The Dangerous Myths About China’s Nuclear Weapons
Early this summer, as American and Russian diplomats gathered in Vienna to discuss extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, much of the focus was on a country that was not represented at the summit: China. In the lead up to the meeting, Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. special presidential envoy for arms control, tweeted that “China just said it has no intention to participate in trilateral negotiations. It should reconsider … No more Great Wall of Secrecy on its nuclear build-up. Seat waiting for China in Vienna.” To highlight China’s absence, American negotiators placed Chinese flags in front of empty chairs, in what Beijing would later rebuke as “performance art.” Once talks began, American officials reportedly even delivered a classified briefing to their Russian counterparts outlining China’s modernization of its nuclear arsenal and the risks such forces pose.
As China’s growing nuclear forces have garnered new attention, so have some persistent myths about them. There are many legitimate concerns about China’s nuclear arsenal. China’s nuclear expansion and modernization is loosening longstanding technical constraints that have guided the country’s nuclear policies. The potential entanglement of Chinese conventional and nuclear forces raises the risks of misperception leading to nuclear first use in a crisis or conflict. And China’s opacity in the nuclear domain exacerbates dangerous misperceptions and misunderstandings between Washington and Beijing. Unfortunately, these real risks are frequently overshadowed by more dubious claims. Too many analysts have focused on the wrong problems when it comes to China’s nuclear forces, including claims that China is hiding a vast nuclear warhead stockpile, that its no-first-use policy is a sham, and that it has developed and fielded tactical nuclear weapons. The misguided focus on these claims can exacerbate distrust, heighten threat perceptions, and make it more difficult to address more genuine concerns. Three myths in particular deserve attention.
Three Persistent Myths About China’s Nukes
Since its first nuclear test in 1964, China’s approach to nuclear weapons has often diverged from that of the other nuclear-armed states, puzzling scholars and analysts alike. While nuclear-armed regional powers like France and Pakistan fielded asymmetric escalation postures consisting of high-alert tactical nuclear systems, China was slow to develop a limited arsenal of affixed, hulking liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles. While the Cold War superpowers engaged in arms racing, China committed to building a “lean and effective” force. Since obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, China has publicly claimed a categorical no-first-use policy and has asserted that “China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security.” Scholars have attributed China’s historically reserved nuclear strategy and policies to a range of factors, from leadership beliefs and domestic and organizational constraints to strategic culture and civil-military relations.
But whatever the sources of China’s nuclear doctrine, misperceptions about it continue to endure. These misperceptions are likely the byproduct of several factors, including confusion over the historical divergence between China’s nuclear policies and those of the United States, alarm at Beijing’s increasingly challenging behaviors in other security domains, and suspicion over the People’s Liberation Army’s troubling opacity in the nuclear realm. Together, these factors create a space for worst-case assumptions on the part of policy-makers, permitting the emergence and propagation of enduring and counterproductive myths.
The first myth is that China maintains a vast hidden arsenal of potentially thousands of nuclear warheads in the country’s underground tunnels. As the United States has called for a trilateral arms control agreement with both Russia and China, an op-ed contributor to The Wall Street Journal alleged that any reluctance on Beijing’s part only confirms the existence of this secret nuclear force. Writing in The Hill, two observers claimed that “Estimates of the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal vary considerably, from fewer than 300 warheads to a significantly larger number” [emphasis added]. Indeed, claims of a wildly expansive Chinese nuclear arsenal are not new — similar claims were made in major American newspapers nearly a decade ago.
There is, however, little evidence to support these claims. The most credible estimates of China’s nuclear forces from both the U.S. government and independent experts attest to Beijing’s relatively limited — though increasingly sophisticated — nuclear forces. The Pentagon’s most recent annual report on the Chinese military estimates that China has roughly 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles and puts China’s nuclear warhead stockpile “in the low 200s,” even lower than many well-respected independent estimates.
