 1969.32 Because the “minimum means of reprisal,” when combined with the threat of an endless “people’s war,” proved adequate for effective deterrence against both nuclear attacks and intimidation in the real world of international politics, Maoist China avoided pursuing some alternative maximum nuclear force that was judged to be both wasteful and unnecessary.

The rationale for China persisting with a small nuclear arsenal for most of the Cold War has precipitated extensive discussion among scholars over the years and a variety of explanations have been proffered. These include: the Chinese leadership’s recognition of the enormous destructiveness of nuclear weapons which, even when not publicly emphasized, was perceived as functionally changing the character of great power rivalry; the extraordinary effectiveness of nuclear deterrence even at low force levels because of the terrible and arguably unacceptable costs of even modest or uncertain retaliatory attacks to the assailant; the primacy of protecting the people’s war concept even in the face of the nuclear revolution; the differences in the Chinese leadership’s attitudes to risk, including where the survivability of their nuclear forces were concerned, in comparison to those prevalent in both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War; the relatively high costs of a large nuclear deterrent that China could not afford given its significant economic constraints in the 1960s and 1970s; the absence of organizational pressures from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for a bigger nuclear arsenal due, in part, to its lack of professional experience in managing such capabilities at a time when its leadership was composed mostly of revolutionary veterans; and, finally, because the domestic turbulence during the Maoist period prevented the uniformed military—which remains the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and not the defense force of the Chinese state—from thinking seriously—and expansively—about nuclear requirements despite the competitive international context.33

Each of these explanations captures a different aspect of the calculation that drove Chinese policymakers toward a small nuclear force historically. But, as M. Taylor Fravel and Evan Medeiros’s excellent review of this issue suggests, the modesty of China’s Cold War nuclear deterrent cannot be explained apart from the towering figure of Mao Zedong and his quite canny assessment of nuclear weapons as instruments of deterrence in world politics.34 His recognition of the import of the “nuclear revolution,” however belated and qualified, left an enduring imprint on his successors who have broadly persisted with his legacy in the following ways: maintaining modest nuclear forces oriented primarily toward deterring nuclear attacks through the threat of retaliation rather than through preemptive damage-limiting strikes; treating nuclear weapons primarily as political instruments for averting attack and coercion rather than as warfighting devices for neutralizing operational and tactical threats; and seeking the deterrence benefits of nuclear possession primarily for protecting the Chinese homeland, its people, and its interests rather than safeguarding the security of distant allies.35 Even Xi Jinping’s current innovations have not comprehensively transformed this Maoist legacy yet—though the previous emphasis on maintaining small nuclear forces and disavowing all missions other than slow punitive countervalue retaliation appears poised for significant, and even dramatic, changes.

In the final analysis, however, Beijing’s conservative approach toward nuclear weaponry was arguably sustained only because of its specific positioning in the Cold War international system. For all of China’s rivalries with the United States, the Soviet Union, and others, it was not a principal protagonist in the central nuclear competition of that era. The Cold War order was fundamentally bipolar, including and especially where nuclear interactions were concerned. For political, technological, strategic, economic, and perhaps even cultural reasons, the United States embarked on a nuclear strategy that essentially “conventionalized” nuclear weapons, using these devices not only to deter attacks on its homeland and that of its allies but also treating them as substitutes for conventional forces on the battlefield.36 The Soviet Union followed suit and even more ambitiously conceived of nuclear weapons employment strategies designed to produce “victory” in the land wars that were anticipated in Europe and elsewhere.37 The net result was that both sides ended up deploying huge nuclear arsenals intended to service expansive nuclear strategies, including damage limitation through offensive counterforce attacks.

All the other nuclear powers—the United Kingdom, France, and China—effectively became bystanders in this race, developing picayune nuclear arsenals in comparison to the United States and the Soviet Union and relying largely on the mutual deterrence existing between the two superpowers to create the conditions that prevented their own more modest nuclear forces from ever seriously coming into play. The secondary nuclear states were thus able to derive benefits from their limited arsenals in large measure because the main antagonists—the United States and the Soviet Union—had succeeded in checkmating one another through a relatively effective system of mutual deterrence built upon many tens of thousands of nuclear weapons on both sides. This resulting impasse transformed bipolar nuclear deterrence into something resembling a collective good, where benefits were provided to others without necessarily requiring exorbitant contributions from them in return.38 These “positive externalities” of superpower nuclear deterrence enabled the secondary nuclear powers to preserve their security even though they possessed only modest arsenals because the latter, in effect, either reinforced the benefits otherwise provided by bipolar deterrence or served as peripheral substitutes were superpower deterrence to improbably fail.

China, accordingly, could get away with small nuclear forces during the Cold War because it was not the principal adversary facing either superpower. The tripolar interactions between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China only made Beijing’s unassuming nuclear strategy even more viable by creating a situation where neither Washington nor Moscow could permit the other to neutralize Beijing without suffering harm to their own interests.39 Thus, Soviet nuclear weapons benefited China until about 1960, while U.S. nuclear weapons—as became evident when Washington opposed Soviet plans for a nuclear attack on China in 1969—produced benefits for Chinese security from 1969 onward and certainly from 1972 until the end of the Cold War.40 China’s weak nuclear deterrent was thus transformed by the structural character of the bipolar competition into a strategic reserve that provided additional—ineluctable and non-dissipative—insurance against dangers emanating from one or the other or both superpowers.

Whether Beijing’s Cold War nuclear deterrent would have stayed so limited if China had to face the United States as its principal antagonist during that era is an interesting counterfactual. Given what is known about Mao and his cohort’s views about nuclear weaponry, it could be cautiously concluded that China would have built larger nuclear forces, as Xi Jinping now seems to be doing, but mainly to ensure their survivability and to enable Beijing to inflict enough retaliation in the face of Washington’s generalized nuclear superiority and its pursuit of damage-limiting nuclear strategies. Yet it is unlikely—as seems to be corroborated by Beijing’s nuclear modernization today—that China would have embarked on developing the symmetrical nuclear capabilities required to execute comprehensive counterforce operations as the United States did during the Cold War and still does presently. Obviously, this inference cannot be conclusive, but the stark differences in the Chinese leadership’s attitudes to nuclear weapons—in contrast to the views that came to dominate both in Washington and Moscow—suggest that Beijing arguably would have ploughed a different course even if it had faced the United States alone. The coming decades will provide an interesting test of this proposition.

In any event, China’s judgment that the presence of nuclear weapons had made major war improbable because of the inescapable reality of deterrence and, in time, the deepening “tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons” produced two effects:41 it left China satisfied with a small nuclear force that seemed sufficient to neutralize both nuclear aggression and nuclear coercion even as it stimulated a conspicuous advocacy of nuclear disarmament. In what would become a leitmotif over the years, China first proposed a global summit to discuss the complete prohibition and ultimate elimination of all nuclear weaponry immediately upon conducting its first nuclear test in 1964. Since then, it has further expanded its disarmament agenda to include arguing the immorality of nuclear use, disavowing the first use of nuclear weapons and all extraterritorial nuclear deployments, and advocating a binding regime of strong negative security assurances toward all non-nuclear-weapon states.42

To this day, China formally holds onto a vision of complete nuclear abolition—just as India does—which it believes ought to be initiated by the states with the largest arsenals reducing their inventories systematically and irreversibly “so as to create conditions for other nuclear-weapon states to join the nuclear disarmament process.”43 As this sequence unfolds, China argues that the major nuclear powers must construct a new mode of international politics, where the “stability and uncompromised security for all states” is protected, in order to permit even the lesser powers to renounce their nuclear inventories eventually.44 Whether this expectation is sincere is up for debate. But it is consistent with China’s ideational rationale for procuring nuclear weapons, which demands that Beijing retain its nuclear arsenal as long as the threat of nuclear aggression and coercion are plausible. These dangers derive simply from the reality of other states possessing nuclear weapons. But should this landscape be transformed through some negotiated process of disarmament, China claims that it too would give up its nuclear weapons because it does have sufficient alternative instruments to protect its security in a non-nuclear international system.45

It is highly unlikely that these Chinese promises will be tested anytime soon, in part because Beijing does not believe that U.S. and Russian nuclear arms reductions thus far are sufficient to make its own participation appropriate. Consequently, keeping its gaze on the still large and diversified American (and Russian) nuclear arsenals—and without forgetting other regional nuclear threats such as India and latent nuclear powers such as Japan, not to mention the steady introduction of new advanced non-nuclear warfighting technologies around the world (including cyber-warfare tools and precision conventional strike systems)—China has modernized and expanded its own nuclear inventory steadily, even as it continues to advocate nuclear disarmament.

This effort has gone through several iterations since Beijing first inducted nuclear weapons. From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, the Chinese nuclear arsenal consisted entirely of air-delivered gravity weapons and liquid-fueled ballistic missiles (some of which were mobile) with ranges of about 3,000 kilometers (km). The penetrativity of China’s nuclear-capable aircraft was highly uncertain; while its missiles carried high-yield warheads, their limited reach ensured that only Soviet targets east of the Urals and U.S. bases on China’s maritime periphery in Asia lay within reach. China corrected these deficits when it deployed liquid-fueled moveable and silo-based ICBMs for the first time in the early 1980s. These systems enabled China to hold major Soviet, American, and Indian population centers at risk, but their small numbers and uncertain survivability hardly made them a formidable deterrent. China began to introduce solid-fueled mobile medium-range ballistic missiles in the mid-1980s, directed mainly at regional competitors, Soviet targets, and U.S. military bases in proximity to China. Beijing also developed its first ballistic missile submarine during this time, though it was more a testbed than an operational system. By the end of the Cold War, China’s nuclear capabilities thus essentially resided in a small, quite vulnerable, intercontinental ballistic missile force and a steadily enlarging contingent of modern medium-range ballistic missiles. It still retained an air-delivered nuclear capability, but this arm was most efficacious only in a regional context.46

The dramatic developments that jumpstarted more consequential iterations of Chinese strategic modernization occurred after the Cold War ended. The spectacular demonstration of U.S. military power during the 1991 Gulf War, followed by the 1995–1996 Taiwan Straits crisis, and culminating with the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade—which Beijing did not view as accidental but premeditated—all cumulatively combined to deepen Chinese suspicions of the United States and intensify the pressure for a more resolute modernization of China’s nuclear forces. By the turn of the century, Beijing increasingly assumed that the United States would become its principal strategic rival and began to orient its military capabilities accordingly.47 Ever since the 1995–1996 Taiwan crisis, China focused on building and deploying numerous conventional short-range ballistic missiles designed to interdict various Taiwanese (and other regional) targets. This program proceeded in tandem with the development of new conventional medium- and intermediate-range anti-ship ballistic missiles intended to defeat U.S. surface vessels operating off China’s maritime frontiers. These conventional precision strike systems were complemented by a further modernization of China’s nuclear deterrent: new solid-fueled, nuclear-armed, mobile ICBMs such as the CSS-10 Mod 1 and Mod 2 began to make an appearance, older liquid-fueled systems such as the CSS-4 ICBMs were modernized with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, and a new generation of Jin-class SSBNs was launched, all in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

These efforts took on a fresh intensity thanks to other developments in the United States. Washington’s erection of a thin national missile defense system (complemented by the deployment of theater missile defenses in Japan and South Korea); its quest for new high-speed, long-range, conventional precision strike weapons (Prompt Global Strike) supported by a sophisticated global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance network; and its formidable and growing space and cyberspace warfare capabilities forced Beijing to reckon with its vulnerabilities anew at a time when U.S.-China strategic competition was gradually arriving at the center stage in international politics.48 The modernization of China’s military forces accelerated accordingly and took on a dramatically different complexion with Xi Jinping’s arrival in office. Conclusively burying Deng Xiaoping’s reform legacy of “hide and bide,” Xi has taken China boldly in the direction of seeking to become a new superpower, even if that involves directly challenging the United States.49 As part of his desire to secure “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi has sought to revamp the Chinese military in all its dimensions in order to advance Beijing’s ambitions of returning to its previous centrality in the global system—which has, as its inevitable corollary, the restoration of Chinese primacy in Asia as well.50

These objectives cannot be secured without neutralizing U.S. military power more generally, but especially those elements residing in Asia and along its periphery; they also require Beijing to offset the military capabilities possessed by Washington’s friends and allies in the region. Thus, in a sharp departure from the 1995–2010 period when China focused its efforts on building up its conventional short-range ballistic missile force against Taiwan and possibly other local adversaries, Beijing is now concentrating on increasing the numbers of its longer-ranged weapons, such as medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), and long-range cruise missiles, to target U.S. military bases at great depths in the Western Pacific as well as other regional competitors that are located some distance from China.51

These conventional investments are reinforced by the accelerated modernization of the nuclear segment. The fastest-growing component of the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) currently is its nuclear-tipped ICBMs, a development that confirms China is no longer satisfied to rely on weak nuclear forces when it comes to deterring the United States.52 The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review undertaken by then president Donald Trump signaled in Chinese eyes an increased U.S. reliance on nuclear forces: it reiterated the possibility of U.S. nuclear responses to conventional attacks on its critical civilian and military infrastructure, emphasized completing the modernization of the U.S. nuclear triad, reaffirmed the value of low-yield nuclear warheads, and removed previous review language that emphasized the maintenance of strategic stability with China. As a result, the 2018 review only confirmed for Beijing the wisdom of expanding, diversifying, and transforming its own nuclear capabilities—an endeavor that not only had been long underway but also oriented toward sustaining unprecedented changes in Beijing’s nuclear arsenal.53 These alterations include building up a much larger and more variegated nuclear weapons inventory than Chinese leaders had ever suggested was desirable previously, resuscitating the air-breathing arm of the nuclear triad that had been inactive since at least the turn of the century, and altering the character of China’s traditional nuclear posture.

Beijing believes that the actual use of nuclear weapons is improbable thanks to the strength of the “nuclear taboo” and its generally conservative vision about the utility of nuclear weaponry have combined to sustain modest increases in the size of the Chinese nuclear force when compared to the deterrents still maintained by the United States and Russia.

All told, these developments prove that China is transforming its nuclear deterrent to meet the demands of a new era that will be defined centrally by U.S.-Chinese rivalry at the core of the international system. Even as it prepares for this intensified competition, China has to manage its growing rivalry with Japan and India to include the latter’s growing, albeit still modest, nuclear capabilities. Moreover, China’s desire to control large swaths of the Western Pacific, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean eventually—in the face of the consternation caused by its assertiveness throughout the Indo-Pacific region—have brought it to a point where it has to seriously confront the possibility of resisting both U.S. military power and ever more resolute intra-Asian balancing against itself directly. Thus, it should not be surprising that China is now determinedly pursuing the transformation of its entire military, but especially its nuclear deterrent. As subsequent discussion will elaborate, however, Beijing’s still strong belief that the actual use of nuclear weapons is improbable thanks to the strength of the “nuclear taboo” and its generally conservative vision about the utility of nuclear weaponry have, at least thus far, combined to sustain modest increases in the size of the Chinese nuclear force when compared to the deterrents still maintained by the United States and Russia. Whether this expansion will stay restrained over the long term remains to be seen.

China’s Nuclear Doctrine

The foregoing analysis provides relevant context for exploring the transitions in China’s nuclear “doctrine.” This term is understood here not in the Western sense, which treats doctrine narrowly as “the glue of tactics,”54 but in the broader former Soviet terminology, which refers to “a nation’s officially accepted . . . views on the nature of modern wars and the use of the armed forces in them, and also on the requirements arising from these views regarding the country and its armed forces being made ready for war.”55 This conceptualization is equally useful for understanding Indian and Pakistani nuclear doctrines. In the Chinese case, though, it is challenged by the fact that Beijing’s nuclear doctrine at the declaratory level is conspicuously laconic—just as British and French nuclear doctrines traditionally were too.

The Declaratory Level

Authoritative Chinese articulations of its nuclear doctrine, much less its nuclear strategy, have been few and the key themes articulated immediately after its first test in 1964 were echoed endlessly since the Cold War era. These themes include: the conviction that nuclear weapons exist principally “for defense and for protecting the Chinese people” against the dangers of nuclear attacks and threats by others, meaning, primarily as a deterrent rather than as usable instruments of war; the assurance that China still sought complete nuclear disarmament; and, most importantly from the perspective of strategy, the commitment “that China will never at any time and under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons.” This “no-first-use” pledge has been the most conspicuous element of China’s declaratory doctrine and was supplemented for the first time in 1995 by the undertaking—reiterated frequently since—“not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones at any time or under any circumstances.”56

Although much has been made about China’s linguistic rejection of the term “nuclear deterrence” in academic discussions,57 this casuistry did not negate the fundamental reality that Chinese leaders concluded, in Mao’s words, that “though there still exists the possibility for major powers to fight world wars, the atomic bombs have prevented them from doing so.”58 In other words, deterrence works: the existence of nuclear weapons has served to prevent nuclear attacks or coercion by other nuclear-weapon states. From this appraisal flowed the twin corollaries that China did not have to use its nuclear weapons first against nuclear adversaries or use them at all against non-nuclear states to gain the benefits of security, positions that were encompassed by its broader and persistent no-first-use pledge. The gradual ingraining of the “nuclear taboo” in international politics only reinforced these two beliefs and gave China’s no-first-use pledge a talismanic quality.59 Further, the circumstances characterizing China’s strategic environment helped to make its commitment to disavowing nuclear first use plausible. Most of China’s neighbors are weaker states and Beijing, accordingly, did not need to rely on nuclear first use to protect its interests in any rivalries with them. Consequently, its no-first-use promises would have been tested primarily in conflicts with superior military powers such as the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union. But, even here, Mao’s domestic stature, his assessment of the pacifying consequences of wider nuclear possession, and the unwillingness of Beijing’s great power rivals to risk any major military conflicts on Chinese soil, all combined to ensure that China’s unconditional no-first-use policy survived throughout the Cold War.

The Operational Level

Because China effectively held to the conclusion that Mao reached eventually—that the nuclear revolution was real and transformative in international politics even if it did not displace his own emphasis on the axial significance of “people’s war”—China’s nuclear doctrine at the operational level manifested itself through two distinctive dimensions: maintaining a small nuclear force that resembled a “minimum deterrent,” and orienting that centrally controlled force toward slow retaliatory punishment rather than preemptive strategies of denial. In even greater contrast to China’s terse declaratory doctrine, these operational dimensions were never amplified by Chinese leaders but could be inferred from the character of China’s traditional nuclear arsenal supplemented by the opinions offered by Chinese strategists on these issues.

China’s nuclear inventory throughout the Cold War was remarkably small in comparison with the arsenals maintained by the superpowers. It consisted initially of air-delivered gravity bombs and was later complemented—and eventually substituted—by high-yield thermonuclear warheads delivered by ballistic missiles with ranges sufficient to target both its regional competitors and more distant adversaries such as the United States. In 1970, some six years after China’s first nuclear test, the Chinese nuclear inventory was assessed to consist of some seventy-five nuclear weapons in comparison to the 26,000 weapons possessed by the United States and the close to 12,000 weapons possessed by the Soviet Union.60 By 1984, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency judged the Chinese nuclear stockpile to consist of between 150 and 160 weapons, based on the number of discoverable delivery systems, at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union had over 23,000 and 37,000 weapons, respectively.61 Although the exact size of the Chinese nuclear force when the Cold War ended in 1991 is unclear, it is unlikely to have greatly exceeded the level maintained around 1984 since its nuclear arsenal around 1993 was estimated to consist of between 72 and 82 missiles of all kinds (plus some number of gravity bombs).62 Such sources read in their totality suggest that China’s operational nuclear inventory during the entirety of the Cold War probably never exceeded 200 weapons—despite the exaggerated assessments or projections about Beijing’s nuclear forces that frequently appeared during this period.63 The United States and the Soviet Union, in contrast, had about 19,000 and 35,000 nuclear weapons, respectively, when the Cold War ended.64

The Chinese nuclear force thus comported at first sight with the concept of a “minimum deterrent,” understood as a “nuclear strategy in which a nation (or nations) maintains the minimum number of nuclear weapons necessary to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary even after it has suffered a nuclear attack.”65 This force consisted of a small number of mostly high-yield weapons: the yields of the missile-borne warheads on systems such as the CSS-2 IRBM and the CSS-3 and early CSS-4 ICBMs ranged from about 3 to 5 megatons. The yields of the aircraft-delivered gravity bombs are unknown: Chinese air-dropped nuclear weapon tests between 1964 and 1993 produced yields anywhere from 8 kilotons to 4 megatons, thus enabling the air-breathing arm to deliver a wide range of weapons, but their explosive power is unlikely to have exceeded those of China’s missile warheads.66 Both kinds of delivery vehicles were most effective primarily for retaliatory countervalue attacks because the inaccuracy of China’s long-range ballistic missiles—whose circular error probable (CEP) ran into a few thousand meters—did not allow for counterforce strikes either preemptively or retrospectively.67 China’s bomber force, in contrast, was incapable of penetrating the air defense systems of either the Soviet Union or the United States; hence, shallow attacks on cities in the vicinity of China (either Soviet or those of regional rivals) was about all that could be achieved. Fighter-borne nuclear weapons, similarly, could have been used largely against tactical targets on the battlefields (or cities) along China’s frontiers, but not at any significant depth.68

The nuclear retaliation that China could undertake in the aftermath of absorbing an adversary’s first strike would of necessity also be slow because most early Chinese long-range missiles—such as the CSS-1 MRBM, the CSS-2 IRBM, and the CSS-3 and CSS-4 ICBMs—were liquid-fueled, thus requiring lengthy preparations prior to launch. Moreover, they were ordinarily sequestered either in silos or in mountainous underground hides without their nuclear warheads. For reasons of both safety and security, Chinese nuclear operations generally involved assembling the warheads and mating them to their carrier missiles only prior to fueling the latter in anticipation of their launch. Even when China’s solid-fueled canisterized nuclear missiles, such as the CSS-5 MRBM, later entered the force during the mid-1980s, they were (and still mostly are) maintained in garrisons without their warheads arguably for reasons that include security.69 (Canisterized missiles are those stored inside a temperature-controlled tube to protect them from environmental vicissitudes.) The warheads themselves were likely to have been maintained at low states of assembly in order to enhance both safety and longevity: the latter is an often-overlooked consideration but an important one because fully assembled nuclear weapons invariably deteriorate over time, thanks to the corrosive impact of the highly chemically reactive fissile materials on both the high explosive lenses and the electronic systems within the warhead.

