When America and the Soviet Union raced each other to build ever-larger nuclear arsenals during the cold war, China ambled disdainfully. It did not detonate its first nuclear weapon until 1964, kept only a few hundred warheads compared with the tens of thousands piled up by the superpowers, and to this day maintains it will never be the first to use nukes in a war. Now China is sprinting to catch up.
In its 2021 annual assessment, the Pentagon says China’s stockpile of nuclear warheads, which last year it reckoned to be in the “low-200s”, could triple to about 700 by 2027 and will probably quintuple to about 1,000 or more by 2030… Even so, it would still be smaller than America’s or Russia’s. Those countries each have about 4,000 warheads. The Pentagon believes China is building fast-breeder reactors to make the necessary plutonium; may already have created a full “triad”, ie, the ability to launch nuclear weapons from the land, sea and air; and is expanding its early-warning systems, with help from Russia.
All told, China is shifting to a “launch on warning” doctrine. Rather than rely on a minimal nuclear deterrent to retaliate after an initial nuclear attack, China would henceforth fire at the first sign of an incoming nuclear strike, even before the enemy warheads have landed. This posture is akin to that of America and Russia… Why is China building up its nukes at a time when America and Russia have extended the New START treaty, which limits their arsenals…? One reason is China’s worry that its arsenal is too small to survive an American first strike…
Excerpt from Military Strategy: An Unpacific Contest, Economist, Nov. 6, 2021