Related to the myth of a vast secret warhead stockpile are ongoing concerns that China may attempt a so-called “sprint to parity” by quickly expanding its nuclear arsenal to the size of the American one. The U.S. government predicts that China will double its nuclear warhead stockpile over the next decade (though similar past predictions about growth in China’s nuclear arsenal have not come to pass). Given the current size of that stockpile, a doubling would amount to fewer than 500 weapons compared to the 1,550 deployed warhead limit established by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
However, and perhaps most significantly, China lacks the fissile material necessary to build a significantly larger nuclear arsenal. The International Panel on Fissile Materials reports that China stopped production of fissile material for weapons in the 1980s and that Beijing possesses relatively limited stocks of both uranium and plutonium. Additionally, Chinese warhead designs may be comparatively conservative, requiring more nuclear fuel than those of other states.
Some skeptics have fixated on the extensive system of underground tunnels China reportedly uses to shelter and move some of its missiles, arguing that the tunnels themselves are evidence of a vast nuclear stockpile. Why would China create such an elaborate underground network if its arsenal were truly so small? The answer: to shelter this vulnerable nuclear deterrent. Not surprisingly, China sought to protect its relatively modest deterrent force by hiding it. As one expert has argued, Beijing could have enhanced the survivability of its force by expanding its size. Beijing’s reliance on concealment enhanced the force’s survivability at lower cost and with the added benefit of not introducing arms race pressures.
The second myth about China’s nuclear forces is that Beijing’s no-first-use policy is a fraud. China claims to adhere to a no-first-use policy, meaning that it would use its nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear strike by another country. This policy has been reaffirmed repeatedly over the decades, including in last year’s defense white paper.
However, American observers have a long tradition of doubting the sincerity of that policy. The 2006 version of the Defense Department’s annual report on the Chinese military, drawing in part on faulty translations of Chinese writings, implied that China might adjust its no-first-use policy in the future. At a congressional hearing this February the head of U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, said that he could “drive a truck through that no first use policy.” One writer in the editorial pages of The Hill recently dismissed China’s declared no-first-use policy as a “disinformation campaign.”
But evidence from public and classified Chinese military texts reaffirming the no-first-use policy suggests that no-first-use is still intact. China’s nuclear warheads are reportedly not mated to delivery vehicles, a practice which would confound attempts at nuclear first-use. Chinese military reporting continues to describe People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force units conducting exercises under conditions of nuclear attack, indicating that China’s nuclear missile forces plan to operate after an adversary’s nuclear strike. The Pentagon’s 2019 report on the Chinese military, while acknowledging elements of concern in China’s nuclear forces and policies, is straightforward in its conclusion: “There has been no indication that national leaders are willing to attach such nuances and caveats to China’s existing NFU [no-first-use] policy.”
The third myth is that China has developed and deployed an array of nuclear war-fighting capabilities, including tactical nuclear weapons. While there is no strict definition of tactical nuclear weapon, they are usually defined as lower-yield warheads affixed to shorter-range delivery vehicles and intended for use against military targets on the battlefield or other high-value theater targets. Over the last year, several American media outlets have published claims that China is fielding or has already fielded an array of tactical nuclear weapons. But such claims lack merit.
China certainly has the industrial and technical base to produce tactical nuclear weapons if such a decision were made. There are scattered reports that Beijing may have initiated projects to develop such weapons during the Cultural Revolution. But those projects were ultimately canceled before deployment because they conflicted with China’s nuclear strategy. China conducted successful tests of a neutron bomb in the 1980s, though it’s unclear how readily those designs might translate into a modern nuclear war-fighting capability.
More than three decades ago, U.S. intelligence estimates were predicting that China would soon field these kinds of capabilities. But 35 years later, those predictions have yet to come true as Defense Department and independent assessments of China’s capabilities continue to make no mention of deployed tactical nuclear weapons.
Misplaced Attention: The Real Risks of Beijing’s Nukes
Although there is little evidence to support claims that China possesses a vast covert nuclear arsenal, that its no-first-use policy is a sham, or that it has developed an extensive array of tactical nuclear weapons, there are still several reasons to be concerned about China’s nuclear forces. Unlike the above myths, which often focus on China’s force modernization and potential arms racing dynamics, these legitimate concerns often relate to actual nuclear use.