Maintaining nuclear systems that were “de-mated” in various ways made sense for many reasons. It minimized the possibility of accidents (or accidental launches) and allowed the CCP, the true guardian of the state, to physically safeguard the warheads by preserving them separately under the watchful eye of military security detachments and its political commissars. The transfer of these separated warheads to the launch units would usually occur when the missile battalions (or the bomber or fighter regiments historically) were alerted for possible retaliatory operations. The entire preparatory sequence in any case depended on the receipt of “strategic warning,” meaning the leadership’s assessment of war being either likely or imminent. When confronted with this prospect, the various components that constituted China’s nuclear deterrent would be integrated and dispersed to their often-disguised field (or launch) locations, ready to ride out the anticipated attacks before they were launched in retaliation.70

The fundamental decisions that regulated this process lay in the hands of China’s highest civilian political authority, which for most of the Cold War was personified by Mao Zedong and his closest confidants. Although the advice of military officers serving on the party’s Central Military Commission (CMC) would likely have been sought on issues pertaining to nuclear alerting and force integration, the final decisions lay with China’s preeminent civilian leaders.71 This remained true even after Deng Xiaoping moved China toward a collegium model of leadership after Mao. Although the CMC, symbolizing collective responsibility between civilians and the military, grew in prominence as a decisionmaking entity thereafter, all the critical decisions about nuclear forces—their procurement, operations, and especially use—rested “uniquely” in civilian hands consistent with the principle that the PLA exists principally to protect the party and is accordingly subservient to it.72 Despite their myriad weaknesses, therefore, the command and control of China’s nuclear weapons was never decentralized and the principle of “assertive” (vice “delegative”) control was maintained even when it was recognized that such a model would be stressed by the country’s no-first-use nuclear strategy.73

Since the smaller Chinese deterrent was admittedly vulnerable to the nuclear forces of its superpower rivals, Beijing’s reprisal operations would likely have been delayed. These delays could occur either because sufficient strategic warning was unavailable (and hence China’s nuclear systems could not have been prepared prior to an attack), or because the first strikes absorbed by China inflicted enough damage (including on its command-and-control system) to retard the speedy reconstitution of its deterrent. The marked imbalance in strategic capabilities between China and its superpower rivals made both outcomes plausible. Thus, for example, Chinese airbases, which hosted its nuclear bombers, could have been destroyed by surprise nuclear first strikes either before the aircraft could be mated with their weapons or before takeoff.

Similarly, the Chinese CSS-2, CSS-3, and CSS-4 missiles stored in garrisons, underground hides, or silos could have been neutralized by U.S. or Soviet surprise counterforce attacks.74 Those that were transportable or could be rolled out to launch from their garrisons or hides were more survivable if they could be flushed out on receipt of strategic warning and moved to their launch locations undiscovered. These systems could be ready for retaliatory operations relatively quickly, depending on the resilience of their associated command-and-control systems. But other missiles that remained ensconced in their underground storage facilities would have become available for retaliatory operations—if they had survived—only days to weeks after an attack, all depending on how much damage the adversary’s strikes inflicted on the adits connecting the tunnels to their launch sites.

Even if the worst eventualities—a lack of strategic warning or a successful surprise strike—had failed to materialize, Chinese leaders may well have settled on delayed retaliation if successful decapitating attacks had forced the reconstitution of the command authority or if they believed that they needed more time to develop a better understanding of the situation. This could include gaining a more accurate understanding of the scale of the nuclear attack, the extent of the damage caused, and the identity of the perpetrator—all issues of critical significance depending on both the political circumstances surrounding the war and the toll exacted on China’s ability to assess the losses it had suffered. Chinese leaders may also have required time to think through the best retaliation strategy necessary, given the country’s relative weakness in comparison to its adversaries during the Cold War. In any event, taken all together, the challenges of assessing the enemy’s intentions, discerning how the international system was responding to the attack on China, judging the best targets for retaliation and the manner and sequence for so responding, and agreeing to the goals for retaliation could have delayed China’s response even if it was technically capable of executing retaliation expeditiously.

The possibility of delayed retaliation, however, did not seem to faze Chinese leaders because they concluded that given the catastrophic consequences of any nuclear reprisal, even the prospect of ragged or sluggish retaliation, would have had enough deterrent effect. As Deng Xiaoping described in a meeting with the Canadian prime minister in 1983:

We have a few nuclear weapons. France also has a few. These weapons themselves are useful only for [creating] pressure. We have said many times that is the point of our few nuclear weapons! Only to show that we also have what they have. If they want to destroy us, they themselves will also suffer some retaliation. We have consistently said that we want to force the superpowers not to dare to use nuclear weapons. In the past, this was to deal with the Soviet Union, to force them not to use these weapons rashly. To have even only a few weapons after all is a kind of restraining force.75

Two Western analysts confirmed Deng’s judgment a year after his remarks by quoting one Chinese strategist who summarized this aspect of Beijing’s operational policy as “based on ‘launch at any uncertain time’.” Declaring that China’s adversaries “cannot preempt all of China’s nuclear missiles, which are carefully stored in caves or otherwise protected and camouflaged,” any country that launched a first strike on China “would have to continue to worry about Chinese retaliation ‘perhaps hours, days, weeks, months or even years later’.”76

The certitude of retaliation—when China was finally ready—was thus judged to be sufficient for deterrence because the enormous destructiveness of its nuclear weapons was far more important for producing pacifying effects than the alacrity of its response.

Because it was unclear, however, whether any Chinese nuclear forces would survive an adversary’s first strike—given their relatively small numbers, their low levels of routine readiness, the uncertain survivability of their leadership, and the possibility that the weapons and delivery systems could be successfully entombed if not actually destroyed—China’s operational doctrine for most of the Cold War, although ostensibly centered on slow but certain retaliation, was in practice effectively pegged to an even weaker standard: the mere possibility of retaliation. This criterion for deterrence sufficiency, again, was never formally articulated by Chinese leaders but, based on their appreciation of the nuclear revolution, the positive externalities of superpower mutual deterrence, and the costs of even modest nuclear reprisals in the real world of international politics, they seem to have concluded that even a tiny number of surviving weapons—from what was a small nuclear force anyway—would suffice to dissuade enemies from launching first strikes to begin with.

On closer examination, the traditional Chinese nuclear posture at the operational level thus gravitated toward an “existential deterrent,”77 where the capacity to discourage aggression or threats derived mainly from the presence of nuclear weapons itself rather than the need to safeguard some “minimum number of nuclear weapons necessary to inflict unacceptable damage” on an adversary.78 As the 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy summarized:

When China first decided to develop nuclear weapons, it was to break the nuclear powers’ nuclear monopoly and was the archetypal existential deterrent strategy. The development of nuclear weapons since then has also abided by the recognition of ‘you have, and I have them too,’ i.e., the existence of nuclear weapons is itself deterrence. Under the new historical conditions, it is still the nation’s strategy and the basic goal of nuclear struggle to better exercise the existential function of nuclear weapons and to contain nuclear threats and the outbreak of nuclear war.79

Because this objective relied on “first strike uncertainty”80—the expectation that an adversary could never be confident of executing a “splendid first strike”81 that completely destroyed the Chinese nuclear deterrent—Beijing could treat even its modest nuclear force as sufficient to ward off attacks or coercion even by superior nuclear powers, especially in a situation where each superpower had already checkmated the other through mutual deterrence.

Post–Cold War Doctrinal Transformations

China’s No-First-Use Policy

All three elements of China’s traditional nuclear doctrine became subject to extensive discussion after the Cold War ended. The no-first-use pledge in particular—the singularly distinctive component of China’s declaratory doctrine—proved especially controversial as several PLA officers, serving and retired, as well as senior Chinese diplomats and academics raised questions about the viability of this commitment when the United States was no longer checked by Soviet power, when U.S. conventional precision strike capabilities were demonstrably displayed in major conflicts in the Middle East, when Washington remained adamantly willing to use nuclear weapons first if pressed in a crisis, and when the broader U.S. threat to China—especially in the context of Washington’s possible intervention in a Taiwan crisis—persisted indefinitely.

Throughout the 1990s and in the following decade, there were extensive discussions in the Chinese strategic community about the wisdom of retaining the no-first-use pledge in circumstances where China was now the direct target of an unconstrained superpower rival. Consequently, there appeared sporadic insinuations that the no-first-use pledge was not as unconditional as it originally appeared, thus opening the door, for example, to speculation that China could threaten the first use of nuclear weapons either on its own territory or in disputed areas that China claims as its own.82 In a similar vein, The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns mentions “reducing [or lowering] the nuclear deterrence threshold” (emphasis added)—which is not synonymous with “lowering the nuclear employment threshold”—when it discusses qualifying China’s no-first-use policy in cases where an enemy threatens conventional strikes against important nuclear facilities; attacks against major strategic targets such as big dams, critical hydroelectric plants, and major political, population, or economic centers; or when China faces the threat of major defeat in a high-stakes conventional conflict.83

These deliberations did not arise from any new policies articulated by the Chinese leadership but rather from the newly empowered Chinese strategic community that, benefiting from the broader liberalization in the country, began to discuss previously closed matters more openly.84 The availability of classified Chinese military writings in the West complicated things further, even though these texts reflect the concerns of a professional military whose job is to prepare for unpalatable contingencies. All told, none of the discussions conclusively repudiated the no-first-use commitment, yet their conjectures acquired resonance because China’s no-first-use pledge is inherently unverifiable. Moreover, these speculations also materialized at a time when the Chinese nuclear force was being steadily modernized, smaller-yield Chinese nuclear weapon test explosions were occurring, and prominent Western scholars of China began to declare that China was moving away from its traditional minimum deterrence doctrine to something resembling “limited deterrence,”85 which was read as conveying a willingness to use nuclear weapons discretely to achieve specific operational effects in times of war.

Whenever Chinese leaders at the highest levels spoke to the issue of no first use, however, they repudiated all the revisionist speculations occurring in the Chinese strategic community. They emphasized over and over again that the no-first-use pledge was robust, a commitment that was reiterated repeatedly in China’s defense white papers issued by the State Council Information Office, including in its most recent 2019 iteration.86 Even though these unconditional commitments are a priori unverifiable, there is good reason to believe that China has not altered its no-first-use policy after the Cold War despite the growing difficulties with the United States. The viability of this pledge ultimately derives from whether it comports with China’s strategic interests and given the Chinese leadership’s perception about the enduring transformation of the nuclear revolution (which appears to have survived to this day), there are few scenarios where Chinese aims would be well served by the first use of nuclear weapons even in intense conventional conflicts with a superior military power such as the United States. As Rong Yu and Peng Guangqian summarized it, “The questions facing a unilateral NFU [no-first-use] policy are tough ones and are hard to re­solve satisfactorily, at least for the time being. First-use policy, however, is also at least equally, if not more unrealistic. . . . It is eminently foreseeable that using nuclear weapons first will have grave consequences, whose cost will far outweigh its benefits.”87

Although it is possible to imagine contingencies where Chinese nuclear first use—either for symbolic purposes, or for securing limited operational effects, or in response to “use it or lose it” dilemmas—might be plausible, there is little evidence thus far suggesting that the Chinese leadership is preparing to exercise such options, although there is considerable discussion of such possibilities within the Chinese military and Western academic communities.88 Several Western scholars have pointed out that Chinese interlocutors (including officials in private exchanges) in recent years as well as Chinese publications have flagged circumstances where Beijing’s no-first-use commitments might be stressed: these center particularly on concerted conventional attacks or “non-contact” warfare waged against China’s nuclear deterrent with the aim of neutralizing it in the context of some larger military conflict.89

While such dangers constitute plausible provocations that might stimulate Chinese nuclear first use in principle, two mitigating factors must be considered. First, both civilian and military leaders in Beijing recognize the gravity of these challenges, especially as China and the United States evolve into the principal geopolitical antagonists in the international system. But—at least at the Chinese civilian leadership level, the apex decisionmaking authority within the state—nothing has changed on the fundamentals: the chasm between conventional and nuclear warfare is still viewed as absolute and the imperative of preventing China from becoming a victim of either nuclear attack or nuclear coercion remains enduring—for which a no-first-use policy arguably suffices.90 Second, precisely because China’s nuclear deterrent might be threatened by new non-nuclear instruments of war, civilian and military leaders in Beijing are unified by the conviction that enhanced investments in the survivability of their nuclear forces are indispensable.91 Whether this insurance materializes in the form of an “Underground Great Wall” designed to protect China’s land-based missiles from nuclear attack, or the expansion of China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent in order to preserve a residual strike capability, or the modernization of China’s command-and-control systems to ensure leadership survival and its persistent connectivity with the dispersed nuclear forces, these programs have been pursued precisely because Beijing expects that its nuclear deterrent could be attacked either inadvertently or deliberately in any major war—especially with the United States—yet seeks to avoid finding itself in a position where it must employ nuclear weapons not because they advance any affirmative aims of policy but merely to stave off ending up defenseless against future nuclear attacks or nuclear coercion.92

These calculations are reflected most clearly in the PLARF’s preparations for nuclear operations, which still overwhelmingly emphasize force survivability and the ability to respond effectively after absorbing an adversary’s nuclear attack.93 One comprehensive Western analysis has, accordingly, concluded that China’s no-first-use commitment is conceived as holding even in case its nuclear systems were to be attacked by conventional ordnance in the course of a conflict, again, an assessment that is consistent with the Chinese leadership’s broader perception of the utility of nuclear weapons.94 Yet on this issue—China’s threat to use nuclear weapons in response to conventional attacks on its nuclear deterrent—more than any other, it is likely that the messages coming out of Beijing will be mixed, with many voices, especially those of the PLA, insinuating that China could resile from its no-first-use pledge if its strategic reverses were to be attacked by non-nuclear means.

The fact that no Chinese civilian leader has ever uttered such threats, however, is significant and suggests reasons to remain confident that the no-first-use commitment is still a priori meaningful. But the reasons for the professional military and other voices introducing ambiguity over the robustness of the no-first-use pledge are also understandable. They are intended to strengthen deterrence by signaling that even non-nuclear attacks against China’s nuclear capabilities carry inherent risks and as such should be eschewed even by superior adversaries in any conflicts with China. The colocation of conventional and nuclear missiles in the mixed brigades (primarily involving DF-26/CSS-18 systems) that have appeared in recent years could also be aimed at reinforcing the same objective: preventing any attacks on China’s rocket forces that might have the effect of deliberately or inadvertently undermining its nuclear deterrent.95 When all is said and done, however, any Chinese decision to use nuclear weapons first will be determined more by the logic of circumstances than by the strength of any prewar commitments. The demands of deterrence in this instance will be the overarching driver and the evidence suggests that the Chinese leadership’s continuing obsession with appearing rectitudinous coupled with the investments Beijing is making to ensure the survivability of its growing nuclear forces combine to give its no-first-use pledge a certain viability, at least for a while longer.

A Not-So Modest Deterrent?

Like the no-first-use pledge, the Chinese emphasis on fielding a modest deterrent also seems to guide the nuclear modernization efforts that have gathered steam after the Cold War, but Beijing’s conception of what constitutes a “modest” capability is poised to change rather dramatically. Until the end of the Cold War, China’s nuclear force comported quite consciously with Mao and Zhou Enlai’s injunction that it should be composed of “a few but excellent” weapons.96 How this translated into numbers, however, was never publicly defined. As China steadily moved toward considering the United States its principal strategic threat, the previous “theory of a few”97 gave way to what official publications since the 2006 defense white paper have described as China’s current objective: seeking a “lean and effective” nuclear force.98 Again, the numerical meaning of such a capability has not been publicly articulated, and many Chinese scholars, somewhat counterintuitively, insist on treating the concept of a “lean and effective” force as essentially synonymous with the older notion of possessing “a few but excellent” weapons.99

All the same, China’s decisionmakers appear to be pursuing a considerably expanded nuclear force—at least in comparison to their Cold War inventory—which involves reaching specific quantitative targets as well as realizing a particular force structure. Both these ambitions are unlikely to remain fixed in perpetuity and will change depending on China’s strategic environment, but the larger transition from an existential to a more qualified minimum deterrent—where Beijing seeks to protect a significant number of surviving warheads relative to both its adversaries’ expected counterforce strikes and their countervalue targets sought to be held at risk—is already underway. The “limiting factors” that determine the size of its evolving nuclear force are obviously influenced by the reality that China faces multiple nuclear rivals but most importantly now confronts the United States, with its superior nuclear and non-nuclear military capabilities as well as emerging strategic defense systems, in what has become the defining contest of the early twenty-first century.100 As a consequence, whether China’s prospective nuclear force can be satisfactorily described as a “minimum” deterrent will be debatable, yet in the final analysis this disputation is entirely semantic: Beijing’s nuclear inventory, however characterized or labeled, will be larger, perhaps even by an order of magnitude eventually, than it ever was historically, and its nuclear forces will able to undertake more missions than merely countervalue retaliation, even if they concentrate primarily on this objective.

Consistent with this expectation, China’s nuclear force levels have grown beyond the fewer than 200 weapons that likely existed in its arsenal in 1991. But the rate of growth has been relatively steady, if not slow, in comparison to the nuclear competition that occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. The Chinese nuclear arsenal in 2021 has been estimated at some 350 operational nuclear weapons.101 This total is derived by counting the number of missile launchers believed to exist in the Chinese inventory together with additional assumptions about the number of missile airframes, reloads, and warheads available per missile or aircraft. As such, the number is speculative, and it is possible that the real number of frontline weapons may be different either in their total or in their internal composition. The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2020 Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, for example, estimated that China’s current nuclear warhead stockpile size is “in the low 200s.”102

When viewed in retrospect, the size of and projections about China’s nuclear inventory have traditionally been overestimated by Western sources, and even more so by Russian assessments.103 Consequently, forecasts of future Chinese forces should be treated with caution. What can be said with confidence nonetheless is that Beijing’s operational nuclear inventory is growing and will grow progressively larger in time. Based obviously on a close assessment of the number of nuclear delivery systems China possessed and appeared to be pursuing in 2019, together with other intelligence, the then director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Robert P. Ashley Jr., stated that “Over the next decade, China will likely at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in China’s history.”104 If the Chinese stockpile consisted of something more than 200 weapons in 2019, Ashley’s judgment suggests that China’s future nuclear force could consist of more than 400 operational nuclear weapons by 2030, depending, of course, on the rate at which China builds out its desired capabilities. These increased numbers in part would derive from new additions to the Chinese nuclear arsenal, such as Beijing’s current SSBN force, which alone adds at least 72 weapons to the total, and the new People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) nuclear bomber contingent, which, armed with the new air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM), would also bring significant though smaller numbers of new nuclear warheads into the inventory. The presence of sea-based nuclear platforms and the resuscitation of air-delivered nuclear weapons obviously represents new developments for a deterrent that previously consisted mainly of land-based systems.105 If China’s nuclear inventory, however, consisted of some 350 weapons in 2021, as the Federation of American Scientists suggests, then doubling the stockpile implies that Beijing would have 700 weapons by 2030 (or even earlier as the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2021 Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China has more recently suggested.106

In April 2021, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), Admiral Charles A. Richard, testified before Congress that “China is rapidly improving its strategic nuclear capability and capacity . . . and [is] well ahead of the pace necessary to double [its] nuclear stockpile by the end of the decade.”107 Writing elsewhere, he assessed that “China’s nuclear weapons stockpile is expected to double (if not triple or quadruple) over the next decade.”108 This implies that the Chinese nuclear stockpile could expand to as many as (or close to) 1,000 warheads by 2030 (if the base is assumed to be an inventory in the low 200s), or close to 1,400 warheads by 2030 (if the Chinese stockpile today consists of some 350 weapons). Obviously, both the expected size of the inventory and the timelines for its realization could shift depending on the pace of Beijing’s nuclear investments during this decade. One respected analyst, Hans Kristensen, in his attempts to assess what a progressively larger Chinese nuclear force might look like, has concluded that such an expansion would at the very least require increased production capacity, new storage facilities, and significant force structure changes.109 The evidence available thus far suggests that China is already making significant progress on all these counts.

