Chinese nuclear deterrence in the 21st century

Following article focuses on the current Chinese nuclear arsenal and its role in the Chinese foreign policy at the beginning of the 21st century. First, motives of Beijing for the development of nuclear weapons are explored. Next, the current Chinese nuclear arsenal and doctrine are described. And finally, the role of these weapons in Chinese foreign policy is discussed.

Author: Juraj Nosál, student of Security and strategic studies and International relations at the Faculty of social studies, Masaryk university.


People’s Republic of China (PRC) belongs to the five official nuclear states under the Non-proliferation treaty (NPT) regime1. Since its accession to this treaty in 1992, the attention to Beijing’s nuclear arsenal and its role has been reduced. But with the rise of the PRC as a new great-power and its ambitious foreign policy goals, this topic is still very important and the relevant field of the inquiry.

The purpose of this text is therefore to describe the current Chinese nuclear deterrence and its role in its foreign policy. In the first part it explores the motives of Beijing for the development of nuclear weapons as they have had considerable impact on the role these weapons play in the Chinese policy. Was it just security concerns or something else what led Mao Zedong to decision to obtain them? Then we look at the contemporary Chinese nuclear forces. How many of these weapons does the PRC have? Of which components does this arsenal consist? Next chapter describes Beijing’s nuclear doctrine and its key principles. Under what circumstances will be nuclear weapons used? Who is the potential target? Who has the control over this arsenal? And finally, the role of these weapons in Chinese foreign policy is discussed. Is it just defence against other nuclear states or do they have also other functions?

China’s motives for developing the nuclear weapons

Chinese nuclear programme began in 1955 with significant aid from the Soviet Union. But after the Sino-Soviet split during the second half of 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev decided in June 1959 to stop the soviet assistance and withdrew all the personnel from China. But this hadn’t discouraged Beijing’s efforts and programme continued until 1964, when the PRC conducted its first successful nuclear test (Goldstein 2000: 111-114).

When we explore the motives, which lead states to develop the nuclear weapons, it’s usually not just a single reason, but a mixture of the several. According to Sagan (1996) we can differentiate among three models. The first one is called “security model” and claims that states build nuclear weapons to increase their national security against foreign threats. The second, “domestic politics model”, envisions nuclear weapons as a political tool used to advance particular domestic or bureaucratic interest. The last one is “norms model”, when nuclear weapons provide an important normative symbol of a state’s modernity and identity.

In the case of the PRC, it’s clear that security played considerably important role. Chinese nuclear programme started in 1955 in the first phase of the cold war and the threat from the USA was perceived as real and as the question of vital importance for the survival of CPC’s regime. This reason is generally accepted and is not wrong. However, it’s only one side of the coin. Indeed, when we look deeper at the motives of Beijing, we will find out, that it was not just a military concern, but also political reasons, which might have been even more important. In contrast to Americans or Soviets, Mao Zedong himself had never considered nuclear weapons to be the crucial military factor that could decide the result of the war or could be used on the battlefield. It was more the China’s uneasiness with its junior status in Sino-Soviet alliance and the compromises of its sovereignty the alliance entailed. In this sense, repeatedly wounded national pride was an incentive for the self-reliance that ultimately required a Chinese nuclear capability. Thus an interest in bolstering China’s international prestige did contribute to Beijing’s decision (Goldstein 2000: 111-119). Moreover, the experience from colonial times when China became only puppet in the hands of other powers supported this idea as well.

To sum up, if we use Sagan’s differentiation, the PRC’s decision to develop the nuclear weapons was the combination of the security model and the norms model. As we will see in the last chapter, this is very important factor determining the role of nuclear weapons in Beijing’s policy.

Chinese nuclear forces

The PRC has approximately 400 nuclear weapons, although it has not officially released any details about size or composition of its nuclear arsenal, which makes estimates to develop difficult. Despite the continuing modernization of its forces, China has the least advanced arsenal in compare to other NPT nuclear states (Ciricion, Wolfsthal, Rajkumar 2005: 163).