First, China’s nuclear expansion and modernization, though modest in comparison to the much larger and sophisticated arsenals of the United States and Russia, ease the technical constraints that have influenced its nuclear policies, making it easier for Beijing to shift to a more alerted posture if the country’s leadership ever decides to do so. China is deploying more and increasingly sophisticated solid-fueled and road-mobile land-based missiles, fielding a fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, and has reassigned a nuclear role to its air force.
The development of more accurate, mobile, and survivable missiles, and the realization of a complete nuclear triad of land-, air-, and sea-based delivery systems will expand Beijing’s nuclear policy options. More accurate missiles improve the potential value of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield against opposing military units. Calls by some within China’s military to raise the alert status of its nuclear forces raise questions about the long-term trajectory of China’s nuclear policies. China is reportedly working on a space-based early warning system which could support a move to a launch-on-warning posture, if such a decision were made in the future. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country would assist China in developing an early warning capability. In fact, the 2020 Department of Defense report on the Chinese military claims that “China intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning posture with an expanded silo-based force.” Some developments, like the deployment of a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine fleet, may create new pressures for mating warheads in peacetime or pre-delegating launch authority in certain situations. China’s expanding fissile material production capabilities, though intended for commercial purposes, could be used to support a larger expansion of its nuclear weapons arsenal. Recent reports have suggested increased activity at China’s nuclear weapons labs and testing site.
Together, these developments either create new opportunities for China to use its nuclear forces or introduce new pressures on longstanding nuclear weapons policies and practices. They also, in part, drive American skepticism of Chinese nuclear policies. In the past, the operational and technical characteristics of China’s nuclear arsenal lent inherent credibility to Beijing’s claims of maintaining only a retaliatory capability. China may have pursued these new capabilities primarily to ensure the survivability of its nuclear deterrent. But today, thanks to those modernization efforts, China’s nuclear forces may nonetheless be capable of more than simply retaliation. This has occurred against the backdrop of growing U.S.-Chinese strategic competition and mutual suspicion, further heightening threat perceptions.
Second, experts have increasingly warned that the possible entanglement of China’s conventional and nuclear forces could introduce dangerous escalation risks in a crisis or conflict. China fields the world’s largest and most sophisticated array of conventional and nuclear ground-based ballistic missiles. All of these missiles are under the control of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. Some of these missiles, such as the DF-21, feature both conventional- and nuclear-armed variants. One missile system, the DF-26, appears technologically capable of switching between either a conventional or nuclear payload and Chinese military reporting describes DF-26 units rapidly transitioning from conventional strikes to nuclear ones. The mobility of these systems increases the possibility of nuclear and conventional units operating far from home garrisons and within proximity of one another. This organizational, technological, and geographic overlap may make it difficult for the United States to determine which systems are nuclear and which are conventional.
In a crisis or a conflict, U.S. strikes against China’s conventional capabilities might inadvertently degrade Beijing’s nuclear deterrent, introducing dangerous escalation pressures. U.S. efforts to locate and track Chinese conventional missiles could be misinterpreted in Beijing as preparations for a disarming first strike against its nuclear forces. Similarly, the United States might mistake the launch of a conventional Chinese missile as a nuclear attack. These risks stemming from entanglement are more pronounced given evidence that the United States misperceives the drivers of Chinese entanglement. Several American analysts have suggested that Beijing may have deliberately entangled its conventional and nuclear forces in order to increase the risks of nuclear use and deter the United States. While the logic is compelling and some Chinese strategists may have come to appreciate the potential deterrent benefits of entanglement, the evidence suggests that Chinese entanglement, to the degree it exists, developed from more parochial organizational dynamics (i.e., saving costs by using similar systems), not a desire to manipulate risk. This mismatch between what Americans and Chinese analysts perceive to be the drivers of entanglement could exacerbate escalation dynamics, with U.S. officials falsely believing that China is well prepared for the risks of entanglement and Chinese officials falsely believing that U.S. actions (inadvertently) targeting China’s nuclear weapons are part of a campaign to erode China’s nuclear deterrent. Together, this entanglement could increase pressures on China to use its nuclear weapons or for the United States to target them, raising the likelihood of a dangerous escalation spiral.