In any event, whether the maximal projections about China’s nuclear force size bear out by 2030 only time will tell, but they are not a priori implausible. China’s current nuclear transformation includes sharp increases in the number of land-based siloed and mobile missiles (both in single reentry vehicle [RV] and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle [MIRV] variants), a variety of new developmental systems, new submarine-launched ballistic missiles (that eventually may be armed with multiple reentry vehicles), ALBMs, and possibly new nuclear cruise missiles—all of which in their totality would allow Beijing to maintain an inventory of some 1,000 deliverable warheads if it were to so choose. The siloed and mobile land-based missiles alone seem poised to contribute disproportionately to the current force expansion. Moreover, one of its more conspicuous characteristics would be the predominance of long-range strike systems—that is, weapons that can reach the continental United States—because neutralizing the threats posed by Washington as the principal strategic competitor has now become the fundamental motivating driver underlying Beijing’s nuclear transformation under Xi Jinping.110

Although the Chinese nuclear inventory will expand to preserve the largest residual retaliatory capability possible, the resulting operational force will still be smaller than its U.S. and Russian counterparts.

Although the Chinese nuclear inventory will accordingly expand to preserve the largest residual retaliatory capability possible—given China’s assessments of U.S. offensive nuclear and non-nuclear resources as well as strategic defenses—the resulting operational force will still be smaller than its U.S. and Russian counterparts. This is especially true when reserve warheads are taken into account.111 For all the reductions that have taken place in recent years, the United States and Russia still possess rather large nuclear arsenals. The Federation of American Scientists, for example, estimates that the United States currently has about 3,600 nuclear warheads in its active stockpile, while Russia has about 4,300 (which includes deployed plus reserve warheads in both cases).112 Consequently, if Beijing expands its arsenal to some 1,000 (or 1,400) warheads by 2030, it will be in a class by itself: possessing a bigger nuclear inventory than those maintained by other nuclear powers such as France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea, but still well below those of Russia and the United States. This fact underlies the persistent Chinese claim that its nuclear force, even if expanding, would not exceed the requirements of “minimum deterrence,”113 which is conceived as maintaining the smallest survivable capabilities necessary for retaliation rather than denial.

The need to maintain a modest deterrent seems to enjoy a widespread consensus in the Chinese strategic community. Although the Chinese nuclear force is increasing in comparison to past levels and although it will continue to expand until it satisfies the leadership’s requirement that sufficient numbers of China’s nuclear weapons survive the notional attacks that may be launched by an adversary’s nuclear, conventional, or other “non-nuclear strategic weapons” (which now include cyber, space, and electronic warfare systems),114 Chinese thinkers and their leaders are unified by the belief that a large arsenal of the kind maintained by the United States or Russia is unnecessary for implementing the country’s “self-defensive nuclear strategy.”115 Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu summarized this conviction in 2010, noting that China “exercises extreme restraint over developing nuclear weapons and we will continue to maintain our nuclear power at the lowest level, only for national security needs.”116

What is clear, however, from both the diversity and the scale of China’s current nuclear modernization is that its leadership is no longer content to rely on the token nuclear force of yesteryear—which was an existential deterrent—but rather seeks to preserve, through larger forces than before, the capacity for executing a guaranteed “nuclear counterattack,”117 or what Western scholars have now persuasively characterized as “assured retaliation.”118 The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2021 report, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, notes that PLA writings have characterized this emerging arsenal as a “limited deterrent,” which in Chinese military theory occupies “the very wide space between a minimum and [a] maximum deterrent.”119 Whatever the labels used in the professional Chinese military literature, China’s expanding nuclear force nonetheless continues to be oriented primarily toward deterring nuclear attacks and nuclear coercion by various adversaries. But in an era where China and the United States are likely to be the most significant competitors in a new bipolar system, Beijing seeks to possess nuclear capabilities that would confidently survive even large and significant U.S. attacks and thereby deter them.

To that degree, it has moved away from its previous expectation that the mere possibility of paltry nuclear reprisals suffices for stable deterrence. No other conclusion is compatible with China’s current emphasis on expanding the size of its siloed and mobile ICBM force, equipping many of these delivery vehicles with MIRVed warheads, inducting multiple SSBNs (some of whose missiles might carry multiple warheads in years to come), and incorporating diverse penetration aids into all its advanced long-range offensive missiles.120 Yet even as these missiles increase in number across diversified basing regimes, Beijing strikingly has not focused on improving their accuracy to enable hard-target counterforce attacks. Such improvements are well within Chinese capabilities, as demonstrated, for example, in many of its theater missile systems. But the fact that China has not concentrated on increasing the accuracy of its strategic missiles across the board suggests that it is intent—at least for now—on preserving these weapons primarily for punitive retaliation on soft area targets rather than attempting to interdict hard point targets, which would almost inevitably also require preemptive nuclear strategies.

When viewed in their entirety, China’s nuclear forces thus arguably still remain “minimal” in character—certainly by the Chinese definition, which stresses the lowest numbers necessary for successful retaliation rather than denial—but its capacity to punish nuclear aggression reliably will have increased manifold because of the larger residual capabilities that may be expected to survive attacks mounted by even advanced nuclear rivals.121 The ends that China’s minimum deterrent now serve have thus shifted pointedly: Beijing seems intent on acquiring the wherewithal not merely to mete out “assured retaliation” but rather extensive and guaranteed destruction when required on the calculation that the threat of overwhelming countervalue punishment is necessary to restrain large, continental-sized, adversaries from endangering China’s survival or its core interests. The capabilities that China is now acquiring will thus enable it to inflict diverse levels of punishment as the political circumstances demand, including discrete nuclear retaliation that constrains its opponents’ freedom to prosecute any limited nuclear wars to Beijing’s disadvantage.

Although the future nuclear force balances obtaining between China and its major rivals such as the United States (and Russia) will favor the latter in both quantitative and qualitative terms even after the current phase of Chinese nuclear modernization is completed, Beijing’s capability to inflict horrendous punishment in absolute terms when required is unlikely to be erased. Consequently, academic analyses that highlighted China’s previous vulnerability to the threat of splendid first strikes by its adversaries are likely to be less and less veracious as Beijing’s nuclear modernization proceeds.122 For the moment, and continuing with the attitudes inherited from the past, Chinese leaders do not seem inclined to attempt any “sprint to parity” with the United States or Russia,123 thus suggesting that inculcating “first strike uncertainty” still remains the guiding norm where their nuclear modernization is concerned. But because Beijing now seeks the ability to punish expansively and with certitude—rather than merely relying on its adversaries being deterred by the possibility of punishment as was the case when it possessed an existential deterrent—the number of Chinese nuclear weapons will steadily increase, Chinese delivery systems will progressively grow more diverse and capable, and China’s nuclear posture is certain to change in important ways.

Shifting Toward Rapid Retaliation

If the emerging emphasis on minimum deterrence keyed to implicit threats of guaranteed extensive destruction promises to hold into the foreseeable future, the second element of China’s past operational doctrine—the satisfaction with delayed punishment—is already mutating as its nuclear modernization evolves. This shift is precipitated by both technical and political factors. As China’s nuclear deterrent comes to be composed increasingly of land-based solid-fueled mobile missiles (which can be mated with their warheads and flushed from their hides at the earliest strategic warning), siloed missiles that could be maintained with their warheads routinely in a ready-to-fire condition, and sea-based systems such as SSBNs (which would customarily deploy with their nuclear warheads), Beijing will be able to mount retaliatory strikes with any weapons that survive relatively quickly after suffering a nuclear attack, assuming that its nuclear command, control, and communications (C3) system is minimally resilient. The most fundamental constraints on the rapidity of retaliation in the future will likely be the duration of strategic (and eventually tactical) warning and the survivability of its weapons and command system: if the appropriate alerting is available, China will be capable of preparing its weapons and delivery systems, dispersing them together with various command elements as necessary, and executing quick retaliation with the surviving assets in a wide variety of circumstances.

Just like in India and Pakistan, the length of the available warning time becomes crucial for Chinese nuclear operations. Many, if not most, of Beijing’s nuclear warheads are still not maintained routinely in fully assembled form,124 nor are they customarily mated to their missiles, even if some of the latter are now canisterized systems. Whether the new silo-based missiles, which could include CSS-10s and CSS-20s (both canisterized in their mobile variants), will be routinely deployed with their warheads is unclear. If they are, they would be the most advanced land-based systems in the Chinese arsenal that could execute instantaneous launches when ordered to do so. This is equally true of China’s sea-based systems if its leadership maintains at least some SSBNs constantly on patrol in the future. Other land-based systems, such as nuclear bombers and mobile missiles, would require time to (possibly) complete the assembly of their warheads. Even if some warheads are maintained in a fully assembled state, mating them to the mobile delivery systems is in any case a lengthier process. Because China’s current mobile missiles, however, do not require involved preparations—as its older land-based liquid-fueled missiles did—and because China will seek to mate these systems with their weapons and disperse them at the onset of any serious crisis, the Chinese leadership will be able to unleash punishing retaliation far more rapidly than it could in earlier times.

The modernization of the Chinese nuclear deterrent thus makes more rapid retaliation technically possible. Based on the extent of available warning time (and, in case of a surprise attack, the scale of the absorbed strike and its targets), Chinese nuclear operations, however, might require as many as several hours to a few days depending on the time required for warhead assembly and mating with the carrier missiles, the distance that the missile launchers have to travel to their pre-surveyed or prepared launch sites (either from their bases or from their field hides), and the time required to complete their system checkouts and alignment procedures prior to firing. More rapid retaliation, therefore, does not automatically imply a prompt response, although China’s land-based nuclear systems are shifting toward a posture where the surviving weapons would be able to launch quickly after receiving valid orders in the aftermath of any absorbed attacks—depending, of course, on the number of missiles involved and whether these systems were alerted and dispersed to begin with.125 Both siloed missiles and mobile missile systems that are maintained on “combat readiness duty” or “high alert duty,”126 as well as patrolling SSBNs, should be able to launch their weapons quite swiftly in contrast to past practices that contemplated a more relaxed rejoinder.

In any event, the evolution toward faster retaliation is prompted by political reasons as well. Unlike during the Cold War when China could rely on mutual deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union for cover, evolving global politics is witnessing increasingly direct competition between China and the United States. In such circumstances, Chinese leaders are seeking the capability to retaliate quickly against U.S. nuclear attacks simply to avoid being paralyzed by any building international pressures for restraint, which could emerge if China were technically or operationally unable to conduct its reprisals expeditiously. Although external constraints are likely to matter less when China becomes a peer competitor of the United States, its leadership may well want to bind its own hands to quick retaliation in order to strengthen deterrence: the incipient shift toward maintaining “at least a portion of its force on a LOW [launch on warning] posture” therefore suggests, more than anything else, that China seeks to deny the United States (or any other rival) the luxury of believing that it might be able to escape retaliation by bringing other influences to bear on China in the interim if Beijing required lengthy preparations to unleash its retribution.127

The imperative of defeating this “discounting problem” is obviously greatest for weak nuclear powers facing stronger rivals, but because the prognosticated Chinese nuclear force even at maturity will likely be smaller than its U.S. (and Russian) counterpart (although sufficiently potent), Chinese leaders will want to fortify deterrence by, at least implicitly, conveying to all adversaries that they would pay an enormous price for nuclear aggression immediately.128 While the Chinese nuclear deterrent is thus being readied for quicker retaliatory missions than before, including by maintaining a subset of the force capable of threatening an “early warning counterstrike”129—where China launches its weapons in response to tactical warning of any adversary’s missile launches but before these nuclear weapons actually detonate on Chinese soil—its previous ironclad commitment to centralized command and control has not altered one wit. The ongoing nuclear force transformation does not incorporate either decentralized command arrangements or a delegative nuclear posture. All nuclear use decisions, accordingly, remain nominally under the direct control of the party’s CMC. But it is even more likely to reside primarily, if not solely, under the (civilian) authority of the chairman of the CMC, who also happens to be the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the president of the People’s Republic of China—or his successors. Under Xi Jinping, this concentration of nuclear decisionmaking authority is only likely to intensify, thus ensuring that China’s traditionally centralized nuclear authority structures will remain indubitably so for a long time to come.130

Although China’s shift toward quicker retaliation is baked into both the technical design of its ongoing nuclear modernization and the political imperatives that accompany it, a detailed understanding of what retaliation entails in any “nuclear counterattack campaign” is still elusive.131 This term “nuclear counterattack campaign” refers to the reprisals that China’s nuclear forces are expected to undertake in response to nuclear attacks, and the principal operation here consists of “key point counterattacks,”132 meaning the centrally directed applications of nuclear firepower on crucial adversary targets. Chinese military theory emphasizes the importance of “close protection”133—that is, safeguarding its offensive weapons through passive and active defenses—because ensuring the survivability of Chinese nuclear forces is a precondition for successful retaliation and, by implication, effective deterrence. The emphasis on “close protection” is thus not particularly remarkable, but what is striking—especially given China’s dramatically transforming nuclear forces—is the insistence that all nuclear retaliation fundamentally aims “to cause huge losses for the enemy and to cause the enemy to be very shaken psychologically in order to achieve the goal of weakening their will to wage war” (emphasis added).134 This emphasis on nuclear retaliation as punishment that simultaneously seeks to retard the adversary’s war waging capabilities and thereby induce war termination is consistent with China’s larger doctrinal conception about the utility of nuclear weapons. The Campaign Theory Study Guide confirms this when it declares that the goal of the nuclear counterattack campaign is “to thwart the enemy’s strategic designs, shake the enemy’s will, paralyze the enemy’s command systems, retard the enemy’s operational activities, weaken the enemy’s war potential, and deter the escalation of nuclear warfare” (emphasis added).135

The focus on nuclear retaliation as an instrument for deterring further nuclear attacks and bringing the conflict to a close as expeditiously as possible is noteworthy precisely because, for all of Beijing’s nuclear transformations, China still does not conceive of nuclear weapons as instruments of warfighting—as the United States and Russia arguably still do. And the characteristics of China’s evolving delivery systems only reinforce the point. Even the Chinese land-based strategic missiles that are slated to become the mainstay of its deterrent (not to mention the sea-based systems) are best suited for attacks on countervalue and soft military targets because their relative inaccuracy, despite their substantial yields, makes them unsuitable for counterforce strikes against hard point targets. China could obviously deploy more accurate nuclear missiles if it chose to, but its primary emphasis on punishing an adversary’s nuclear aggression clearly makes targeting soft, high-value population, economic, and military centers more appropriate.

Furthermore, although the professional Chinese military literature argues the importance of being able to “[carry] out a number of waves of nuclear missile strikes after the initial nuclear strike” if necessary,136 the overwhelming imperative to “deter the escalation of a war”137 suggests why Chinese leaders have betrayed no indication of developing elaborate ladders pertaining to nuclear escalation.138 The discussion in documents such as The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns clearly indicates that the PLARF has given thought to options beyond singular all-out retaliatory attacks.139 Any professional military would be expected to develop such contingency plans. But the overarching notion of “war control,” which encompasses the efforts “to limit and consciously restrain the occurrence, development, intensity, and outcome of a war,”140 is still anchored in the recognition that, as The Science of Military Strategy summarizes, “nuclear weapons’ ultimate destructive effect place[s] human society’s war goal and war means in extremely great contradiction. And the limitlessness of the destructive might of [nuclear] weapons, in turn, demand[s] an explicit restriction on the political goal of war, so as to avoid the limitlessness of the war’s political goal to bring the disasters of a nuclear great war.”141

Because the presence of nuclear weapons thus transforms all conflicts necessarily into limited wars, The Science of Military Strategy enjoins the defender “not overdo the degree of force in war, and not take as primary threatening of the adversary’s survival and comprehensive stripping away of the adversary’s military capability, but rather take forcing the adversary to come to terms as [the] primary [objective of a military campaign].”142 These discussions suggest that even if nuclear weapons use was inescapable in retaliation for nuclear attacks suffered by China, they ought to be oriented toward forcing conflict termination rather than pursuing repeated nuclear interdiction in support of some amorphous conception of victory. To be sure, there is much that is still unclear in Chinese writings on escalation. And the capabilities being developed indicate that Beijing seeks to maintain large enough nuclear forces that would enable it to respond to multiple iterations of nuclear attacks by an adversary while still preserving a survivable reserve to protect its interests after hostilities cease. But there does not appear to be an interest yet in acquiring the forces intended to fight and win nuclear wars as seen in both the United States and Russia—in however constrained a fashion—to this day.143 On the contrary, Chinese texts such as the China Strategic Missile Force Encyclopedia affirm that “the goal of nuclear deterrence is to prevent a conventional war from escalating into a real nuclear war and to suppress a limited nuclear war . . . from escalating into a full-scale nuclear war.”144

Reflecting such views, the Chinese leadership—just like its Indian counterparts—appear to be more concerned about strengthening the firebreak between conventional and nuclear war, given the extraordinarily high costs associated with the latter. They have, therefore, refused to indulge in any speculation that might suggest that some kinds of limited, gradual, or sequential nuclear weapons exchange is acceptable out of concern that China’s adversaries might seek to legitimize such conceptions of nuclear war when Chinese leaders would prefer to eliminate such possibilities entirely. Consequently, their declaratory policies, oriented toward preventing any nuclear attacks on or threats to China, have been based on the presumption that any adversary nuclear use would be catastrophic and consequently its aftermath too would be essentially uncontrollable.145 Whether they actually believe this cannot be confirmed from the outside. Even if they do, it seems to reflect a more realistic assessment of the risks associated with any nuclear war in the current (and likely future) international environment than they are often given credit for.

The transitions in China’s nuclear doctrine suggest a broad continuity over time, but there are important variations in the nuances. The conception of nuclear weapons as having utility fundamentally as deterrents against nuclear attacks or coercion—rather than as instruments of warfighting—has survived, as has the commitment to no first use, despite considerable internal debates about its risks. The emphasis on maintaining a limited nuclear force aimed primarily at punishment for nuclear attacks suffered by China also seems to have endured, although the size of the force deemed to be essential for protecting Chinese interests has grown in absolute terms and will continue to grow further as China prepares to compete with both regional threats and more importantly the United States as its principal international antagonist. Despite this expected growth, the Chinese nuclear deterrent will remain smaller than the capabilities maintained by first-rank nuclear powers such as the United States and Russia. The importance of orienting punishment toward retarding the adversary’s ability to continue nuclear attacks on China and thereby prioritizing war termination is also now more clearly conveyed through the evolving Chinese force structure than at any time during the Cold War: the enlarging Chinese nuclear deterrent is, in fact, intended to signal to its most important nuclear adversary, the United States, that Beijing will have sufficiently survivable nuclear forces to be able to extensively retaliate against any plausible number of U.S. nuclear strikes on China, thereby credibly deterring Washington from embarking on any nuclear attacks to begin with. And, finally, the previous emphasis on deterrence through uncertain retaliation both in fact and in time, while never officially articulated or repudiated, has evolved in a direction where China seeks the assured capability to launch nuclear reprisals far more quickly than before.

China’s Nuclear Arsenal

Given this doctrinal evolution, the discussion that follows focuses on examining various issues relating to the size and character of China’s transforming nuclear deterrent. The growing Chinese nuclear capability obviously highlights the issue of the force size desired by Beijing. Although this targeted number, over whatever timeframe, will not be static unless it is limited by some arms control agreement, it is constrained by the quantity of military-related fissile materials in the Chinese inventory. In a strict sense, China faces no fissile material constraints on its ability to build a nuclear weapons stockpile of any size it chooses because, as a recognized nuclear-weapon state under the NPT, it is not obliged to safeguard fissile material production facilities nor is it constrained from acquiring natural uranium feedstock from the international market for producing weapons-grade fissile materials. Thus far, however, China has not needed to either divert fissile materials from its civilian nuclear program or import natural uranium from abroad for weapons because it appears to have a significant stockpile of military-usable fissile materials already.