The most important component of the China’s arsenal are land-based ballistic missiles. Because of their advantages (effectiveness, accuracy, survivability, range etc.), ballistic missiles are in general the most common delivery system for nuclear weapons and provide the most credible deterrent capability.

Current China’s ballistic missile arsenal consists of (Office of the Secretary of Defense 2009; Norris, Kristensen 2008):

– 20 silo-based, liquid-fuelled DF2-5 ICBMs3 with the range of 13,000 km;
– <10 road-mobile DF-31 and DF-31A ICBMs (deployed in 2006-2007) with the range of 8,000 km;
– 15 to 20 liquid-fuelled DF-4 IRBMs with the range of 5,500 km;
– 15 to 20 liquid-fuelled DF-3A MRBMs with the range of 2,900 km;
– 60-80 road-mobile, solid-fuelled DF-21 MRBMs with the range of 1,800 km.

As for SRBMs, these are commonly regarded as conventional weapons. But the Chinese have never ruled out the possibility of arming them with nuclear warheads. The version believed most likely to serve in a nuclear role is the M-9, also known as the DF-15, with a range of 600 km, although some observers have suggested the DF-15 would only be used for conventional purposes (Cheng 2006: 246).

Although China has technical capability to develop multi re-entry vehicle (MRV) and multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV), Beijing has chosen (officially) not to deploy such a system on its missiles. So it’s thought that all ballistic missiles are single war-head weapons (Norris, Kristensen 2008: 44).

Sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are the second component of Chinese strategic triad. Beijing has only one Xia-class nuclear powered submarine with 12 JL-1 SLBMs. But this submarine has never left the coastal water and is thought to be not operational, so it doesn’t provide credible deterrent (Ciricion, Wolfsthal, Rajkumar 2005: 167). Nevertheless, China is developing and building at least two new Jin-class submarines and new JL-2 SLBMs with the range of 7,200 km. Some assessment and analysis talk about five new submarines (Office of the Secretary of Defense 2009; Norris, Kristensen 2008). These submarines should have been operational by 2010, but it’s hard to verify this assessments. But once they become operational, they will provide China its first credible sea-based nuclear strike capability.

The last component of strategic triad is aircraft, particularly strategic bomber Hong-6 with the range of 3,100 km, which can carry up to three nuclear weapons. China has approximately 120 of these bombers (Ciricion, Wolfsthal, Rajkumar 2005: 167).

Beside the strategic triad, Beijing has also nuclear-capable land-attack cruise missile DH-10 with the range farther than 2,000 km. Pentagon believes that China deployed 150-350 of these missiles, but it’s unclear how many of them might be nuclear-capable (Office of the Secretary of Defense 2009).

From the deterrent point of view, strategic4 nuclear weapons are essential. But we should also mention that China is developing nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Such a weapon would be primarily defensive for use along China’s perimeter against massed formations. There is evidence that China pursued or possessed several types of nonstrategic weapons: ballistic missiles, cruise missiles (probably DH-10) and artillery (Norris, Kristensen 2008: 44).

Chinese nuclear doctrine

Nuclear doctrine is basically the policy of the state towards the nuclear weapons in regard to their use, development, control etc. Since the developing its first nuclear bomb in 1964, the PRC became the major supplier of missile and nuclear technology to the developing world and was matter of significant concern for international community and non-proliferation efforts.

From this point of view, Beijing’s accession to the Non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in 1992 was major breakthrough. NPT commits the PRC “…not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices…and not in any way to assist, encourage or induce any non-nuclear weapon state to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” (NPT 1967). The PRC has also, together with other nuclear states under NPT regime, undertaken 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. However, these undertakings have not been incorporated formally into the treaty (Gill 2010:5-7).