Third, China’s longstanding opacity about its nuclear forces and policies is risky, especially given the evidence of misperceptions and misunderstandings between Beijing and Washington. China and the United States appear to have dangerously different views of escalation dynamics and the ability of countries to control the scope and intensity of a conflict. For one, while American experts frequently highlight potential escalation pathways in a crisis or conflict, Chinese strategists appear overly sanguine about the escalatory potential of steps China might take with its nuclear forces to signal resolve. This mismatch in perceptions could lead each side to misjudge the actions or intentions of the other. For example, Chinese military texts describe potentially escalatory signaling practices for demonstrating resolve in a crisis, including broadcasting operations involving its strategic forces and even launching an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a conventional warhead against an adversary’s territory. Though there is no indication that China ever deployed conventionally armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, such future actions could be easily mistaken for preparations of an actual nuclear strike. American skepticism about China’s nuclear policies, including its no-first-use pledge, exacerbates these risks.
Similarly, although skepticism about China’s no-first-use policy may be overblown, it would be dangerous to assume that it is inviolable in all possible circumstances. In a crisis or a conflict, plans can change. There are occasional reports of Chinese strategists and military officers debating the merits of the no-first-use policy, including expressing concerns about potential adversary efforts to exploit China’s no-first-use policy by mounting a conventional first strike against China’s nuclear forces. Versions of this debate have been going on for decades and there is no hard evidence that China’s no-first-use policy has changed (indeed, the existence of the debate is itself evidence that the policy is still in place). But that should not lead U.S. military planners to assume that there is no risk in non-nuclear operations intended to degrade Chinese warfighting capabilities or impose costs on China.
Addressing the Risks
These myths can exacerbate dangerous nuclear dynamics between China and the United States. The belief that China’s no-first-use policy is a sham increases the risk of Washington misidentifying a Chinese signal of resolve as preparations for a nuclear strike. Increased distrust can lead Beijing to wrongly believe that American reconnaissance of its missile forces signals an impending strike against Beijing’s nuclear deterrent. Similarly, the belief that Beijing has hidden away an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons can increase U.S. anxieties about a possible Chinese nuclear strike.
The myths can also hobble efforts to address more legitimate risks. Many of these risks, particularly those rooted in different perceptions, could be mitigated through formal dialogue. Beijing and Washington can share and refine understandings about escalation dynamics or their aims in a crisis or conflict. But misperception and miscommunication, sometimes rooted in the very myths discussed above, can make it difficult carry out such dialogues. For example, some of these dynamics can be seen in previous Track-1.5 and Track-2 dialogues, where skeptical American participants have presented imaginative hypotheticals to their Chinese counterparts in efforts to determine the bounds of Beijing’s no-first-use policy. Chinese participants may view these hypotheticals not as illustrative thought experiments, but as potential threats, derailing attempts at more substantive discussions.
Perhaps most significantly, a misguided focus on the myths could, perversely, make those myths realities. American concerns about China’s current and future nuclear policies (both real and imagined) can drive the United States to adopt policies which hedge against an uncertain nuclear future, such as developing more robust ballistic missile defenses or fielding more sophisticated counterforce targeting capabilities. Those American actions, in turn, can raise China’s concerns about the survivability of its own nuclear deterrent, making Beijing more likely to adopt the kind of practices the United States fears: fielding a larger and more diverse arsenal, adopting a higher alert status, and adjusting its no-first-use policy.
Observers have rightly criticized China’s dismissive response to U.S. arms control overtures, however insincere or misguided those overtures might be viewed in Beijing. But fixating on poorly sourced or unfounded claims makes any dialogue both less likely to occur and less effective if it does happen. There are enough real concerns about China’s nuclear modernization that need to be addressed without being distracted by myths.
David C. Logan is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs and an expert consultant at the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, which is part of the National Defense University’s Institute of National Strategic Studies. The views expressed are his own, not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.