Fissile Material Production and Stockpiles

The Chinese nuclear program, which began in the mid-1950s, was oriented for the longest time solely toward the production of nuclear weapons. In contrast, Beijing’s civilian nuclear program started only in the mid-1980s, when construction began on the Qinshan-1 nuclear power plant.146 China commenced production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) first at the Lanzhou complex in 1964 and later at the Heping (or Jinkouhe) complex in 1970. These facilities produced HEU for China’s weapon program through gaseous diffusion, the technology developed in Great Britain early in World War II. The original Lanzhou plant, constructed with Soviet assistance, continued to produce HEU until sometime in the 1980s and was finally decommissioned in 2000. A more modern plant at Lanzhou, utilizing gas centrifuges, began to operate after 2001. Russia had initially supplied gas centrifuge technology for this plant in 1996, after having agreed to build another uranium enrichment plant utilizing this same technology at Hanzhong in 1993. The Russian centrifuges at Lanzhou were later supplemented by “indigenized” Chinese variants on a commercial scale in 2012, with both the Lanzhou and the Hanzhong plants currently producing low-enriched uranium (LEU) for China’s rapidly expanding nuclear energy program.147

The Heping cluster, in contrast, appears oriented toward military and dual-use purposes. From 1970 until 1987, it concentrated solely on producing HEU for China’s nuclear weapons program. Since 1987, however, its activities have been more ambiguous. This unsafeguarded complex subsumes an enrichment plant at Jinkouhe and another group of facilities at Emeishan. The Jinkouhe gaseous diffusion facility, which once produced HEU on a large scale for China’s nuclear weapons, may have later produced LEU for naval reactors and possibly “HEU for tritium production and some research reactors,”148 but its operational status currently is unclear. The Emeishan facilities are more mysterious and could be producing HEU for China’s weapons even today. They consist of two centrifuge enrichment plants plus one pilot-sized facility with an assumed capacity of around 2.45 million separative work units (SWU)/year.149 Often referred to collectively as part of Plant 814—a label that covers Jinkouhe as well—these facilities have been operating continuously except for brief periods of shutdown and are likely to expand further. One analyst, reviewing the plant’s thermal signature in 2015, concluded that “China may still enrich uranium for military purposes, including fuel for naval reactors. Indeed, the district remains closed to foreigners, lending credence to the idea that the facility still has a sensitive military purpose.”150

Besides HEU, which was the first—and still the dominant—material used in Beijing’s nuclear weaponry, China also began to produce weapons-grade plutonium (WGPu) sometime in the 1970s at the Jiuquan and Guangyuan reactors. These two plutonium-producing reactors were decommissioned by 1991, thus suggesting that China had ceased all active production of WGPu for weapons by that time at the latest.151 Because a supplementary material such as tritium, which is required to boost China’s nuclear weapons, has a short half-life of twelve years, its production almost certainly continues in some Chinese research or test reactors, such as the High-Flux Engineering Test Reactor (HFETR) in Jiajiang.152

Chinese officials privately indicated in the late 1980s that Beijing had either terminated the production of weapons-grade materials such as HEU and WGPu or would do so soon, although China consciously refrained from making any binding commitments to this effect.153 Today, it is even more unlikely to do so outside of the successful completion of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) negotiations, which, for all practical purposes, are going nowhere. Given Chinese concerns now about the future of U.S. and other offensive nuclear forces, the emergence of strategic defenses and precision conventional strike capabilities, and the new threats posed by cyber warfare, Beijing will refrain from accepting any obligations not to produce more weapons-grade fissile materials. Because China had never formally committed to terminating the production of weapons-grade fissile materials, any continuing production of HEU at the Emeishan facilities, for example, would be entirely legitimate. And as the discussion following will suggest, China may be faced with new pressures to start HEU and WGPu production on a substantial scale if it seeks to expand its nuclear weapons inventory to the highest levels speculated by U.S. military officials.

At first sight, China has a substantial stockpile of HEU and WGPu already, arguably enough to equip a nuclear force larger than its current size. The best public estimates suggest that China has a stockpile of somewhere between 11,000 and 17,000 kilograms of military HEU and about 2,300 to 3,500 kilograms of WGPu.154 Even if such figures assume somewhat greater production efficiencies than are believed to historically characterize the Chinese program, they represent a good benchmark to characterize the notional limits of the Chinese nuclear weapons inventory. Translating the fissile material stockpile into numbers of weapons, however, is difficult because the types of warheads and the amount of fissile material required by each design are unknown. A crude back-of-the-envelope calculation, accordingly, is the best that is possible, but that ought to suffice here for the purpose of analysis.

If a Chinese thermonuclear warhead of, say, 250 kilotons is taken as the standard, the following may be deduced based on nuclear physics even in the absence of detailed nuclear weapon design information. Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan’s classic manual The Effects of Nuclear Weapons notes that a typical thermonuclear weapon derives about half of its yield from fusion and half from fission.155 If so, the fission yield in this instance would be 125 kilotons: part of this yield would materialize from fissioning uranium-235 (U-235) and part from uranium-238 (U-238). In order to simplify the calculations, half of the fission yield is assumed to be from the U-235 and half from the U-238. To secure 62.5 kilotons of yield would require the complete fissioning of about 3.6 kilograms of U-235. If this amount is contained in 90 percent HEU, the total works out to about 4.0 kilograms of HEU. Since the efficiency of a weapon is never 100 percent, a 50 percent efficiency—completely hypothetical but not unreasonable—suggests that such a weapon would require about 8 kilograms of HEU in the secondary stage. Since the primary is hypothesized to contain about 10 kilograms of HEU (along with some plutonium), a 250-kiloton weapon would require about 18 kilograms of HEU per warhead. If a warhead yield of double this size, say 500 kilotons, is considered, the quantity of HEU required in the primary would remain 10 kilograms, but the quantity in the secondary would double to 26 kilograms, thus requiring some 36 kilograms per weapon.

Given the estimates of China’s fissile material inventory, therefore, Beijing could notionally produce anywhere from 611 to 944 warheads of 250-kiloton yield or 305 to 472 warheads of 500-kiloton yield. Hui Zhang reaches a comparable conclusion: using somewhat different parameters—4 kilograms of WGPu in the primary stage and about 20 kilograms of HEU in the secondary stage of a notional Chinese warhead—he concludes that the current fissile material inventory would permit Beijing to build about 730 weapons.156 However, since this materials stockpile has already been drawn down to produce the weapons currently in the arsenal (some 200-plus, or some 350, depending on the source involved), to support China’s forty-five or more nuclear tests and its ongoing weapons research activities, and to accommodate losses due to waste in manufacturing, assessing how much Beijing could further expand its weapons inventory requires good information on the extent of the stockpile’s depletion.157 This information is impossible to secure from the outside nor is any easy calculation possible for multiple reasons: China’s nuclear warheads traditionally were large and almost certainly used far more fissile materials than the calculations above (including Zhang’s) suggest; the quantity of fissile material expended in tests and wasted in the fabrication of the weapons cannot be discerned confidently; and, complicating matters further, China probably recycles pits from older retired warheads, thus allowing them to be reused in ways that bungle any calculation.

In any event, if the numbers above are treated as a vague measure, and if China is assumed to have possessed some 200 500-kiloton weapons around 2020, it could increase this inventory to the 472 weapons deduced above—in effect, more than doubling the size of its arsenal—without running into any binding HEU or WGPu constraints. By Zhang’s estimate, this objective would be even easier to realize. If 250-kiloton warheads are treated as the standard, China could double or triple its weapons inventory (depending on which end of the above range is factored in) without having to increase its fissile materials stockpile. If China, however, possesses some 350 warheads of 250-kilotons yields currently, then it will find itself skating on thinner margins. Given that it possesses a significant WGPu stockpile in addition to HEU, Beijing could increase a 250-kiloton warhead inventory to some 700 nuclear weapons—in effect, doubling the size of the force—without running into serious shortages of either fissile material. But tripling or quadrupling the arsenal within the current decade, even with such lower-yield warheads, would require China to restart HEU production on a significant scale beyond whatever the Emeishan facilities may have been producing. The three centrifuge enrichment plants at Emeishan—one pilot- and two industrial-sized—have substantial latent capacity and could produce anywhere from 1,200 kilograms to close to 12,000 kilograms of HEU annually depending on the scale of their commitment.158 China can, therefore, ramp up HEU production quite easily if that were required.

Depending on how large a nuclear warhead inventory China seeks—especially if tripling or quadrupling a 350-strong stockpile of 250-kiloton-class weapons is desired—Beijing will require a new plutonium production reactor to sustain this buildup, especially if more compact nuclear weapons are pursued. Many Western scholars have already pointed out that the Chinese fast breeder reactor program and the complementary reprocessing capabilities are poised to expand dramatically: Beijing is constructing two large fast breeder reactors that are projected to begin operation in 2023 and 2026, respectively, and is constructing two large reprocessing plants as well, both of which will become operational during this decade. Simply by exploiting the fast breeder reactors alone, China could potentially produce over 1,200 new nuclear weapons by 2030.159 Consequently, only if it is presumed that China seeks to exceed the current U.S. nuclear force, which consists of 1,744 deployed warheads (plus another 1,964 warheads in reserve), or the current Russian strategic force, which consists of 1,588 warheads (with an additional 2,889 warheads in reserve),160 would it need to commit its civilian fast breeders entirely to the weapons program in order to obviate the “hard constraints” imposed by its current fissile material stockpile.161

The plain fact of the matter is that China is unconstrained in both legal and physical terms from expanding its arsenal as it chooses. This leaves it at par with the other NPTrecognized nuclear-weapon states, while giving it advantages over local nuclear rivals such as India.

There is no evidence yet, however, that China seeks a nuclear arsenal of the size maintained by the United States and Russia. Nor is there information suggesting that China intends to divert plutonium from its civilian sector to weapons use. But if tripling or quadrupling its current nuclear force were its fundamental objective—something that is not implausible given China’s preparation for intensified strategic competition with the United States—Beijing could use its Heping gaseous enrichment plant to restart production of HEU from local or imported feedstock or, more likely, accelerate HEU production at Emeishan utilizing its more efficient centrifuge technology in tandem with producing plutonium from one of its breeders before constructing any new replacements for the Jiuquan and Guangyuan reactors to restart production of WGPu. The plain fact of the matter is that China is unconstrained in both legal and physical terms from expanding its arsenal as it chooses. This leaves it at par with the other NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states, while giving it advantages over local nuclear rivals such as India.

Nuclear Weapon Designs

For all practical purposes, this same conclusion also holds where China’s nuclear device designs are concerned. Based on what can be gleaned from China’s nuclear tests and the kinds of nuclear systems it has deployed over the years, Beijing has the capacity to deploy a diverse nuclear arsenal consisting of everything from fission to fusion to enhanced radiation weapons that can be carried by aircraft and, more importantly, by ballistic and cruise missiles. The ballistic missiles, deployed over the past several decades, suggest that China’s “standard” nuclear devices today are thermonuclear weapons. (At the moment, China does not appear to have deployed any nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.162) Since China’s nuclear strategy consists of holding at risk big but soft targets—such as cities, industrial centers, and important static military sites like large ports, airfields, and bases—thermonuclear weapons, which produce high yields from relatively low weight payloads, are ideal deterrents.

The little that has been published on China’s nuclear warheads, and whatever can be inferred from its nuclear operations, suggests that its traditional nuclear device designs were relatively conservative.163 They used large quantities of fissile material, sought to produce the maximum desired yields consistently, and employed technical features that emphasized reliable performance and easy maintainability at their storage sites while allowing for rapid integration with their delivery vehicles in what may be less than pristine operational conditions. U.S. nuclear weapon designs represent a study in contrast. They embody the acme of sophistication and complexity, invariably pushing the edge of the envelope to secure maximum yields for specific operational purposes, using the smallest quantities of fissile materials possible in design architectures that put a premium on compactness, weight reduction, and absolute safety because, being sealed systems designed for prompt operations, they cannot rely on other solutions such as insertable pits or variable levels of assembly to enhance their safety and security when deployed.

All U.S. nuclear weapon designs thus subsist on the knife edge between superlative performance and failure that could be caused by the tiniest deficiencies in either their components or their overall architecture. The W-88 warhead, which exemplifies contemporary U.S. two-stage thermonuclear weapons, accordingly, has been described by one authority as “a ‘delicate’ and neat package.”164 In pursuit of such sophistication, the United States has relentlessly tested its nuclear weapon designs to ensure their performance, reliability, and safety under every imaginable condition. Toward that end, it conducted 1,032 nuclear tests to validate the 100-plus nuclear device designs that were deployed since 1945, in contrast to China, which conducted less than fifty tests of probably not more than a dozen weapon designs between 1964 and 1996.165

One scholar has suggested that China traditionally had only three types of warheads: a 15-kiloton, a 3-megaton, and a 4–5-megaton design.166 Two other academics, who have written extensively on China’s nuclear program, have contended that China has used variants of only a single reliable warhead design on the multiple missiles now in its arsenal.167 While the judgment about the yields of China’s older warheads rings true, the claims about the singularity of its reliable design are hard to verify. Another scholar, writing in the late 1990s, had more plausibly suggested that China possessed “at least six distinct warhead and bomb types.”168 Beyond the obvious problems deriving from secrecy, these differences in assessment arise in part because of the ambiguity about what constitutes a distinct device design in China. Consequently, given the differences in the size, volume, and throw weight of the post-boost vehicles on different Chinese missiles, it seems reasonable to suggest that Beijing has diverse nuclear devices with specific variants common to particular classes of delivery systems. The nomenclature of these weapons is unknown, though it is conceivable that the Chinese tradition of using a three-digit designator for its nuclear weapons continues. The first Chinese implosion device, for example, was labeled the 596 design, while China’s famous fourth test device (CHIC-4), which was subsequently transferred to Pakistan, was labeled the 548 design.169

In any event, the new Chinese missile systems that are either entering service or which will be deployed in the future—such as the DF-41 and the JL-3—are certain to use variants of the device designs that were tested during the 1990s. The nuclear tests undertaken during that decade were intended to develop the smaller and more efficient warheads that will remain staples of the Chinese arsenal for years to come.170 These warheads are believed to utilize smaller quantities of fissile materials, incorporate more robust electronics and safety features (such as insensitive high explosives), and permit—where appropriate—a continuation of the traditional Chinese approach of maintaining systems in de-mated condition until prior to launch.171

There is little doubt that China is continuing its research on advanced nuclear warheads, but whether its moratorium on hot testing constrains its ability to deploy such weapons remains an open question. In the past, China circumvented the limitations of its modest testing history “by using generic [nuclear weapons] designs of wide adaptability.”172 Beijing also developed and tested some specialized nuclear weapons, such as enhanced radiation devices, though it ultimately chose not to deploy them. Similarly, it continues to develop other special capabilities such as electromagnetic pulse and low-yield nuclear warheads.173 Given that China cannot conduct full-up hot tests of these devices today (though others have been validated by previous testing), it has sought to mitigate its limitations by relying on computational modeling, through surreptitious cooperation with more advanced nuclear-weapon states such as Russia, and by covert nuclear testing of different kinds.

China has invested heavily in computer simulation capabilities; what it lacks, at least in comparison to the United States, is extensive design codes—data pertaining to the myriad transformations that occur during a nuclear explosion.174 The United States patiently accumulated this information through hundreds of nuclear tests. China, bereft of such benefits, will find it difficult to validate radically new designs entirely through simulations alone. This limitation has motivated China to target the acquisition of U.S. data through espionage and to collaborate with Russia for assistance. Using information from U.S. codes gathered surreptitiously, however, is a gamble when developing new nuclear designs. Seeking assistance from another advanced, friendly, nuclear power is another matter: there is evidence that Russia has already aided China for this purpose, and such cooperation could increase as Beijing and Moscow deepen their efforts to balance against U.S. power.175 Finally, China will attempt to mitigate some of its hot-testing constraints by conducting subcritical and hydronuclear tests as all other nuclear powers do. On the basis of classified evidence, the Trump administration had in fact insinuated that China is engaged in covert nuclear testing that goes beyond the “zero-yield” constraint associated with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Although the administration’s public claims were nuanced, it had privately concluded that China was, in fact, conducting covert nuclear experiments and tests in explosive containment chambers that were intended to obscure any supercritical yields.176

Although many of these clandestine testing activities are probably driven by the challenges of managing warhead degradation and safety177—both serious problems for a nuclear force with a relatively sparse record of hot testing—they are also focused on validating the new warheads that will be required by the “lean and effective” deterrent that China seeks for the future. The evolution of the Chinese nuclear arsenal suggests that after a brief early period, when Beijing produced relatively low-yield weapons for aircraft and missile delivery, it moved quickly toward deploying heavy, high-yield missile-borne warheads, a trend that held for much of the Cold War. These weapons generally weighed some 2,000 kilograms or more and produced yields of anywhere between 3 and 5 megatons. Newer Chinese missiles, however, carry lighter, lower-yield weapons that weigh 600 kilograms or less and produce yields in the range of 300 to 500 kilotons.178 Even with such smaller yields, China’s thermonuclear weapons are capable of holding at risk the soft, high-value targets possessed by an adversary, and they can be deployed across diverse delivery systems, including those not previously committed to nuclear missions such as land-attack cruise missiles.

The evolution of China’s nuclear warhead development program raises two important questions for the future: First, how low will the yields of China’s desired warheads go? And second, will China finally deploy the specialized nuclear warheads that it has previously experimented with or is currently developing? The answers to the first question are important because they speak to the issue of whether China will persist with its traditional countervalue targeting strategy indefinitely or whether it might be in the process of entertaining some forms of counterforce targeting over time. Alternatively, as the U.S. Department of Defense notes, “the introduction of new precise small-yield nuclear weapons could possibly allow for the controlled use of nuclear weapons, in the warzone, for warning and deterrence.” The prospect of such “limited nuclear employment on the battlefield suggest[s that Chinese] nuclear thinkers could be reconsidering their long-standing view that nuclear war is uncontrollable.”179

The diminishing yields of China’s strategic warheads, from the previous high of 3–5 megatons to the emerging norm of 300–500 kilotons on its new but relatively inaccurate strategic missiles, suggest that countervalue and countermilitary interdiction of large area targets still remain a priority and, as such, are most consistent with a retaliatory nuclear strategy. If China, however, deploys lower-yield warheads in the range of a few tens of kilotons or just a few kilotons (or in the sub-kiloton range), then the possibility of a shift toward more complex nuclear strategies would have to be taken very seriously. The same judgment would be reinforced by the answer to the second question above: if China were to deploy its specialized warheads, such as enhanced radiation weapons, or to develop earth-penetrating warheads for its ballistic missiles, it would signal a switch to something other than a pure strategy of retaliation. Rather ominously, senior U.S. military officials, including U.S. STRATCOM commander Admiral Charles Richards, have declared that “China is already capable of executing any plausible nuclear employment strategy within their region and will soon be able to do so at intercontinental ranges as well. They are no longer a ‘lesser included case’ of the pacing nuclear threat, Russia” (emphasis in original).180

If this testimony is any indication, China could deploy new nuclear device designs without further hot testing because the previous tests, especially during the 1990s, presumably sufficed to validate the warheads that will be deployed aboard both its emerging strategic land- and sea-based ballistic missiles as well as on the substrategic systems that are currently being modernized. Of course, China might—just as it did with its enhanced radiation warheads traditionally—develop low-yield or other specialized warheads simply to stay au courant with the capabilities of other nuclear powers—but not deploy them. If so, these weapons would serve mainly as insurance against any further deterioration in the strategic environment. Given Admiral Richard’s judgment, however, it appears that China is already confident enough to induct even specialized nuclear weapons into its arsenal without any further need for open testing because the design validation from past nuclear tests, continued computer simulations, possible cooperation with Russia, continuing subcritical experiments, and covert very-low-yield nuclear testing all together suffice to confirm their effectiveness. As such, the presence of any new advanced nuclear designs will remain concealed unless Beijing’s announces them, or they are uncovered by U.S. (or other) intelligence services.

China’s Evolving Delivery Systems

If China can thus live with the warhead designs tested prior to its signing the CTBT—because they can be flexibly deployed across multiple delivery systems—the latter themselves are undergoing a remarkable transformation. The modernization of China’s nuclear delivery capabilities continues the efforts begun in the 1980s: these are aimed at deploying a reliable, survivable, and responsive nuclear arsenal that is effective enough to deter both great powers and regional adversaries who may possess strong offensive forces as well as strategic defenses. This program has accelerated in recent years and is manifested along four different dimensions: changes in force capabilities, force size, force organization, and force posture.

Land Systems

The most striking change in China’s nuclear capabilities is the dramatic growth and transformation of its long-range missile systems that are targeted—for now—primarily at the United States. These systems reside predominantly on land, though new sea-based capabilities are entering the arsenal as well in a distinctively subordinate role. The PLARF thus remains the preeminent guardian of China’s nuclear deterrent: as Xi Jinping described its previous incarnation, the Second Artillery Force, in 2012, it “is the core force of [the] country’s strategic deterrence, the strategic support of China’s status as a major power, and an important cornerstone of safeguarding national security.”181 The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which controls the SSBN force, and the PLAAF, which has acquired renewed nuclear responsibilities primarily in a regional context today, remain largely secondary to the PLARF.

The most striking change in China’s nuclear capabilities is the dramatic growth and transformation of its long-range missile systems that are targeted—for now—primarily at the United States.