Another important treaty in regard to nuclear weapons signed (but not ratified) by Beijing in 1996 is Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans all nuclear explosions in all environments for military or civilian purpose. China has conducted so far 45 nuclear tests, the last one in July 1996 (Ciricion, Wolfsthal, Rajkumar 2005: 163). So though not ratified, China complies the terms of the treaty. Incomplete ratification process could be seen as a “loop-hole” for regime which is typical of Beijing’s pragmatic policy.

As for the use of nuclear weapons, current China’s doctrine officially consists of two key principles: no-first use policy and counter-value targets. No-first use policy indicates that Chinese leaders mainly consider nuclear weapons a political instrument for employment at the level of grand strategy, not as winning tool for military operations (Yunhzu 2010: 28). By adopting this policy, China must of course develop retaliatory second-strike capabilities, if it wants to have its deterrence potential trustworthy. In this sense the modernization and the investments into nuclear capabilities are logical and understandable. Concept of counter-value targets means that nuclear weapons will be used against populous and industrial centres of the potential adversary. Although this can seems to be disturbing, it’s quite natural for states with limited arsenal, because it strengthens their deterrence potential. For instance in compare to France, Chinese doctrine is much more responsible and peaceful.

The control over the nuclear ballistic missiles is the responsibility of the “Second Artillery Corps” (SAC), which was established in 1966. The SAC is under operational control of the general staff, but is directly controlled by the Central Military Commission and has been an independent arm of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since 1974. The SAC with an estimated 90,000 personnel5 is believed to be organized into a headquarters in Qinghe near Beijing, an early warning division, a communication regiment, a security regiment, a technical support regiment, and six ballistic missile divisions (FAS 2000).

The concept of a “guaranteed strike” is fundamental to the SAC doctrine. This means that strategic rocket forces must be able to survive a nuclear attack and emerge later to conduct their counter-strike. To accomplish this, the SAC maintains its own support infrastructure6.

In a SAC nuclear war simulations exercise, China stayed with its “no-first–use” policy and absorbed a nuclear strike. After the strike, the exercise scenario required that the SAC forces stay in protected underground areas for as long as several days before emerging to conduct a retaliatory nuclear counterattack. The guiding motto for the SAC is “strictly protect counterattack capability and concentrate [nuclear] fires to inflict the most damage in the counterattack”. To meet the first requirement in this motto, protect and preserve the force, the SAC is to:

1. Defend against the enemy’s precision weapons attack;
2. Defend against enemy air raids;
3. Defend against enemy Special Operations Forces attacking China’s nuclear forces;
4. Organize to respond to sudden surprise attacks; and,
5. Organize to restore China’s nuclear war fighting capability rapidly.

To meet the second requirement in the motto, “guarantee or safeguard the survivability of the nuclear response system to counterattack,” SAC doctrine requires its forces to:

(1) protect the nuclear counterattack campaign plan;
(2) conduct advanced preparations for a campaign;
(3) ensure the timely reliability of the system;
(4) be prepared for a rapid response;
(5) ensure response plans are complete and comprehensive;
(6) guarantee the survivability of the counter attack force;
(7) conduct comprehensive coordination with other headquarters and commands (Wortzel 2007: 21-24).

A Chinese government defence white paper from 2008 for the first time describes how China’s nuclear forces would gradually be brought to increased levels of alert during a crisis.

Three levels are mentioned: 1) peacetime – nuclear missile force of the SAC are not aimed at any country; 2) nuclear threat – nuclear missile force of the SAC will go into a state of alert, and get ready for a nuclear counterattack to deter the enemy from using nuclear weapons against China; 3) nuclear attack – nuclear missile force of the SAC will use nuclear missiles to launch a resolute counterattack against the enemy either independently or together with the nuclear forces of other services7. According to this document, the SAC sticks to China’s policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, implements a self‐defensive nuclear strategy, strictly follows the orders of the CMC, and takes it as its fundamental mission the protection of China from any nuclear attack (China’s National Defense in 2008: 29).

