In recent years, the major nuclear weapons states have all become more open regarding their arsenals. During the Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference the U.S. announced that it had 5,113 active nuclear warheads. After the election of the new government, the United Kingdom disclosed that it had 225 nuclear weapons. France stated several years ago that it has no more than 300 warheads. And while Russia indicated that it would consider making a similar disclosure after the ratification of the New START Treaty, it has already provided significant levels of transparency within the framework of the prior START I Treaty. Critically, all four countries also declared a moratorium on the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes.
China, however, has never disclosed the size of its arsenal. When it comes to describing the Chinese nuclear arsenal the most widely used phrase is “it is believed.” China is believed to have stopped production of weapons-grade fissile material in the early 1990s, but it keeps this option open. As far as weapons are concerned, China is believed to have approximately 200 deployed nuclear warheads with about 40 in storage. Pentagon reports note, however, that in recent years China has increased its arsenal by 25 percent, the only official nuclear weapons state to do so. Meanwhile, during the Review Conference they blocked wording declaring a global moratorium on the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes and rejected language that mandated reductions and opposed the growth in the arsenals of nuclear-weapons states.
The official Chinese position has been consistent for 50 years. Beijing insists that it has exercised the utmost restraint, maintains the lowest arsenal of the five nuclear weapons states, and would never engage in a nuclear arms race. Some Chinese leaders argue that secrecy about China’s nuclear forces enables them to rely on a doctrine of minimum deterrence, supported by a smaller arsenal, but this is an argument that has outlived its relevance. China today is not comparable to China 30 years ago. China’s economic growth has enabled it to increase military spending and changed its global standing. The veil of secrecy surrounding Chinese nuclear developments now leads some to overestimate and exaggerate the capability of the Chinese nuclear force and the speed of their modernization programs.
While full transparency of Chinese intentions may not have been decisive in the latest US-Russian arms control agreement, ongoing uncertainty about China will produce a greater reluctance to pursue deeper reductions. And those reductions would benefit Chinese security as well.
Instead of feeding a vicious circle of mistrust regarding motives and intentions, China has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to nuclear disarmament, quiet skeptics and neutralize those who try to play a “China threat” card. The greatest beneficiary of such a change in policy would be China itself, who would enjoy the benefits of both enhanced stability and increased security.
Nikita Perfilyev is Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Fulbright Fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.