Where long-range nuclear missile systems are concerned, the transformations in China are nothing short of dramatic. At the end of the Cold War, this component consisted of a very small number of land-based CSS-3 (DF-4) and CSS-4 Mod 1 and 2 (DF-5/5A) liquid-fueled ICBMs. The ~6,000-kilometer-range CSS-3s, each carrying a warhead of around 3 megatons, are moveable missiles, usually stored in caves and rolled out to launch. These systems, of which perhaps ten or fewer remain, are likely to be retired within a few years.182 The ~12,000-kilometer-range CSS-4 Mod 1 has been retired, but the silo-based ~12,000-kilometer-range Mod 2 is still operational and carries a single high-yield warhead of around 5 megatons.183 These missiles will remain in service for a while longer but are increasingly supplemented (and will be eventually replaced) by the silo-based Mod 3 version, which carries multiple independently targetable warheads with yields of somewhat less than 500 kilotons,184 and the silo-based Mod 4 version, which could carry either smaller-yield multiple independently targetable warheads or a single high-yield warhead of some 5 megatons like the CSS-4 Mod 2. Much will depend on whether the CSS-4 Mod 4 is intended to take on the targeting responsibilities currently serviced by the obsolete CSS-3 and the older CSS-4 Mod 2 ICBMs; if so, the CSS-4 Mod 4 could be deployed with a single high-yield nuclear warhead. Although both the CSS-3 and the CSS-4 family of ICBMs are vulnerable to counterforce attacks, they are likely to be maintained in service for a long time—as the development of the Mod 4 version suggests—because they offer complete targeting coverage of the entire United States. The large size of the CSS-4 post-boost vehicle will also permit China to deploy a variety of penetrating aids that could permit Beijing to defeat U.S. missile defenses.

China has moved to modernize its land-based ICBM force in two ways. In an effort to increase its force size and to complicate adversary targeting simultaneously, Beijing initially focused on inducting new, more survivable, and responsive solid-fueled mobile ICBMs that, equipped with diverse penetrating aids, offered reasonable assurance of being able to defeat its opponents’ missile defenses. These systems, such as the CSS-10/DF-31 and the CSS-20/DF-41, are intended for global targeting but especially with an eye on the United States. Depending on the variant, the CSS-10 missiles have ranges between ~8,000 to ~13,000 kilometers and are equipped with one warhead each with a yield of somewhere under 500 kilotons, while the ~12,000-kilometer-ranged CSS-20 missile will be equipped with multiple independently targetable warheads of similar or perhaps smaller yields.185 Some CSS-10 missiles cannot range the entirety of the continental United States, though the CSS-10 Mod 2 and the CSS-20 missiles come close to holding almost all of the country at risk from their current deployment locations. Depending on what the final range of the mature CSS-10 Mod 3 turns out to be and its base location, it could target the continental United States comprehensively.186 If China desires complete and redundant targeting of the United States with newer systems from deep inside the Chinese landmass—beyond what is already bequeathed by liquid-fueled missiles such as the CSS-4 ICBM—it will push forward with developing follow-on weapons that possess maximum ranges closer to 15,000 kilometers. These systems, which could include either new developmental ICBMs or ICBMs equipped with nuclear-armed hypersonic glide vehicles, would enable Beijing to comfortably reach all of the United States from anywhere within China.187

Beyond its new mobile, solid-fuel ballistic missiles, China has surprisingly doubled down on enlarging the size of its siloed missile force. The early expectations were that China would eventually retire most, if not all, of its siloed ICBMs because of their inherent vulnerability to counterforce attack and replace them with mobile solid-fuel missiles. It is now clear that China will deploy both siloed and mobile ICBMs concurrently, with the former possibly running into a few hundred systems.188 The three new missile silo fields recently discovered at Hanggin Banner, Yumen, and Hami can host some 300 ballistic missiles and, when fully operational, could result in the creation of the first new PLARF Bases in fifty years.189 Although the final size or configuration of the siloed missile component is unclear, it seems as if China will add its most advanced solid-fuel missiles, such as the CSS-10s and CSS-20s with lower-yield warheads, to the liquid-fuel CSS-4s, currently tipped with lower-yield and possibly high-yield warheads as well, in its expanding silo network.190

There has been some speculation that not all of China’s missile silos could have deployed missiles. Rather, China could use its silo system as a shell game, leaving many empty in order to force an attacker to expend numerous warheads targeting what may turn out to be empty sites.191 Whether this conjecture proves to be correct only time will tell, but Beijing cannot count on the possibility that an advanced nuclear adversary, such as the United States, will be unable to identify which silos are in fact loaded. The careful distancing between individual silos suggests that China has been attentive to the effective radius of various possible attacking warheads and, accordingly, intends to use its silo fields as a “warhead sponge” to force an adversary to expend a large fraction of its nuclear inventory on attacking targets that will likely contain real weapons. (Alternatively, if China comprehensively shifts toward a launch on warning posture somewhere down the line, the siloed missile force—if deployed routinely with its nuclear warheads—would be a prime candidate for executing prompt missions when required.) In any event, if the official U.S. expectation that China intends to triple or quadruple the size of its nuclear arsenal over the next decade or more is borne out, a large, siloed force with both solid- and liquid-fuel missiles carrying warheads of different yields will end up being a significant component of Beijing’s land-based nuclear force structure.

While China’s expansion of its strategic missile force vis-à-vis the United States (and latently Russia) will thus continue well into the foreseeable future, it has not overlooked the demands associated with targeting its regional adversaries in Asia, such as Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, India and Australia.192 Because China anticipates conventional conflicts with these states either bilaterally or in the context of a war over Taiwan, it has focused on producing different types of short-range ballistic missiles (such as the CSS-6 and CSS-7 series), medium-range ballistic missiles (such as the CSS-5, CSS-11, and CSS-22 series), intermediate-range ballistic missiles (such as the CSS-18 series), and ground- and air-launched cruise missiles with diversified conventional warheads aimed against these countries (some of which also host critical U.S. bases in Asia).

Yet nuclear targeting has not been forgotten by any means. Traditionally, China maintained a significant force of mobile solid-fuel CSS-5 missiles armed with nuclear warheads of some 500-kiloton yields for deterrence against these regional threats.193 These weapons were not intended for counterforce missions, though their significant yields made them lethal instruments if employed against any large area military targets. The number of nuclear CSS-5s in the Chinese inventory has dropped since their peak, as China began retiring many of the oldest systems that first entered service in the 1990s. The surviving systems, however, are still important for holding at risk the most important large, soft targets in China’s neighborhood, even as Beijing has more recently focused on introducing new and highly accurate conventional versions of the CSS-5 (including the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile) into its force.

While such a priority is understandable in the context of China’s preparations for waging limited conventional wars along its periphery, the striking shift in its regional nuclear deterrence paradigm, however, is exemplified by the CSS-18 IRBM. The nuclear version of this missile is extraordinarily long-ranged, is highly accurate (with one conventional variant serving as an anti-carrier weapon), “is designed to rapidly swap conventional and nuclear warheads,”194 and “is the most likely weapon system to field a lower-yield warhead in the near-term.”195 The nuclear-armed CSS-18, therefore, would be capable of conducting both countervalue attacks as well as some forms of “precision theater nuclear strikes” at great distances from China’s territory.196 This emerging nuclear precision strike capability arguably does not repudiate either Beijing’s no-first-use doctrine or its rejection of nuclear warfighting in principle since such a system could be used for proportionate retaliation in the face of any limited nuclear use by China’s adversaries, especially the United States, which has never ruled out such possibilities. However, it represents a significant transformation in Chinese nuclear capabilities, which, heretofore, emphasized relatively inaccurate delivery systems carrying large-yield weapons primarily for interdicting soft area targets. The size of the nuclear CSS-18 contingent that China finally deploys will thus provide important clues to the character of its future strategic intentions.

Since some sixty-odd nuclear CSS-5s and CSS-18s are judged to have been in service in 2021, it seems evident that China is determined to maintain a sizeable enough force both to deter its regional adversaries and to maintain the capabilities required to respond to any limited U.S. (or Indian) nuclear use symmetrically. That targeting China’s regional competitors, even if some of them are not nuclear-weapon states, remains a priority is further evidenced by the fact that China still retains a small number of its old liquid-fueled CSS-3 ICBMs with a range of some 6,300 kilometers to complete its target coverage of countries such as India, Japan, and parts of Southeast Asia, which may lie beyond the range of the CSS-5 and CSS-18 IRBMs allocated for that purpose. In time, both the CSS-3s and the CSS-5s will be superseded entirely by newer theater systems, such as the CSS-18s, supplemented by newer ICBMs like the CSS-10s and the CSS-20s. Given the dramatic increase in the number of these latter systems, it is likely that some CSS-10 and CSS-20 missile brigades already have regional targeting responsibilities as well.

Air Systems

China’s continued focus on regional missions, even as it expands its nuclear forces directed at the United States, is perhaps most strikingly underscored by the transformation of Beijing’s larger nuclear architecture. Although China nominally maintained a triad during the last decade of the Cold War, Beijing’s nuclear deterrent for all practical purposes was a dyad centered on its land-based missiles and its nuclear-capable H-6A and E bombers and Q-5 fighters. The aviation components lost their nuclear responsibilities as the Cold War ended, but the continued emphasis on regional targeting has now resurrected China’s nuclear bomber force for the first time in recent years. China’s modernized H-6N bombers, which can be aerially refueled, are now slated to carry its new ~3,000-kilometer-ranged air-launched ballistic missile, the CH-AS-X-13, whose warhead yield is unknown. Although the United States experimented with ALBMs during the Cold War, the idea never really caught on because it was simpler to launch ballistic missiles from the ground and enhance their survivability if required through mobility.

China’s deployment of the CH-AS-X-13, however, has given ALBMs new life, and they are likely to constitute the principal nuclear armament of Beijing’s bomber force over the next decade. The PLAAF’s current bomber force, which consists of different versions of the H-6, is for the most part obsolete (even if modernized) and cannot prosecute any penetrating missions against respectable adversaries on its periphery—such as Japan and India—let alone further afield.197 Consequently, their principal munitions remain standoff weapons, whether ballistic or cruise missiles, that can be launched from outside the range of an adversary’s air defenses and have a better chance of reaching their targets while also increasing the survivability of the launching platform. Accordingly, China’s bomber force, which sports both PLAAF and PLAN livery, invariably carries primarily conventional standoff weapons including cruise missiles for their land-attack and anti-ship missions, respectively.

Beyond being new, the PLAAF’s acquisition of a nuclear role is also perplexing because, even when refueled, the H-6N’s ALBM payload can reach only regional targets: the Asian periphery and much of Australia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Alaska. These territories, however, are already amply covered by China’s ballistic missiles. Consequently, one American scholar has attributed the air-launched ballistic missiles’ deployment to “bureaucratic dynamics” in China because it makes “little sense strategically.”198 The ALBM-equipped H-6N, admittedly, would offer China potentially greater penetrativity because it allows for attacks from wider, and unexpected, azimuths and thus could help defeat some emerging missile defense systems. But there are certainly cheaper ways to achieve this objective, so the integration of ALBMs into China’s nuclear deterrent force remains puzzling.199

Given these realities, the introduction of the nuclear ALBM suggests the following beyond bureaucratic politics: China seeks to stay at the frontiers of nuclear delivery technologies no matter how recondite they may be; it desires to reliably hold at risk the entirety of the Asian landmass and the outlying areas through a multiplicity of nuclear delivery systems including some that may be entirely redundant; and, finally, the CH-AS-X-13 ALBM (or its successors) could remain the primary standoff weapon even for China’s future long-range stealth bomber, the H-20, which could be used for missions against the United States and its island territories if the aircraft does come to possess “a truly intercontinental power-projection capability.”200

Naval Systems

Because even mobile land-based missiles and strike aircraft are susceptible to counterforce attacks—depending on the effectiveness of the attacker’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems, and the accuracy/yield of its weapons as well as the extent of strategic or tactical warning available to the defender—China has sought to increase the survivability and responsiveness of its deterrent by also investing in new nuclear ballistic missile submarines and their associated command-and-control systems. Already during the Cold War, the United States had developed the capabilities to interdict even the supposedly survivable land- and sea-based second-strike systems deployed by the former Soviet Union.201 Washington continues to maintain a similar suite of capabilities vis-à-vis China consistent with its larger nuclear strategy of damage limitation. Hence, it is not surprising that China too is committing additional resources to increasing the survivability of its nuclear forces by both expanding their numbers and diversifying their basing modes.

Building up the sea-based leg represents a further evolution of China’s emerging nuclear capabilities. China previously possessed a single Xia-class SSBN, with 12 JL-1 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which is believed to have never embarked on a deterrence patrol. Based on its experience of constructing and operating the Xia, China has now deployed six new Jin-class SSBNs, each carrying twelve ~8,000-kilometer-ranged JL-2 single-warhead-equipped SLBMs with a range of some 8,000 kilometers. Over time, these Jin-class SSBNs will be complemented by new Type 096 submarines, each carrying sixteen to twenty-four new ~10,000-kilometer-ranged JL-3 SLBMs possibly with multiple warheads.202 Based on the construction schedule of the 096 class, it is possible that China could operate the Jin-class SSBNs and some follow-on 096 boats concurrently. Furthermore, if development of the JL-3 SLBM progresses fast enough, it is possible that this missile could be retrofitted on some of the Jin-class SSBNs as well, long before the 096 vessels enter service. The 096-class SSBNs are expected to be quieter than their Jin-class predecessors, thus enjoying notionally increased survivability.

If the Jin or the 096 submarines are deployed in bastions in the South China Sea, the Bohai Bay, or the Yellow Sea, neither their JL-2 nor JL-3 missiles can target the entirety of the United States—although all of China’s Asian adversaries would lie comfortably within reach. Targeting the United States completely with the current and prospective Chinese SLBMs would require deploying submarines to operate well east of the Second Island Chain where they would be even more vulnerable to U.S. open-ocean anti-submarine warfare (ASW).203 Consequently, China’s SSBN investments—at least for the moment—seem aimed at preserving a small reserve force in coastal bastions in the event that all or most of its land-based weapons are interdicted by the United States. Although their survivability even here is not at all assured, their ability to hold at risk important U.S. west coast and midwestern cities is obviously considered essential to shore up deterrence against a stronger nuclear adversary like the United States.204 Over the longer term, it is likely that China will pursue the development of longer-ranged SLBMs capable of ranging the entirety of the United States from their coastal bastions in order to increase the survivability of the Chinese deterrent in the face of the expected U.S. ASW threats.

China’s Nuclear Inventory

The foregoing discussion about China’s emerging nuclear capabilities highlights the dramatic transformations that are currently underway. When the additional investments in command-and-control systems and passive and active defenses are taken into account (some of which will be discussed later when reviewing changes in China’s nuclear posture), these alterations are consistent with Xi Jinping’s injunction that China’s nuclear deterrent must “achieve a great rise in strategic capabilities” by incorporating “breakthroughs . . . in [its] strategic deterrence capability.”205 Unfortunately, the vast information that is available on the specifics of various Chinese weapon systems does not translate equally into data on its force size. This is because China, just like India and Pakistan, is highly secretive about its nuclear forces; outside analysts have to deduce the number of deployed systems based on fragmentary information, including any that may be sporadically released by U.S. or other intelligence services. Even data compiled by respectable institutions like the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in its annual Military Balance assessments are incomplete and confusing because the information sometimes refers to number of launchers as opposed to missiles and because conventional and nuclear variants of various delivery systems are often conflated.

Given the paucity of reliable information, Figure 1 must be treated as merely illustrating some broad trends over time. It depicts the evolution of China’s nuclear missile force since 1998 based on data from various issues of the Military Balance. Figure 2 summarizes China’s nuclear force structure in 2021, drawing on the remarkable work that Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda have done over the years at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, as well as Ma Xiu’s work at the China Aerospace Studies Institute.206

Despite the limitations of the Military Balance data noted above, the most striking fact about China’s nuclear forces historically have been their low numbers. If the JL-1 SLBM is excluded from the reckoning because its Xia launch platform was never functionally operational, the principal Chinese long-range missiles, such as the CSS-3 and early CSS-4s, existed in, at most, a couple of tens of systems for well after the Cold War ended. The numbers of CSS-5 MRBMs, especially in their nuclear variants, did increase progressively over time. But the spike in their numbers around 2009, per Figure 1, was the result of counting launchers rather than the missiles themselves: although the missiles still exist in significant numbers, the conventional variants far exceed their nuclear counterparts as the latter are being progressively retired.

As noted previously, the conspicuous aspect of China’s nuclear force transformation after 2009 is the growth of long-range systems in numbers that far exceed previous norms. The induction of Jin-class submarines into the Chinese deterrent has increased the number of long-range missiles in the force. And the remarkable expansion of the CSS-10 segment after 2018–2019 will be complemented in the future by more CSS-10 variants in mobile and possibly siloed variants. The growth of the CSS-18 missiles will also certainly continue, with the sharply ascending slopes in Figure 1 suggesting that they will eventually be deployed in the low hundreds of launchers (although most will be allocated primarily for conventional operations). Whether the nuclear CSS-18 variants will grow further in number is unclear right now. The IISS data until 2020 do not indicate any CSS-20 missile launchers, but Kristensen suggests that perhaps eighteen are already operational. The number of CSS-20 missiles will also increase in the future, including possibly in siloed versions.

Although China is pursuing the most comprehensive missile program in the world—with more systems under development than any other nation—the bulk of its missile inventory still consists of conventional weapons intended for warfighting in the context of various contingencies on its periphery. The nuclear missile inventory is a smaller subset of this larger effort, and it seems that China will settle for about six different types of systems in the medium term for purposes of deterrence: the siloed CSS-4, the mobile CSS-10 and CSS-20 (with possibly siloed variants as well), and the sea-based JL-2/3 for intercontinental missions, plus the CSS-18 and the CH-AS-X-13 systems for regional deterrence. It is unclear at the moment whether China will deploy a nuclear-armed version of its new hypersonic glide vehicle-equipped CSS-22 MRBM. In any event, once these systems are procured in the numbers desired, it is likely that two older nuclear systems—the CSS-3 and the CSS-5—will be retired. The nuclear force in its totality will thus be a mix of siloed and mobile missiles; will be both solid and liquid fueled; will carry either single or multiple warheads with high and medium yields, respectively; and will be equipped with different kinds of penetration aids to enable them to defeat the missile defense systems that may be deployed by China’s adversaries. In time, they will be complemented by newer systems that perhaps deploy even more advanced payloads such as maneuvering reentry and hypersonic glide vehicles.

Based on Kristensen and Matt Korda’s assessment, the Chinese nuclear missile inventory today could consist of close to 260 nuclear missiles: ninety-six modern land-based mobile missile launchers each with one missile; twenty-six land-based siloed missiles; and seventy-two sea-based missiles, for a total of some 194 long-range systems, complemented by sixty or so nuclear missiles (including ALBMs) for theater missions.207 Even if these numbers are not entirely accurate in their internal composition, they do depict a Chinese nuclear force that is much larger than it has been historically and one that is projected to increase in size anywhere from two to four times its current level by the end of this decade or slightly beyond. If China does in fact build up its nuclear deterrent to levels where it possesses some 1,000 missiles (if not more), this would bring it much closer to current U.S. and Russian nuclear forces than it has ever been, although significant qualitative disparities would continue to persist.

Command and Control, Operational Posture, and Force Employment

The growing size of China’s nuclear deterrent has already been reflected in important changes in its force organization. As part of a larger, more sweeping restructuring of the Chinese military, the older Second Artillery Force, which controlled all of China’s land-based missile systems, was elevated in 2015 to an independent service and renamed the PLA Rocket Force. In its new embodiment, the PLARF controls all of China’s land-based conventional and nuclear missiles though, contrary to earlier expectations, it appears that the Chinese navy will control the sea-based nuclear forces and the Chinese air force will control the air-delivered nuclear weapons in whatever forms they may appear after the air-launched ballistic missile. The PLARF is also now complemented by the PLA Strategic Support Force, which centralizes the space-, cyber-, and electronic-warfare capabilities that would be required for both nuclear and conventional operations.208

The PLARF headquarters has both organizational and command responsibilities with respect to the land-based nuclear forces: it oversees everything from establishing force requirements to procuring the desired weapons to training, manning, and operating the missile systems that are finally deployed. Given the strong civilian—meaning CCP—control over all of China’s military forces but especially its nuclear weapons, the political commissar of the PLARF has preeminent authority in ensuring that the service’s mission is thoroughly subordinated to political objectives of the party’s CMC and, in particular, the preferences of the chairman, currently Xi Jinping. Although the Second Artillery Force was treated as an autonomous entity historically—because its activities pertained to the operation of special weapons—the PLARF today is integrated into China’s theater command structure.209 Although specific details of this integration are obscure, it appears that PLARF officers at the appropriate level are part of the theater command’s joint operations command centers but with responsibility solely for the direction and employment of the conventional missile units.