The role of nuclear weapons in the Chinese foreign policy

According to the Beijing’s official nuclear doctrine and Chinese authors, it’s obvious that the principal function of nuclear weapons is to provide credible deterrence against foreign threats and protect China from nuclear attack.

When we look at the documents and Chinese strategic literature, the USA are identified as the greatest potential threat. This is an important change because in the past the Soviet Union was also identified as principal threat. In the view of many in the PLA, the military power of the United States, the potential to use that power to coerce or dominate China, and the ability to threaten China’s pursuit of its own interests, presents a latent threat. Additionally, Taiwan issue and the fact that PLA leaders believe that the USA is likely to come to Taiwan’s assistance in the event of Chinese aggression in the Taiwan Strait, magnifies the perception of this threat (Wortzel 2007: 3-4).

So, the principal question is: is Chinese nuclear deterrence sufficient against the USA? Firstly, because of Beijing’s no first use policy, the second strike capability is essential for the credibility of deterrence. As mentioned above, today Chinese nuclear arsenal consists mainly of three components. But the operation-ability of China’s new Jin-class SSBNs is still very questionable and strategic bombers probably don’t constitute a real threat for the US air-defence. So only ballistic missiles can be the cause for concern. With them, the PRC is able to hit all the regional neighbours and important US allies in the Pacific. DF-5, DF-31 and DF-31A ICBMs are able to hit the continental USA. Mainly the newer versions, DF-31A and developmental JL-2, are believed to give Beijing a more survivable nuclear force (Office of the Secretary of Defense 2009: 24-25). Secondly, the total amount of weapons is also very important. As mentioned above, the PRC has approximately 400 nuclear weapons, which is for example more than the UK or India, Pakistan or Israel (which are not NPT states). Of course, the US nuclear arsenal exceeds the Chinese in amount and technological level as well. But the option that Beijing could hit the majority of the biggest US cities strongly reduce the possibility of use the nuclear weapons against the PRC. Under current circumstances we could therefore consider Chinese nuclear deterrence as sufficient. However, there is a potential threat for the PRC in the future – development of the US missile defence, which could degrade Chinese nuclear deterrent and endanger the strategic stability (Fingar 2011).

Beside this view, there are some authors who consider Beijing’s nuclear arsenal to be much more significant than it’s believed. The reason is simple – the PRC has ambitious foreign policy goals8 (many of which bring it into the conflict with other powers) and long-term aspirations to improve its position in world politics. But despite the modernization of the PLA, China still misses the key elements of modern warfare9. Therefore the nuclear weapons are the only reliable assurance of military supremacy and play the fundamental role in these plans. Also limiting Beijing’s military power is the fact that most of the PRC’s international disputes are maritime (Kane 2003). From this point of view, nuclear weapons could be the tool for achieving strategic objectives and national interest. Of course this would be the denial of declared no-first use policy. But in fact there is already an open debate among civilian strategic thinkers, younger military officers and the older leaders of the PLA on the utility of no-first use concept (Wortzel 2007: 26-30). Despite this, because of Beijing’s participation in the NPT regime and contemporary international order, it’s unthinkable that the PRC would threaten to use (or really use) its nuclear weapons. It would have to be the state of the highest emergency and the last available possibility.

Another very questionable issue is China’s sensitive nuclear exports. Two particular countries, Pakistan and Iran, have been the leading cause of concern. Beijing’s assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear programme might have been critical to its nuclear breakthroughs in 1980s. In the early 1980s, the PRC is believed to have supplied Pakistan with plan for one of its earliest nuclear bombs and possibly to have provided enough highly enriched uranium for two such weapons. Even after the accession to the NPT, there is evidence that China provided Pakistan with heavy water and ring magnets for its centrifuges. China has also been a principal supplier of nuclear technology to Iran. In 1990 they signed a ten-year nuclear cooperation agreement but after the pressure from the USA, it was ceased in 1995. However, until 1997 the PRC continued to assist Iran in constructing a plant near Isfahan and its technicians helped Iranians with other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. But it seems that these activities were carried out in accordance with the NPT. China has also provided nuclear assistance to Algeria. But this country formally acceded to the NPT in 1995 and signed an agreement on safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Controversial issue is also Chinese exports of missiles and missile-related technology to Pakistan and Iran10 (Ciricion, Wolfsthal, Rajkumar 2005: 171-174). Particularly in the case of Iran this trade could be viewed in the light of Chinese growing need for energy resources as it is very important oil supplier to the PRC. In this sense, nuclear and missile technology is very lucrative article for export and can be used to adjust the terms of exchange in favour of Beijing.