However, the nuclear Bases and brigades, while coordinating as appropriate with the theater command elements especially for force support, remain tightly controlled by the CMC, which, through its Joint Operations Command Center, retains the option of promulgating orders either through the PLARF headquarters to its successive subordinate formations or directly to these units by skipping their intermediate echelons when required.210 Whether these procedural systems evolve in the direction of permitting the top civilian leadership to launch at least some nuclear weapons directly is worth watching. As Bruce Blair described, the Soviet Union had “developed and tested a command link meant to give the top political leadership push-button launch control over a portion of their ICBM force, bypassing even the General Staff, in order to shave off a few minutes of launch reaction time.”211 If China moves similarly, as the demand for more rapid retaliation intensifies under Xi Jinping’s direction, Blair’s earlier judgement in the Soviet context, that “such short-cuts are obviously dangerous in the extreme,”212 would apply to Beijing as well.

The revolutionary character of such a transformation is best appreciated by understanding the organizational structure of the PLARF and its changing operational rhythm. The largest operational unit in the PLARF is the missile brigade, which usually deploys and operates one specific missile system (which sometimes includes different variants). A few brigades may operate more than one type of missile, but that is not the norm. The missile brigades in turn are composed of subordinate battalions, with the number of missile launchers allocated to each brigade varying considerably. As China’s nuclear force distends in size, the number of launchers possessed by individual brigades will also rise but not necessarily in any uniform way. As a recent U.S. Department of Defense report on Chinese military power revealed, the PLARF “appears to be doubling the numbers of launchers in some ICBM units.”213 The more conspicuous development, however, has been the dramatic increase in the number of missile brigades in recent years. At the end of the Cold War, China probably fielded about twelve nuclear missile brigades, which were subordinated in turn to six army-level Bases, with a seventh dedicated to logistics and support.214 These apex formations, sequentially numbered from 51 Base to 56 Base (with the 57 Base for logistics), served as the nodal administrative organizations, each with two to three missile brigades under their control.

The number of army-level Bases with maneuver elements has stayed constant since 1991, though they have been renumbered since 2015 from 61 Base to 66 Base. The 67 Base now controls the units responsible for handling China’s nuclear warheads. Two additional bases born out of the consolidation of older facilities, 68 Base, responsible for overseeing engineering operations, and 69 Base, responsible for testing and training, have also been identified. It is possible that these superordinate Bases will slowly increase in number as China’s land-based missiles become more numerous—and especially as the new siloed missile sites are integrated into the larger force structure—but, for the moment, the subordinate missile brigades mainly appear to have multiplied. Some forty-one such brigades have currently been identified as operational (Figure 2), but these formations are also certain to increase further as the Chinese nuclear arsenal continues to expand.215 Most of the PLARF’s missile brigades deploy either nuclear or conventional missiles exclusively. Probably half the force deploys only nuclear missiles; of the balance, a little more than half seems to possess only conventional missiles. Rather interestingly, the remainder appear to possess a mix of nuclear and conventional missiles in the same unit—clearly a new development within the PLARF and one that has given rise to fears that such a colocation of weapons could lead to inadvertent escalation in a crisis.216

The changes in the PLARF’s force organization, manifested by the growing number of missile brigades—both those uniquely nuclear formations as well as those deploying either conventional missiles or both nuclear and conventional missiles in a single brigade (though almost certainly not in the same battalions)—is occurring in tandem with important changes in China’s nuclear posture. These transformations are manifested in a gradual shift from the previously centralized storage of China’s nuclear weapons to more decentralized sequestration driven largely by the more consequential evolution toward faster retaliation (in comparison with the more languid responses that were acceptable in the past).217

The only element of China’s nuclear posture that has not changed, and shows no signs of changing, is its centralized command system. The authority to alert, mate, and use nuclear weapons resides exclusively with the CMC of the CCP, which is little other than a mask for the ultimate decisionmaking power residing with the party’s senior civilian leaders. In practical terms, this means that all nuclear decisionmaking resides ultimately with the general secretary of the CCP and his civilian successors, however they are advised by their military colleagues in the CMC. This is almost certainly the case where Xi Jinping is concerned. Civilian control over nuclear alerting and use decisions thus remains absolute in China and is intended to ensure that the armed forces can only employ these weapons in accordance with the decisions of the highest ranks of the party’s leadership. Consequently, all consequential orders pertaining to nuclear operations originate only from the apex authorities of the CCP—powers that are not delegated to any subordinate political bodies or military formations.

These civilian prerogatives are now reinforced by multiple physical security measures as well as technical access controls on China’s nuclear weapons, complemented by other procedural constraints such as personnel oversight conducted by political commissars at different levels throughout the PLARF.218 The ultimate peacetime safeguard over China’s nuclear forces traditionally consisted of their de-mated posture: warhead components maintained unassembled (or at low states of assembly) and separated from their delivery vehicles, which, in turn, were separated from their transporter launchers. This pattern broadly persists to this day. But because some nuclear systems such as siloed missiles could have their warheads attached routinely while other mobile systems, including canisterized missiles, could be integrated more frequently when required by the demands of “combat readiness duty,”219 the importance of some kind of permissive action links has only increased. As China’s SSBNs and air-delivered nuclear weapons continue to be integrated into the national deterrent, such technical safeguards will inevitably be expanded to these systems as well. In all cases, China is slowly evolving toward a system where its nuclear weapons will be unable to launch without affirmative technical authorization from the very top. And, in time, Beijing could actually enable its most senior civilian leaders to exercise direct operational control over at least some nuclear weapons launches if required in extremis.

This assertive model of command, which existed from the very beginning even when technical controls were absent, is driven by a priority on negative control, meaning that nuclear weapons can never be used except when explicitly directed by national authority. And it found striking reflection in China’s traditional emphasis on storing its nuclear weapons in a single centralized site, where they could be both protected against misuse and safeguarded against attack. The deeply buried nuclear weapons storage site at Taibai, originally designated the 22 Base and now redesignated the 67 Base, functions as the central facility for storing China’s nuclear warheads, which are separated from the delivery systems maintained at the various brigade bases dispersed throughout the country.220 As a rule, the brigade bases host the maneuver elements: the missile airframes, the transporters (if applicable), and the associated equipment necessary for launch operations. The support, communications, training, and assembly regiments—the last of which are responsible for assembling the nuclear warheads and mating them with the missile delivery systems prior to dispersal (if appropriate) and launch—remain subordinated to the army-level Bases. The army-level Bases thus contain the critical enabling resources required by the brigade-level bases to execute their nuclear missile launch missions. Consequently, each army-level Base is connected to some regional nuclear storage facilities, which are usually some distance away from where the maneuver elements are located.221 All Chinese nuclear weapon storage sites, irrespective of their role in the integration sequence, are deeply buried facilities. Military planners judged early on that hardening and deep interment remains the best defense against enemy nuclear attacks prosecuted even with high-yield weapons.222

When the Chinese leadership received strategic warning of a conflict that required the generation of its nuclear forces, the unassembled nuclear warheads that were routinely stored at the central site at Taibai were released to the regional nuclear storage facilities where they would be assembled, checked, and integrated with their reentry vehicles. The completed weapons would then be moved to the brigade-level facilities where they would be mated to the missile airframes before the latter were then loaded on their launchers and either stored at the facility itself or dispersed to camouflaged field locations where they would await their launch orders.223 A similar sequence applied to most silo-based missile systems in the past as well.

Because China traditionally did not maintain a ready nuclear force—a posture driven by the need to ensure the safety and security of its nuclear weapons, its no-first-use policy, and the presumption that sufficient strategic warning would be available to prepare for nuclear operations—readying Chinese nuclear weapons for retaliatory operations in accordance with its “three-tier alert system” was by necessity a lengthy affair.224 It required the nuclear weapons components to be transferred by road or rail (and only rarely by air) across considerable distances from the central depository to the Base storage facilities and, thereafter, the assembled weapons to be transferred, again by road or rail, to the brigade bases before the completed missile systems were either bivouacked or moved to their prepared field hides or launch sites. Although China operated on the assumption that this entire process would be completed prior to absorbing any nuclear attack, that depended largely on the extent of strategic warning available. Consequently, the generation of China’s retaliatory forces could have occurred possibly before, during, or even after China absorbed an adversary’s nuclear strikes, depending on the circumstances. Given the uncertainties, one authority has noted that China required its missile forces to survive 3–5 days of attack because more rapid nuclear retaliation may have proved to be difficult in the context of a major nuclear war.225

This traditional posture is undergoing important changes as the Chinese nuclear deterrent continues its modernization. For starters, the expanding number of Chinese nuclear weapons implies that stockpiling them solely or mainly at Taibai is likely to become a relic of the past. It must be anticipated, therefore, that Beijing will build more national depositories in different parts of the country that are well connected by road and rail to the various Base and brigade locations where the final integration of China’s nuclear weapons will occur. Already, the creation of the Chinese nuclear triad has propelled the diversification of China’s major storage sites: the SSBN base at Yalong on Hainan Island in the south, for example, stores China’s naval nuclear warheads, which in time could also be stored at the North Sea Fleet’s Jianggezhuang Naval Base if China chooses to either base future SSBNs there or deploy them at Bohai Bay.226 The raising of the nuclear bomber force will similarly create a demand for additional weapons storage sites, depending on the eventual size of the air-breathing leg and its basing patterns.

What is even more likely because of China’s continuing nuclear expansion is that Beijing will store its nuclear weapons components not only at some central facilities but also at its Base storage sites on a routine basis. This had occurred in the past, but somewhat episodically.227 The possibly normal sequestration of nuclear weapons at Base storage sites, however, does not necessarily entail them being maintained in fully assembled form. It only implies that the unassembled weapons will be dispersed over a larger number of sites to sustain the more rapid force generation that China’s decisionmakers believe is necessary for effective deterrence especially against superior nuclear powers such as the United States. If this evolution occurs, China will be able to bring its nuclear forces to full readiness much faster because the distances between the Base storage sites and the brigade facilities are obviously smaller than the distances (and times) involved in moving components from the central depositories to the Base storage facilities and finally to the brigade sites, as occurred traditionally. A shift of this sort is inevitable given the changes now occurring in China’s nuclear doctrine at the operational level.

Further, and again consistent with the changes in China’s operational doctrine, Beijing has shifted toward maintaining at least some land-based missile units at elevated levels of readiness even in peacetime, in order to be able to prosecute nuclear retaliatory operations quicker than before.228 It appears that one battalion in each strategic missile brigade (or perhaps only in some brigades) is committed to such “high alert duty,” which requires it “to be ready to launch, and rotat[e] to standby positions as much as monthly for unspecified periods of time.”229 Given China’s traditional conservatism about managing its nuclear forces, it is possible that these alerted elements will not stand up with fully integrated weapon systems—that is, with the warheads and delivery systems completely mated and ready to fire (even if they are otherwise safeguarded by technical controls). But because preparing China’s nuclear deterrent for retaliation is ordinarily a lengthy enterprise—requiring days, not hours, to ready even its most modern mobile missiles—Beijing seems intent on shortening the preparatory time for at least a rotating subset of these systems. Consequently, if it chooses not to maintain fully integrated weapons, it will at least seek to complete the testing of all subsystems, assemble the nuclear warheads, integrate them with the reentry vehicles, and mate the reentry vehicles with the missile airframes, while waiting on loading the completed missile canisters onto their launch vehicles. Alternatively, China could simply settle on maintaining those systems designated for high alert duty as fully integrated weapons, relying on its technical controls to prevent unintended or inadvertent launches. Either way, Beijing seems intent on maintaining at least some rotating units that are capable of more rapidly launching their weapons—as the PLARF has apparently sought since at least 2015230—in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

How much more rapidly is unclear, but the totality of the evidence suggests that China does seek to compress the window for retaliation to a few hours rather than days (or longer), which seemed to be acceptable previously. The response window could, in fact, be further compressed to minutes, but this would likely depend on whether the relevant missile batteries were already dispersed to their prepared field launch sites rather than being merely bivouacked on heightened alert at their brigade bases. It is likely that at least a few modern Chinese missiles, such as the DF-31, can be launched from any location, “without a pre-surveyed site,”231 but whether the PLARF would accept the deterioration in missile accuracy that could result from such launches is unclear. If China’s siloed ballistic missiles have self-calibrating guidance systems and are deployed routinely with their warheads, they would be able launch within minutes of receiving valid launch orders.

In any event, the evolution toward faster retaliation is given further credence by the characteristics of China’s newest mobile missiles, the technical upgrades to its strategic communications network—primarily new buried fiber-optic cable and mobile satellite communications systems—and the induction of new mobile command posts utilizing automated decision tools, which all together indicate that China seeks the capabilities to execute nuclear retaliation more rapidly than it could do before.232 Because of the importance of this task, it is likely that China will also deploy a dedicated and more resilient nuclear C3 system in the future rather than continuing with the prevailing system that utilizes the networks used by its conventional forces and is, accordingly, vulnerable even to non-nuclear attacks in times of war.

The emerging Chinese capacity for quick retaliation will only increase when China’s SSBNs begin routine deterrence patrols with ready nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles on board. Assuming that the safety of its fully assembled weapons is not at issue, China will likely preserve negative control in such circumstances through a combination of shore-transmitted release codes, permissive action links, and the institution of a two-key firing system with one key retained by a political commissar aboard the vessel.233 If China goes in this direction, as is likely over time, its capacity to retaliate faster after a nuclear attack will only increase, presuming of course that its SSBNs escape possible attacks by trailing adversaries and that its shore-based very low frequency (VLF)/extremely low frequency (ELF) communications facilities survive. Whether Chinese SSBNs routinely deploy with ready weapons or are provided completed weapons only once a certain alert threshold is crossed, the decision to maintain an SSBN force ensures that the PLAN will possess independent custody of nuclear weapons but not the capacity to launch them without affirmative authorization. The same will be true for the PLAAF as its ALBM-equipped bomber force steadily matures.

Finally, the capacity for faster retaliation in the aftermath of a nuclear attack will be decisively enhanced once China’s new tactical warning systems are fully in place. For the longest time, China was content to structure its nuclear posture on the assumption that strategic warning of a possible attack was sufficient for effective deterrence. On the receipt of such warning, China would initiate the process of integrating its strategic systems and dispersing them, ready to retaliate after it had absorbed an adversary’s first strikes. As part of its continuing nuclear modernization, however, Beijing has more recently invested in new tactical warning and attack assessment systems. These capabilities reside in modern land-based sensors such as large phased-array radars and in a suite of space-based sensors for missile warning.234 China has constructed at least four large phased-array radars to sustain a radar surveillance fence across its entire periphery and its infrared detection satellites in geosynchronous orbit are intended to observe ballistic missile launches early in their trajectory in support of tactical warning of any impending attacks.235

Once these investments are completed, China will have the capacity to detect nuclear missile launches, track the trajectory of incoming missiles, and locate and report any nuclear detonations on its territory. The ability to secure tactical warning and characterize adversary missile tracks and/or nuclear attacks in real time will enable China to either sustain missile defense operations aimed at neutralizing these attacks (if possible), or to marginally improve the dispersal of its offensive systems (which will likely be flushed from their garrisons prior to such attacks), or to engage in launch-on-warning or launch-under-attack retaliatory strikes (assuming that it is confident about the quality of its tactical warning systems in the context of an intense crisis).

Some Chinese thinking about launch on warning or launch under attack has already surfaced, with discussions about how such options could be reconciled with the no-first-use policy being especially prominent.236 The U.S. Department of Defense has stated that “China seeks to keep at least a portion of its force on a LOW [launch-on-warning] posture.”237 This inference is derived from China’s commitment to deploying a large number of silo-based missiles, which may not survive as second-strike weapons, coupled with its new practice of maintaining at least some mobile ICBM battalions (and possibly silo-based missiles in the future) on “high alert duty.” Both these developments are read as suggesting that Beijing will move toward a nuclear posture where it is actually able to launch its readied weapons, especially its silo-based systems, as soon as it receives warning of an impending attack and well before any adversary weapons actually detonate on Chinese soil.

Some close observers of China’s nuclear forces, however, are skeptical that Beijing would ever shift toward a launch-on-warning or a launch-under-attack posture. As Philip Saunders has noted:

The CCP has always insisted on tight political control over strategic military capabilities and on making military decisions with important political consequences itself. Given the heightened risks of escalation or accidental nuclear conflict and some degree of civilian distrust of the military, CCP leaders are unlikely to pre-delegate launch authority to the CMC or even to the sole authority of the CCP General Secretary.238

There is much that is persuasive in this critique given China’s still significant conservatism when it comes to managing nuclear weapons. Because of the risks involved in any launch-on-warning or launch-under-attack strategy—dangers that would only increase in an environment where adversary or third-party computer network operations could put even otherwise reliable warning systems at risk—it is likely that Beijing will eschew this option even if it appears to be preparing for it. When all is said and done, China’s nuclear transformation is still oriented fundamentally toward shoring up deterrence rather than warfighting. Consequently, it makes sense for Chinese decisionmakers to eventually adopt a posture that conveys a willingness to launch their nuclear weapons as soon as they receive information about a possible attack to deter their adversaries from contemplating any first strikes to begin with, although they would probably not execute such operations in any case even in extremis.

Even more to the point, any launch-on-warning or launch-under-attack options are also arguably unnecessary except in the case of all-out nuclear attacks launched by an adversary on the entirety of China’s nuclear deterrent. It is hard to imagine that Chinese policymakers believe that such a contingency is in fact likely: the history of their attitude toward nuclear weapons suggests otherwise. And even though they are preparing for dangerous rivalry with the United States, the expansion and transformation of their own nuclear deterrent makes the prospect of all-out nuclear counterforce attacks on China even more unlikely—if not entirely absurd. Yet it is only in this scenario that the incentives for launch on warning or launch under attack become attractive. Consequently, the maturation of China’s tactical warning and attack characterization capabilities, when combined with the availability of some offensive missiles that are maintained at elevated readiness, would be most useful for shortening the timeframe within which nuclear retaliation could be unleashed while also perhaps helping to increase force survivability on the margins.

As long as China's current conservatism about nuclear weaponry persists, it is likely that Beijing's shift toward rapid retaliation will be used primarily to underwrite strategies of deterrence.

Notwithstanding anything that has just been said, the acquisition of launch-on-warning and launch-under-attack capabilities will undoubtedly provide Beijing with new instruments that could be used either to strengthen deterrence or, in the extreme, to even support diverse strategies of coercion. In the past, China has refrained from engaging in any explicit nuclear blackmail.239 Whether that reticence will persist in the future as its nuclear capabilities expand and diversify remains an open question. Much will depend on how China’s nuclear doctrine itself evolves. As long as its current conservatism about nuclear weaponry persists, especially its emphasis on treating nuclear weapons as political instruments for countering coercion, it is likely that China’s shift toward rapid retaliation will be used primarily to underwrite strategies of deterrence. Pressing its emerging launch-on-warning and launch-under-attack capabilities toward that end, however, will require new technical innovations for success: because launching nuclear missiles early in response to tactical warning of an adversary’s incoming strike is a highly risky strategy, China could equip its principal offensive systems with self-destruct capabilities as a form of insurance to avoid catastrophe in case of mistaken authorized launches. If Beijing moves in this direction, as the United States now appears to be doing,240 it will constitute significant evidence that despite the weak operational necessity for such a posture China does in fact contemplate executing launch-on-warning and launch-under-attack missions under some extreme circumstances.

The huge Chinese investments in tactical warning that are now underway clearly make such responses plausible. These investments also come at a time when China has embarked on substantial ballistic missile defense acquisitions.241 Tactical warning capabilities are, in fact, most valuable for missile defense. Although China was an early skeptic about active strategic defenses, its research, development, and procurement efforts in this area have increased tremendously in recent years. Thanks to other efforts in its space and counterspace programs, China appears well on its way to procuring a modest ballistic missile defense capability, which consists of a nationwide warning network that buttresses the active defense of several key targets, such as important economic and population centers. In support of this objective, Beijing has acquired several advanced surface-to-air missile systems from Russia—primarily SA-10s and SA-20s supplemented by its own indigenous CSA-9 series systems—all of which, though optimized for anti-aircraft targeting, have a secondary anti-tactical ballistic missile defense capability.242

China’s longer-term objectives, however, are focused on the development and deployment of a dedicated multilayered ballistic missile defense system. Toward that end, it is integrating its new ground- and space-based sensors to support the new generation of upper- and lower-tier interceptors it currently has under development.243 These embryonic missile defenses, however, do not suggest an acceptance of a defense-dominant nuclear regime today or in the future. To the contrary, the modernization of China’s offensive forces—an effort undertaken with even greater vigor than missile defense—suggests that Beijing expects the offense-dominant global nuclear regime will survive indefinitely.244 Consequently, at least in the near future, missile defenses in the Chinese calculation appear to be aimed mainly at defeating regional rivals such as India while providing secondary levels of protection against mature nuclear adversaries, but without functioning as full-fledged substitutes for nuclear deterrence against both kinds of threats.245

Taking Stock

This survey of key developments in China’s nuclear weapons program since the end of the Cold War confirms the proposition that although there is significant continuity in its broad approach to nuclear weapons, there are also important transitions that are worthy of notice. The most important enduring element is Beijing’s steadfast conviction that the fundamental utility of nuclear weapons lies in deterring nuclear attacks and nuclear coercion rather than nuclear warfighting. This central principle has survived even amid the expectation that the United States, a superior nuclear power, will be China’s most dangerous geopolitical adversary for many decades to come. Partly because of its belief that nuclear weapons have primarily political rather than military utility and partly because of the fact that China is reasonably secure vis-à-vis all its competitors (including the United States), Beijing still hews to an unconditional no-first-use policy at the declaratory level. Although there are suspicions about the veracity and the durability of this commitment, China’s operating routines suggest that it takes this commitment seriously. There is as yet no evidence that China has integrated nuclear weapons use into its conventional military operations; the PLARF still trains and operates on the assumption that the country would absorb a first strike before retaliating, even though it is en route to acquiring the capacity to launch its weapons before any nuclear detonations occur on Chinese soil; and there are no obvious incentives for China to use nuclear weapons first in the context of various regional warfighting contingencies including those that involve the United States. To be sure, China already possesses the latent capacity to manipulate the readiness of its nuclear reserves for purposes of strategic signaling, but its history and its larger beliefs about the utility of nuclear weapons do not suggest any easy shift toward actual nuclear first use. At the end of the day, this prognostication is grounded fundamentally in the reality that China is a powerful and reasonably secure state.

Beijing undoubtedly fears the threats posed by its adversaries’ nuclear and conventional systems to its strategic deterrent. Consequently, it has responded by sharply increasing the size of its nuclear force and investing heavily in its survivability through, among other things, expanded deception and denial, increased mobility of its land-based missile systems coupled with the introduction of a full-fledged nuclear triad, and more robust command-and-control architectures. The growing size of China’s nuclear forces compared to its historic levels is eye catching and will likely challenge regional competitors like India more than it would the United States, because even if Beijing’s nuclear inventory quadruples—as is possible over this decade and after—its nuclear deterrent would still be smaller than that maintained by Washington. Perhaps more significant than even the incipient increases in force size is the steady change in China’s nuclear force posture: the old disposition of preserving a pervasively de-mated force that was oriented fundamentally toward slow retaliation has now given way to at least a small subset of the deterrent being maintained at higher levels of readiness routinely. As a consequence, Beijing will be able to inflict much quicker retaliation in the aftermath of suffering any nuclear attack than was possible during the Cold War.

For all these alterations, however, China still seeks to avoid making nuclear competition a centerpiece, even in the new era of great power rivalry with the United States. Beijing today does not seem to be aiming for quantitative parity with U.S. nuclear forces nor is it pursuing a nuclear strategy aimed at securing counterforce dominance. It also exhibits scant interest in utilizing nuclear weapons to achieve operational objectives on the battlefield. Instead, China’s nuclear ambitions revolve primarily around acquiring the credible capacity to retaliate in response to any nuclear attacks upon itself—thereby preventing such attacks to begin with. In this prophylactic quest, however, China currently is not satisfied to settle merely for some kind of an existential deterrent. Rather, it seeks the capability to certifiably inflict extensive punishment even on major nuclear adversaries, depending on the scale of the damage China itself suffers in their attacks, with the aim of enforcing speedy war termination. To that end, Beijing intends to induct a diverse and large enough nuclear force—without mimicking in size or sophistication the capabilities maintained by its principal rival—that can deter and, if necessary, retaliate against nuclear aggression at varying levels much more rapidly than has been the case historically. This capability to inflict discrete and targeted punishment all the way to extensive and guaranteed destruction arguably suffices for effective deterrence even against its advanced nuclear competitors while implicitly bequeathing it with nuclear superiority against regional nuclear adversaries such as India.


1 Mao Zedong, “On Protracted War,” Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-tung (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1963), 217–218, cited in Shu Guang Zhang, “Between ‘Paper’ and ‘Real Tigers’: Mao’s View of Nuclear Weapons,” in Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy Since 1945, eds. John Lewis Gaddis, Philip Gordon, Ernest May, and Jonathan Rosenberg (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 194–215, which highlights the importance of traditional Chinese strategic thought on Mao’s early approach to nuclear weapons.

2 For insightful analyses that examine how Marxism struggled to come to terms with nuclear weapons, see Karel Kára, “On the Marxist Theory of War and Peace,” Journal of Peace Research 5, no. 1 (1968): 1–27; and Campbell Craig, “When the Whip Comes Down: Marxism, the Soviet Experience, and the Nuclear Revolution,” European Journal of International Security 2, no. 2 (2017): 223–239.

3 Renny Babiarz, “The People’s Nuclear Weapon: Strategic Culture and the Development of China’s Nuclear Weapons Program,” Comparative Strategy 34, no. 5 (2015): 422–446.

4 For an excellent survey of how Mao’s attitudes to nuclear weapons changed over time, see Zhang, “Between ‘Paper’ and ‘Real Tigers,’” 194–215.

5 For more on how the Chinese nuclear weapons program was intended to respond to these challenges, see Alice Langley Hsieh, Communist China’s Strategy in the Nuclear Age (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963).

6 The definitive history of this effort remains Lewis and Xue, China Builds the Bomb.

7 For details, see M. Taylor Fravel and Evan S. Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Structure,” International Security 35, no. 2 (2010): 48–87; and Wu Riqiang, “Certainty of Uncertainty: Nuclear Strategy With Chinese Characteristics,” Journal of Strategic Studies 36, no. 4 (2013): 579–614. China also produced an SSBN that never saw an operational patrol.

8 Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

9 Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong waijiao wenxuan [Mao Zedong’s selected works on diplomacy] (Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, 1994), 540, cited in Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” 63.

10 Mao Zedong, “The Second Speech at the Second Session of the Eighth Party Congress, 5–23 May 1958,” cited in Lewis and Xue, China Builds the Bomb, 69.

11 This characterization of a nuclear weapon’s capabilities is found in an early Chinese Communist Party study published in 1950 and the quote is drawn from Zhang, “Between ‘Paper’ and ‘Real Tigers,’” 198.

12 Zhang, “Between ‘Paper’ and ‘Real Tigers,’” 205.

13 Yin Xiong and Huang Xuemei, Shijie yuanzidan fengyunlu [The stormy record of the atomic bomb in the world] (Beijing: Xinhua chubanshe, 1999), 258, cited in Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” 58.

14 Zhang, “Between ‘Paper’ and ‘Real Tigers,’” 213.

15 Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong wenji [Mao Zedong’s collected works], Vol. 8 (Beijing: Xinhua chubanshe, 1999), 407, cited in Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” 63.

16 Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong xuanji [Mao Zedong's selected works], Vol. 4 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1964), 1133–1134, cited in Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” 59.

17 Mao Zedong, “The Second Speech at the Second Session of the Eighth Party Congress, 5–23 May 1958,” cited in Lewis and Xue, China Builds the Bomb, 69.

18 Mao Zedong’s speech at a meeting of the Politburo of the CCP Central Committee held at Wuchang, December 1, 1958, quoted in Zhang, “Between ‘Paper’ and ‘Real’ Tigers,” 210.

19 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China and CCCPC Party Literature Research Office, eds., Selected Works of Mao Zedong on Diplomacy (Beijing: CCCPC Party Literature Publishing House, 1994), 476, cited in Liu Chong, “The Relationship Between Nuclear Weapons and Conventional Military Conflicts,” in Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking, eds. Li Bin and Tong Zhao (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2016), 153.

20 Mao Zedong yu Zongguo yuanzineng shiye [Mao Zedong and China's nuclear energy industry] (Beijing: Yuanzineng chubanshe, 1993), 13, cited in Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” 59.

21 Liu, “The Relationship Between Nuclear Weapons and Conventional Military Conflicts,” 155.

22 Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong junshi wenji [Mao Zedong’s selected works on military affairs], Vol. 6 (Beijing: Junshi kexue chubanshe, 1993), 359, cited in Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” 60.

23 Ibid., 61.

24 Ibid., 58.

25 Zhang, “Between ‘Paper’ and ‘Real Tigers,’” 211.

26 Sun Xiangli, “An Analysis of the Nature and Characteristics of China’s Nuclear Strategy,” World Economics and Politics, no. 9 (2006): 227 (author’s translation). See the reference to Dao on the same page, suggesting that Mao absorbed enough of the traditional Chinese preoccupation with right although it sat uncomfortably with his record of overseeing the deaths of millions of Chinese at home.

27 Zedong, Mao Zedong junshi wenji, 374. For a further discussion of prestige in Chinese calculations, see Susan Turner Haynes, “The Power of Prestige: Explaining China’s Nuclear Weapons Decisions,” Asian Security 16, no. 2 (2020): 35–52.

28 Mingquan Zhu, “The Evolution of China’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy,” Nonproliferation Review 4, no. 2 (1997): 41.

29 Ibid.

30 Sun, “An Analysis of the Nature and Characteristics of China’s Nuclear Strategy,” 28.

31 Jeffrey Lewis, The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).

32 For more on this issue, see Lyle J. Goldstein, “Do Nascent WMD Arsenals Deter? The Sino-Soviet Crisis of 1969,” Political Science Quarterly 118, no. 1 (2003): 53–80.

33 These arguments in different forms appear in Zhang, “Between ‘Paper’ and ‘Real Tigers,’” 194–215; Wu, “Certainty of Uncertainty”; Babiarz, “The People’s Nuclear Weapon: Strategic Culture and the Development of China’s Nuclear Weapons Program”; Chen Yi et al., “A Preliminary Evaluation of the War Situation,” CCP Party History Materials 42 (1992): 70–75, quoted in Chen Jian and David L. Wilson, “All Under the Heaven Is Great Chaos: Beijing, the Sino-Soviet Border Clashes, and the Turn Toward Sino-American Rapprochement, 1968–69,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 11 (1996): 166–168; Lewis, Minimum Means of Reprisal; Sun, “An Analysis of the Nature and Characteristics of China’s Nuclear Strategy”; Sun Xiangli, “The Development of Nuclear Weapons in China,” in Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking, 79–101; and Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” 48–87.

34 Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” 48–87.

35 For an excellent Chinese summation of these contrasts, especially as exemplified in Chinese and American approaches to nuclear deterrence, see Yao Yunzhu, “Chinese Nuclear Policy and the Future of Minimum Deterrence,” in Perspectives on Sino-American Strategic Nuclear Issues, ed. Christopher P. Twomey (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 111–124.

36 For an illuminating discussion of how the United States ended upon this course, see Frank J. Gavin, Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2020).

37 John G. Hines, Ellis M. Mishulovich, and John F. Shull, Soviet Intentions, 1965–1985, Vol. 1: An Analytical Comparison of U.S.-Soviet Assessments During the Cold War, and Vol. 2: Soviet Post–Cold War Testimonial Evidence (McLean: BDM Federal, 1995). The judgments in these two volumes are usefully supplemented and qualified by Beatrice Heuser, “Warsaw Pact Military Doctrine in the 1970s and 1980s: Findings in the East German Archives,” Comparative Strategy 12, no. 4 (1993): 437–457; and Beatrice Heuser, “Victory in a Nuclear War? A Comparison of NATO and WTO War Aims and Strategies,” Contemporary European History 7 (1998): 311–327.

38 Mancur Olson, Jr. and Richard Zeckhauser, “An Economic Theory of Alliances,” Review of Economics and Statistics 48, no. 3 (1966): 266–279; Todd Sandler and Jon Cauley, “On the Economic Theory of Alliances,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 19, no. 2 (1975): 330–348; Todd Sandler, “Impurity of Defense: An Application to the Economics of Alliances,” Kyklos 30, no. 3 (1977): 443–460; and Todd Sandler and Keith Hartley, “Economics of Alliances: The Lessons for Collective Action,” Journal of Economic Literature 39 (2001): 869–896.

39 For an insightful theoretical exploration of the problem of tripolar stability, see R. Harrison Wagner, “Bargaining, War, and Alliances,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 21, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 215–231.

40 Zhang, “Between ‘Paper’ and ‘Real Tigers,’” 194–215; Michael S. Gerson, The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict: Deterrence, Escalation, and the Threat of Nuclear War in 1969 (Arlington: Center for Naval Analyses, 2010), 39–52; and “Discounting the Free Ride: Alliances and Security in the Postwar World,” International Organization 49, no. 1 (1995): 39–71.

41 T.V. Paul, The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).

42 Nicola Horsburgh, “Change and Innovation in Chinese Nuclear Weapons Strategy,” China Information 26, no. 2 (2012): 188.

43 Li Hua, “Draft Speaking Notes on Facts and Thinking of Chinese Disarmament” (paper presented at Revitalizing Nuclear Disarmament: The 50th Anniversary of the Pugwash Conferences, Pugwash, Nova Scotia, July 5–7, 2007), 4.

44 Ibid.

45 For a clear Chinese analysis that elaborates this argument, see Pan Zhenqiang, “China’s No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” in Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking, 51–77.

46 Wu, “Certainty of Uncertainty.”

47 It is in fact highly likely that China had long anticipated systemic rivalry with the United States even before the Cold War ended, but the demise of the Soviet Union and the perception of a towering United States, especially during the unipolar interregnum, only solidified Beijing’s expectations that it would have to contend with Washington as its principal rival in the emerging international system. For more of this issue, see Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015); and Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).

48 Xu Weidi, “China’s Security Environment and the Role of Nuclear Weapons,” in Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking, 34–36; Wu Riqiang, “China’s Anxiety About US Missile Defence: A Solution,” Survival 55, no. 5 (2013): 29–52; and James M. Acton, Silver Bullet? Asking the Right Questions About Conventional Prompt Global Strike (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013), 121–125.

49 Elizabeth Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

50 For an excellent survey of this transformation, see Phillip C. Saunders, Arthur S. Ding, Andrew Scobell, Andrew N.D. Yang, and Joel Wuthnow, eds., Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2019).

51 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 (Arlington: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2020), 55–56.

52 Mark B. Schneider, “The Massive Expansion of China’s Strategic Nuclear Capability,” RealClearDefense, July 20, 2021,

53 The impact of the 2018 U.S. NPR is discussed in Michael S. Chase, “Chinese Views on the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, and Their Implications,” China Brief 18, no. 4 (2018): 11–14; and Raymond Wang, “Making Sense of Chinese Reactions to the US 2018 Nuclear Posture Review,” The Diplomat, February 27, 2018,

54 See Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. and Robert P. Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 3rd ed. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 20–23.

55 Soviet Faculty of the General Staff Academy, Dictionary of Basic Military Terms: A Soviet View (Washington, DC: United States Government Publishing Office, 1976), 37.

56 Horsburgh, “Change and Innovation in Chinese Nuclear Weapons Strategy,” 188.

57 This issue is discussed at length in Li Bin, “Differences Between Chinese and U.S. Nuclear Thinking and Their Origins,” in Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking, 3–18.

58 Sun, “An Analysis of the Nature and Characteristics of China’s Nuclear Strategy,” 28.

59 Lu Yin, “Reflections on Strategic Stability,” in Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking, 132–134.

60 Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945–2010,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 66, no. 4 (2010): 81.

61 Defense Intelligence Agency, “Defense Estimative Brief: Nuclear Weapons Systems in China,” Defense Intelligence Agency, April 24, 1984,

62 U.S. National Security Council, “Report to Congress on Status of China, India and Pakistan Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs,” Federation of American Scientists, August 4, 2000,

63 Examples of the exaggerated assessments are usefully collected in Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris, and Matthew G. McKinzie, Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning (Washington, DC: Federation of American Scientists, 2006), 35–126.

64 Norris and Kristensen, “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945–2010,” 81.

65 H. B. Hollins, Averill L. Powers, and Mark Sommer, The Conquest of War: Alternative Strategies for Global Security (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989), 54–55.

66 Robert S. Norris, Andrew S. Burrows, and Richard W. Fieldhouse, Nuclear Weapons Databook, Volume 5: British, French and Chinese Nuclear Weapons (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), 358–397, 420–422.

67 “Design Characteristics of China’s Ballistic and Cruise Missile Inventory,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, November 2014,

68 For most of the twentieth century, the Chinese air force took for granted that it would be unable to execute serious offensive missions, including in the delivery of nuclear weapons. See Michael S. Chase and Cristina L. Garafola, “China’s Search for a ‘Strategic Air Force,’” Journal of Strategic Studies 39, no. 1 (2016): 4–28; for an analysis of the nuclear delivery capabilities of the PLAAF in particular, see page 24.

69 Wu, “Certainty of Uncertainty”; and Tong Zhao, “Changes in and the Evolution of China’s Nuclear Thinking” in Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking, 267–272.

70 Ibid.

71 Gerald Segal, “Nuclear Forces,” in Chinese Defence Policy, eds. Gerald Segal and William T. Tow (London: Macmillan Press, 1984), 98–113.

72 Bates Gill and Evan S. Medeiros, “China,” in Governing the Bomb: Civilian Control and Democratic Accountability of Nuclear Weapons, eds. Hans Born, Bates Gill, and Heiner Hänggi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 128–151.

73 Gill and Medeiros, “China.” See also Gerald Segal, “China’s Nuclear Posture for the 1980s,” Survival 23, no. 1 (1981): 11–18.

74 See the discussion from a U.S. perspective in Kristensen, Norris, and McKinzie, “Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning,” 127–172.

75 Zhongyang junwei bangongting, ed., Deng Xiaoping guanyu xin shiqi jundui jianshe lunshu xuanbian [Selection of Deng Xiaoping’s expositions on army building in the new period] (Beijing: Bayi chubanshe, 1993), 44–45, cited in Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” 63.

76 Banning N. Garrett and Bonnie S. Glaser, War and Peace: The Views From Moscow and Beijing (Berkeley: University of California, 1984), 129.

77 Shou Xiaosong et. al, The Science of Military Strategy (Beijing: Military Academic Works, Academy of Military Science, 2013), 172–173; and Eric Heginbotham et al., China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent: Major Drivers and Issues for the United States (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2017), 16–17.

78 Hollins, Powers, and Sommer, The Conquest of War, 54–55.

79 Xiaosong et. al, The Science of Military Strategy, 172–173.

80 This concept was first articulated by Devin T. Hagerty, “Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia: The 1990 Indo-Pakistani Crisis,” International Security 20, no. 3 (1995): 79–114. See also Avery Goldstein, Deterrence and Security in the 21st Century: China, Britain, France, and the Enduring Legacy of the Nuclear Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 111–138.

81 Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 36–37.

82 See for example, Baohui Zhang, “The Taiwan Strait and the Future of China’s No-First-Use Nuclear Policy,” Comparative Strategy 27, no. 2 (2008): 164–182; and Xu, “China’s Security Environment and the Role of Nuclear Weapons,” 32–33.

83 Yu Jixun, ed., The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns (Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 2004), 294.

84 For details, see Horsburgh, “Change and Innovation in Chinese Nuclear Weapons Strategy,” 185–204.

85 Alastair Iain Johnston, “Prospects for Chinese Nuclear Force Modernization: Limited Deterrence Versus Multilateral Arms Control,” China Quarterly 146 (1996): 552–558.

86 For this most recent reiteration, see State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, China’s National Defense in the New Era (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd., 2019),, 9.

87 Rong Yu and Peng Guangqian, “Nuclear No-First Use Revisited,” China Security 5, no. 1 (2009): 78–87.

88 Xu, “China’s Security Environment and the Role of Nuclear Weapons,” 33–35, 38; Pan, “China’s No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” 70–71; Evan S. Medeiros, “Evolving Nuclear Doctrine,” in China’s Nuclear Future, eds. Paul J. Bolt and Albert S. Willner (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006), 60–61; and Christopher P. Twomey, “China’s Nuclear Doctrine and Deterrence Concept,” in China’s Strategic Arsenal, eds. James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2021), 45–62.

89 See for example Twomey, “China’s Nuclear Doctrine and Deterrence Concept,” 51–53; and Heginbotham et al., China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent, 129–133.

90 Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Dangerous Confidence? Chinese Views on Nuclear Escalation,” International Security 44, no. 2 (2019): 61–109.

91 Sun, “The Development of Nuclear Weapons in China,” 79–101.

92 For more on the context of these investments, see Pan, “China’s No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” 51–77.

93 Bates Gill and Adam Ni, “The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force: Reshaping China’s approach to strategic deterrence,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 73, no. 2 (2019): 160–180.

94 Heginbotham et al., China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent, 19. Caitlin Talmadge, “The US-China Nuclear Relationship: Why Competition Is Likely to Intensify,” Brookings Institution, September 2019,

95 Christopher P. Twomey, “Testimony Before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on ‘China’s Nuclear Forces,’” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 10, 2021, In contrast, David Logan has argued that the colocation of conventional and nuclear missiles is owed to bureaucratic dynamics rather than a deliberate strategy. See David C. Logan, “Are They Reading Schelling in Beijing? The Dimensions, Drivers, and Risks of Nuclear-Conventional Entanglement in China,” Journal of Strategic Studies, (2020): 1–51,

96 Sun, “The Development of Nuclear Weapons in China,” 82–83.

97 Xu, “China’s Security Environment and the Role of Nuclear Weapons,” 29.

98 “National Defense Policy,” in China’s National Defense in 2006 (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council, 2006),

99 See, for example, Sun, “The Development of Nuclear Weapons in China,” 82–84; and Xu, “China’s Security Environment and the Role of Nuclear Weapons,” 35–36.