Except for these practical implications, nuclear weapons have one more, from my point of view, today the most important meaning for Beijing’s policy. They are the strong normative symbol of Chinese international prestige, state sovereignty, modernity and ensure the great-power status. Under current circumstances, they are more psychological (than practical) tool and allow the PRC to take diplomatic and military position with much greater level of confidence than without them. Of course, defence against other nuclear states or a foreign threat remains important, but in current security climate and with the changing forms of conflicts in general, it’s quite unthinkable that these weapons would be used. In the future, they could be a tool for achieving strategic objectives and national interest. But this is again more prediction than reality. Under current Beijing nuclear doctrine and international order, it would have to be the state of the highest emergency and the last possibility. And with on-going modernization of the PLA, Beijing has more appropriate tools how to respond to a potential threat or pursuit its interests.


It’s been almost five decades since Beijing decided to build its first nuclear weapon. Although this step was partly the result of the cold war’s security climate, the intention to bolster China’s international prestige was crucial. This is also quite obvious in the role which these weapons play today in the Chinese foreign policy. They are more normative than military symbol and allow Beijing to take diplomatic and military position with much greater level of confidence.

Do these weapons present a security threat? This depends on question, whether we are nuclear optimists or pessimists. The continuous modernization of nuclear forces may be viewed as a potential threat, but the fact is that Chinese arsenal is the least advanced from the NPT states. Because of Beijing’s nuclear doctrine, the second-strike capability is essential for Chinese nuclear deterrent credibility, so its modernization is just logical. Also the official policy towards nuclear weapons based on “no-first use principle” is constant and imply the PRC is more likely responsible than dangerous member of the nuclear club.

From my point of view, the only problematic issue which should be the cause for concern is military’s control over these weapons. This always increases the likelihood of their use as soldiers have tendency to solve the problems uncompromisingly and resolutely. The good example is India, where the military has only control over delivery systems while warheads remain under civilian control.

To sum up, Chinese nuclear weapons remain the important element of Beijing’s policy. They have strong normative and psychological meaning and ensure its great-power status. Although with the modernization of the PLA their military significance is decreasing, they also provide a safeguard in the case of necessity.


1 Together with the United States of America (USA), Russia, France and the United Kingdom (UK).

2 DF stands for ‘Dong Feng’

3 According to the range, ballistic missiles can be divided into: inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with the range of more than 5,500 km; intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) with the range of 3,000 to 5,500 km; medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) with the range of 1,000 to 3,000km and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) with the range under 1,000 km.

4 Strategic nuclear weapons have yield (destruction potential) over 100 kT (equivalent to 100 000 tons of TNT). Weapons with lower yield are ‘nonstrategic’.

5 Majority of them is in engineering and construction units. Some estimates are even as high as 120,000.

6 Including maintenance, supply and food services, engineers, and road and rail transport.

7 This probably refers to navy’s SSBNs and Air Force’s bombers.

8 For instance territorial disputes in South China Sea with Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines; territorial dispute with Japan; Taiwan issue; secure the energy resources; ambitious policy in Africa etc.

9 The technological capabilities that RMA theory views as being the most important (command, control, communication, computers, information and intelligence – C4I2; high-performance computing, signal processing, software etc.) are precisely the ones that PRC lacks (Kane 2003: 101).

10 In the past also to Syria and Saudi Arabia.


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