100 Sun, “The Development of Nuclear Weapons in China,” 83.

101 Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2021,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 77, no. 6 (2021): 350. The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2021 Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, which was published after a major reevaluation of the Chinese nuclear weapons program by the U.S. intelligence community, does not explicitly mention the force size offered by Kristensen and Korda in their 2021 publication. Instead, it declares that the “DoD estimated [in the 2020 report] that the PRC had a nuclear warhead stockpile in the low-200s and projected it to at least double over the next decade. Since then, Beijing has accelerated its nuclear expansion, which may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027 and likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030.” Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021 (Arlington: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2021), 92. As such, the 350 warheads currently attributed to China by Kristensen and Korda can be treated as plausible despite the uncertainties involved in such assessments.

102 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, ix.

103 Hans M. Kristensen, “DIA Estimates for Chinese Nuclear Warheads,” Federation of American Scientists, May 31, 2019,; and Mark B. Schneider, “The Chinese Nuclear Threat,” RealClearDefense, October 24, 2020,

104 Robert P. Ashley, Jr. and Rebeccah Heinrichs, “The Arms Control Landscape ft. DIA Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr.,” Hudson Institute, 5, May 29, 2019,

105 Kristensen and Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2020,” 444.

106 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021, 92.

107 Charles A. Richard, “Statement of Charles A. Richard, Commander, United States Strategic Command, Before the Senate Armed Services Committee,” Senate Armed Services Committee, April 20, 2021,, 6.

108 Charles A. Richard, “Forging 21st-Century Strategic Deterrence,” Proceedings 147, no. 2 (February 2021):

109 Kristensen, “Prepared Statement,” 1–2.

110 For an analysis emphasizing the role of the United States over that of Xi Jinping in the expansion of the Chinese arsenal, see Tong Zhao, “What’s Driving China’s Nuclear Buildup?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 5, 2021,

111 Even if the United States and Russia reduced their nuclear stockpiles at the same rate as they had during the negotiations leading up to the New START treaty, their arsenals would still be several times as large as that of China. As Steven Pifer points out, “New START’s limits do not cover 60–65 percent of the active nuclear stockpiles of the two countries [the United States and Russia]. Reserve (or non-deployed) strategic nuclear warheads, and non-strategic nuclear warheads—whether deployed or non-deployed—are unconstrained.” See Steven Pifer, “Nuclear Arms Control in the 2020s,” Brookings Institution, April 8, 2021,

112 Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists, May 2021,

113 Li, “Differences Between Chinese and U.S. Nuclear Thinking and Their Origins,” 11; Sun, “The Development of Nuclear Weapons in China,” 96; and Wu Riqiang, “How China Practices and Thinks About Nuclear Transparency,” in Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking, 228.

114 “Non-nuclear strategic weapons” could refer to a vast panoply of systems, from lasers to non-nuclear missile defenses to chemical biological weapons to strategic-range PGMs. Michael J. Mazarr, START and the Future of Deterrence (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991), 183–207.

115 “National Defense Policy.”

116 “China Vows ‘Extreme Restraint’ in Development of Nukes,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, May 4, 2010,

117 China’s National Defense in 2008 (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council, 2008).

118 Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” 48–87; and Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation: China’s Nuclear Posture and U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” International Security 40, no. 2 (2015): 7–50.

119 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021, 92.

120 Kristensen and Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2020.”

121 Wu, “Certainty of Uncertainty”; and Bin, “Differences Between Chinese and U.S. Nuclear Thinking and Their Origins.”

122 Good examples of analyses that stressed China’s previous nuclear vulnerability are Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The End of MAD? The Nuclear Dimensions of U.S. Primacy,” International Security 30, no. 4 (2006): 7–44; and Eric Heginbotham et al., The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017 (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2015), 285–319. See also Austin Long and Brendan Rittenhouse Green, “Stalking the Secure Second Strike: Intelligence, Counterforce, and Nuclear Strategy,” Journal of Strategic Studies 38, nos. 1–2 (2015): 38–73; Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The New Era of Counterforce: Technological Change and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence,” International Security 41, no. 4 (2017): 9–49; and, with qualifications, Wu Riqiang, “Living With Uncertainty: Modeling China’s Nuclear Survivability,” International Security 44, no. 4 (2020): 84–118.

123 See Donald Rumsfeld, “Prepared Statement,” Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Relations: Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reduction: The Moscow Treaty, 107th Cong., 2d sess., 2002, S. Hrg. 107–622.

124 Mark A. Stokes, “China’s Nuclear Warhead Storage and Handling System,” Project 2049 Institute, March 12, 2010,, 5–9; and Larry M. Wortzel, China’s Nuclear Forces: Operations, Training, Doctrine, Command, Control and Campaign Planning (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007), 19–26.

125 A relatively authoritative Chinese military official, Sr. Col. Yang Chengjun, recently retired from the PLARF, for example, publicly stated that the PLARF can now conduct nuclear retaliation within minutes of receiving appropriate orders. See “Nuclear Strategist Yang Chengjun: It’s Not Appropriate to Speculate on Nuclear-Related Issues on the Internet,” Phoenix Military, May 12, 2020, This claim, however, is still conditional on the circumstances prevailing in China in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. I am grateful to Tong Zhao for pointing me to this reference.

126 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, 88.

127 Ibid.

128 See the discussion in Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture, 368–369.

129 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021 (Arlington: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2021), 93.

130 For the broader context that describes Xi Jinping’s growing control of the Chinese military, see Timothy R. Heath, “The Consolidation of Political Power in China Under Xi Jinping Implications for the PLA and Domestic Security Forces,” RAND Corporation, February 7, 2019,

131 Yu, Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, 297.

132 Ibid., 304.

133 Ibid.

134 Ibid., 254.

135 Bi Xinglin, ed., Campaign Theory Study Guide (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2002), 384–385.

136 Yu, Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, 308.

137 Ibid., 273.

138 Cunningham and Fravel, “Dangerous Confidence?,” 61–109.

139 Yu, Science of Second Artillery Campaigns, 306–309.

140 Timothy Thomas, The Chinese Way of War: How Has it Changed? (McLean: MITRE Corporation, 2020), 19.

141 Military Strategy Research Department, PLA Academy of Military Science, The Science of Military Strategy 3rd ed., (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), 89.

142 Ibid., 124.

143 The idea of successfully fighting and wining a nuclear war reached its apotheosis during the Cold War. See for example, Colin S. Gray, “Nuclear Strategy: The Case for a Theory of Victory,” International Security 4, no. 1 (Summer 1979): 54–87; and Colin S. Gray and Keith Payne, “Victory Is Possible,” Foreign Policy 39 (Summer 1980): 14–27. The residues of the notion of fighting to win a nuclear war are still present in current U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear war plans.

144 He Qionghua, “Nuclear Deterrence,” in China Strategic Missile Force Encyclopedia (Beijing: China Encyclopedia Publishing House, 2012), 41, cited in Burgess Laird, “War Control: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict,” Center for a New American Security, March 30, 2017,, 20.

145 Fravel and Madeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” 58–66; and Cunningham and Fravel, “Dangerous Confidence,” 61–109.

146 The expansion of civilian nuclear energy, which received modest emphasis during the 1990s, took off in earnest in the mid-2000s when China, concerned about its energy vulnerability and environmental deterioration, launched a major program of constructing power reactors with technology acquired from France, Canada, Russia and the United States. Today, China operates 45 nuclear power reactors, has another 12 under construction, and even more about to start construction, making the Chinese nuclear power program the fastest growing in the world. China and the IAEA formally signed a voluntary offer safeguards agreement in September 1988 which permits the IAEA to inspect the Qinshan Nuclear Power Plant, the Tsinghua University HTGR, and the Hanzhong uranium enrichment plant. No other nuclear fuel cycle facilities in China are safeguarded.

147 Hui Zhang, China’s Uranium Enrichment Capacity: Rapid Expansion to Meet Commercial Needs (Cambridge: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2015), 13–16.

148 Ibid., 28.

149 Ibid., 29; and Thomas B. Cochran and Henry D. Sokolski, “How Many Nuclear Warheads China Might Acquire by 2030,” in China’s Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords?, ed. Henry D. Sokolski (Arlington: Nonproliferation Policy Educational Center, 2021), 22.

150 Catherine Dill, “The Jinkouhe Gaseous Diffusion Plant Is Hot!,” Arms Control Wonk, September 23, 2015,

151 Hui Zhang, “China’s HEU and Plutonium Production and Stocks,” Science & Global Security 19 (2011): 68–89.

152 Robert E. Kelley, “Starve Nuclear Weapons to Death With a Tritium Freeze,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, August 28, 2020,; and Hans Kristensen, “No, China Does Not Have 3,000 Nuclear Weapons,” Federation of American Scientists, December 3, 2011,

153 Ann MacLachlan and Mark Hibbs, “China Stops Production of Military Fuel: All SWU Capacity Now for Civil Use,” Nuclear Fuel, November 13, 1989.

154 “Countries: China,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, August 13, 2021, In addition to this stockpile of HEU and WGPU, China also has a modest stockpile of some 25 kilograms of reactor-grade plutonium. Further, it appears to have about 1,800 kilograms of lightly enriched uranium primarily for fueling its nuclear submarines. The massive expansion of civilian nuclear energy in China will provide Beijing with much larger quantities of reactor-grade plutonium in the future, all of which can be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons if China so chooses without any technical or legal constrictions. Given the access China already has to weapons-grade material, however, there is no reason for China to utilize reactor-grade plutonium in its nuclear weapons in the first instance.

155 Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Departments of Defense and Energy, 1977), 22.

156 Hui Zhang, “Why China Stopped Making Fissile Material for Nukes,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 15, 2018,

157 For a useful effort at such an assessment, see Hui Zhang, “China’s HEU and Plutonium Production and Stocks,” Science & Global Security, 19:1 (2011): 68–89.

158 Hui Zhang, “China’s Uranium Enrichment and Plutonium Recycling 2020–2040: Current Practices and Projected Capacities,” in China’s Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords?, ed. Sokolski, 25–53.

159 Cochran and Sokolski, “How Many Nuclear Warheads China Might Acquire by 2030,” 6–24.

160 Federation of American Scientists, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” February 2022,

161 See David C. Logan, “Hard Constraints on a Chinese Nuclear Breakout,” Nonproliferation Review 24, no. 1–2 (2017): 13–30.

162 Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2014), 74–75.

163 Jeffrey Lewis, Paper Tigers: China’s Nuclear Posture (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2014), 43–75; Richard L. Garwin, “Why China Won’t Build U.S. Warheads,” Arms Control Today 29, no. 3 (1999): 28–29; and Robert S. Norris, “French and Chinese Nuclear Weapon Testing,” Security Dialogue 27, no. 1 (1996): 39–54.

164 Harold M. Agnew, “Looking for Spies in Nuclear Kitchen,” Wall Street Journal, May 17, 1999.

165 Lewis, Paper Tigers, 43–75.

166 Lewis, The Minimum Means of Reprisal, 93.

167 John W. Lewis and Hua Di, “China’s Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies, Strategies, Goals,” International Security 17 (1992): 30.

168 Robert S. Norris, “French and Chinese Nuclear Weapon Testing,” Security Dialogue 27, no. 1 (1996): 50.

169 James Mahaffey, Atomic Adventures (New York: Pegasus Books, 2017), 165–189.

170 Gregory Kulacki, “China’s Nuclear Arsenal: Status and Evolution,” Union of Concerned Scientists, October 13, 2011,

171 For an excellent discussion of these issues, see Jonathan Medalia, “Chinese Nuclear Testing and Warhead Development,” Congressional Research Service, November 14, 1997,

172 Norris, “French and Chinese Nuclear Weapon Testing,” 50.

173 Peter Vincent Pry, “China: EMP Threat: The People’s Republic of China Military Doctrine, Plans, and Capabilities for Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack,” EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, June 10, 2020,; and Julia Masterson and Shannon Bugos, “Pentagon Warns of Chinese Nuclear Development,” Arms Control Association, October 2020,

174 Lewis, Paper Tigers, 62–64, 68.

175 The Nuclear Weapon Archive, “China’s Nuclear Weapons: Present Capabilities,” Nuclear Weapon Archive, May 1, 2001,

176 For references to the possibility of Chinese low-yield nuclear testing, see Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (Washington, DC: Department of State, 2020), 49–50; and Robert P. Ashley, Jr., “Russian and Chinese Nuclear Modernization Trends: Remarks at the Hudson Institute,” Defense Intelligence Agency, May 29, 2019,

177 Rod Lyon, “Is China in Breach of Its Nuclear-Testing Commitments?,” The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, May 14, 2020,

178 “Design Characteristics of China’s Ballistic and Cruise Missile Inventory.”

179 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021, 93.

180 Richard, “Statement,” 6.

181 Cao Zhi and Zhang Xuanjie, “Xi Jinping: Building a Powerful Information-Based Strategic Missile Force,” Xinhuanet, December 5, 2012,

182 Kristensen and Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2021,” 320.

183 Ibid., 320.

184 Ibid.

185 Missile Defense Project, “DF-31 (Dong Feng-31 / CSS-10),” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 8, 2019,; and Missile Defense Project, “DF-41 (Dong Feng-41 / CSS-X-20),” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 8, 2019,

186 Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2018,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74:4 (2018): 290.

187 Paul Bernstein and Dain Hancock, “China’s Hypersonic Weapons,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, January 27, 2021,

188 Joby Warrick, “China Is Building More Than 100 New Missile Silos in Its Western Desert, Analysts Say,” Washington Post, June 30, 2021,

189 Rodrick Lee, “PLA Likely Begins Construction of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Silo Site Near Hanggin Banner,” China Aerospace Studies Institute, August 12, 2021,; and Ma Xiu and Peter W. Singer, “China’s New Missile Fields Are Just Part of the PLA Rocket Force’s Growth,” DefenseOne, August 11, 2021,

190 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021, 94.

191 James M. Acton, “Don’t Panic About China’s New Nuclear Capabilities,” Washington Post, July 27, 2021,

192 For Chinese posturing on Australia, see Zhang Hui, “China Urged to Increase Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent Amid US Intensified Strategic Threat,” Global Times, May 28, 2021,

193 Missile Defense Project, “DF-21 (CSS-5),” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 31, 2021,

194 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021, 61.

195 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, 88.

196 Austin Long, “Myths or Moving Targets? Continuity and Change in China’s Nuclear Forces,” War on the Rocks, December 4, 2020,

197 Michael S. Chase, Jeffrey Engstrom, Tai Ming Cheung, Kristen A. Gunness, Scott Warren Harold, Susan Puska, and Samuel K. Berkowitz, China’s Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2015), 104; and Roger Cliff, John Fei, Elizabeth Hague, Eric Heginbotham, and John Stillion, Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2011), 50.

198 David C. Logan, “Testimony Before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on ‘China’s Nuclear Forces,’” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 10, 2021,, 9.

199 China can already mount standoff attacks with cruise missiles that would stress many missile defenses and given the high penetrativity of China’s land-based ballistic missiles even against major adversaries, the utility and the effectiveness of pursuing alternative systems, such as the ALBM today and possibly nuclear cruise missiles in the future, for retaliatory purposes is unclear. It must be noted, however, that there is no evidence currently that China seeks to deploy nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, although it has the capacity to develop such systems if it wants to. See Gormley, Erickson, and Yuan, A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier, 74–75.

200 Justin Bronk, Russian and Chinese Combat Air Trends: Current Capabilities and Future Threat Outlook (London: Royal United Services Institute, 2020), 47.

201 Long and Green, “Stalking the Secure Second Strike,” and Tom Stefanick, Strategic Antisubmarine Warfare and Naval Strategy (Lexington: Lexington Books, 1987).

202 Heginbotham et al., China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent, 42, 107–108.

203 Matthew Harris, “Rig for Sea: Countering the Deployment of Chinese Ballistic Missile Submarines,” Comparative Strategy 35, no. 5 (2016): 348–350.

204 For more on this issue, see Tong Zhao, Tides of Change: China’s Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines and Strategic Stability (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2018), 25–33; see also Wu Riqiang, “Survivability of China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Forces,” Science & Global Security 19, no. 2 (2011): 91–120.

205 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, 55.

206 The most recent data can be found in Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Weapons, 2021,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 15, 2021,; and Ma Xiu, “PLA Rocket Force Organization – Executive Summary,” China Aerospace Studies Institute, November 29, 2021,

207 These figures consider the DF-31, DF-31A, DF-31AG, and JL-2 as composing the current Chinese inventory of modern intercontinental-ranged missiles and the DF-26 and DF-21 as modern theater-range missiles. All figures from Kristensen and Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2021,” 320.

208 John Costello and Joe McReynolds, “China’s Strategic Support Force,” in Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA, 437–515.

209 Edmund J. Burke and Arthur Chan, “Coming to a (New) Theater Near You: Command, Control, and Forces,” in Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA, 227–255; and David C. Logan, “Making Sense of China’s Missile Forces,” in Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA, 393–435.

210 Bates Gill, “Organization of China’s Strategic Forces,” in China’s Strategic Arsenal, 159–194.

211 Bruce G. Blair, “Russian Nuclear Policy and the Status of Detargeting,” Brookings, March 17, 1997,

212 Ibid.

213 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021, 61.

214 For an assessment in 1997, see Gill and Mulvenon, “The Chinese Strategic Rocket Forces,” 39.

215 Kristensen and Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2021,” 325.

216 Gill and Ni, “The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force,” 166–167; Caitlin Talmadge, “Would China Go Nuclear? Assessing the Risk of Chinese Nuclear Escalation in a Conventional War With the United States,” International Security 41, no. 4 (2017): 50–92; and Tong Zhao and Li Bin, “The Underappreciated Risks of Entanglement: A Chinese Perspective,” in Entanglement: Russian and Chinese Perspectives on Non-Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Risks, ed. James M. Acton (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), 47–75.

217 Richard Woolgar-James, “China’s Nuclear Submarines: The End of “No First Use?,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 19, 2015,; and Hans M. Kristensen & Robert S. Norris, “Worldwide Deployments of Nuclear Weapons, 2017,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 73, no. 5 (2017): 289–297.

218 Steven Grogan, “China, Nuclear Security and Terrorism: Implications for the United States,” Orbis 53, no. 4 (2009): 685–704.

219 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, 88.

220 Stokes, “China’s Nuclear Warhead Storage and Handling System,” 3–9.

221 Ibid.

222 Phillip Karber, Strategic Implications of China’s Underground Great Wall (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Asian Arms Control Project, 2011).

223 Stokes, “China’s Nuclear Warhead and Handling System,” 8; and Wortzel, China’s Nuclear Forces, 19–26.

224 Cunningham and Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation,” 44–45.

225 Wortzel, China’s Nuclear Forces, 16.

226 Damen Cook, “China’s Most Important South China Sea Military Base,” The Diplomat, March 9, 2017,

227 Stokes, “China’s Nuclear Warhead Storage and Handling System,” 8.

228 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, 85.

229 Ibid., 88.

230 Gregory Kulacki, “China’s Military Calls for Putting Its Nuclear Forces on Alert,” Union of Concerned Scientists, February 2016,

231 Fiona S. Cunningham, “Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications Systems of the People’s Republic of China,” Nautilus Institute, July 18, 2019, 7,

232 Cunningham and Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation,” 44–45; and Cunningham, “Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications Systems of the People’s Republic of China,” 3–7.

233 For an excellent survey of the different possibilities involved, see David C. Logan, “China’s Future SSBN Command and Control Structure,” Institute for National Strategic Studies, November 28, 2016,

234 Elsa B. Kania, “China’s Strategic Situational Awareness Capabilities,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 29, 2019,

235 Hans M. Kristensen, “China’s Strategic Systems and Programs,” in China’s Strategic Arsenal, 93–124.

236 Shou et. al, The Science of Military Strategy, 175; and Cunningham and Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation,” 30–31.

237 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, 88.

238 Phillip C. Saunders, “Testimony Before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on China’s Nuclear Forces,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 10, 2021,, 10.

239 The evidence on this count is actually quite striking: China has often been a target of nuclear blackmail but never the perpetrator historically. For a quick survey, see “Incidents of Nuclear Blackmail,” American Friends Service Committee, April 9, 2012, How the current Russian war in Ukraine changes Chinese attitudes on this issue remains to be seen.

240 Defense Industry Daily, “Boeing Will Deliver a New Nuclear Failsafe | The Battlefield Needs Some Management | Spain’s S-80 Still Having a Siesta,” July 27, 2018,

241 Bruce W. MacDonald and Charles D. Ferguson, Understanding the Dragon Shield: Likelihood and Implications of Chinese Strategic Ballistic Missile Defense (Washington, DC: Federation of American Scientists, 2015).

242 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, 74–75.

243 Ibid.

244 Robert Jervis is typically credited with originating the concept of an “offense-dominant” or “defense-dominant” security environment in Robert Jervis, “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” World Politics 30, no. 2 (1978): 167–214. This concept has since spawned a sizeable body of literature.

245 MacDonald and Ferguson, Understanding the Dragon Shield.