Cary Huang
SCMP Columnist
Cary Huang
Cary Huang

Why China will go full steam ahead in the nuclear arms race

Cary Huang says China has the greatest incentive to boost its nuclear capabilities in the developing arms race between the world’s top nuclear powers. The build-up, however, undermines efforts towards non-proliferation and increases the chances of the weapons being used

Has the cold war made a comeback? It may or may not have, but the resurrection of a cold war-style nuclear arms race is obvious, as the world’s three most powerful militaries are all now singing the same chorus, expressing their desire to enhance their nuclear capabilities.

In its just-released 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the Trump administration calls for strengthening its nuclear deterrence to counter the “growing threat” from the “ revisionist powers” of China and Russia, which are both scrambling to modernise their arsenals.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is pushing a programme to upgrade 90 per cent of his country’s nuclear force, the largest in the world, by 2021. President Xi Jinping has just unveiled his ambitious programme to build a “world-class” military by 2050 to realise his “Chinese dream” of “national rejuvenation”. The calls from the establishment to expand the country’s nuclear arsenal are getting increasingly louder.

US nuclear ambitions a threat to the world

The nuclear arms race was central to the cold war. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction explains how the sheer power of nuclear weapons and the fear that they evoke helped convince nations to refrain from engaging in a nuclear arms race, as there would be no winner in any nuclear war.

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It was perhaps the fact that the hydrogen bomb exploded by the United States in 1952 was 2,500 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb that resulted in a worldwide nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation movement – the US-Soviet detente in the 1970s, the signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1968 and the series of strategic arms limitation talks since the early 1970s.
China, like past rising great powers, is also unlikely to accept decisive nuclear inferiority in perpetuity
Still, there is fear that conventional war between nuclear-armed nations, as seen from the military conflicts between India and Pakistan, might also provoke a nuclear war. The fact is that while nuclear weapons exist, there remains a danger that they will be used.
The US policy review is likely to first spur competition among the major nuclear powers. As the top trio of nuclear powers begin to upgrade their nuclear arsenals, what will the United Kingdom and France do? And what about Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran? And the non-nuclear states?

Among the big three, China has greater incentive to expand its nuclear arsenal, in view of its comparative disadvantage in nuclear force, which is incompatible with its fast-rising national strength.

China has never declared the scale of its nuclear stockpile but the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has placed it as the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, with 270 warheads. The US and Russia each have about 7,000 warheads. France has 300 and the UK has 215.

China has long committed to the tenet of not being the first to use nuclear weapons “at any time under any circumstances” and has pledged to never use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear nation. China maintains a “second strike” strategy, which means “to survive a first strike and then inflict unacceptable damage on an adversary” as a nuclear deterrent.

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But China, like past rising great powers, is also unlikely to accept decisive nuclear inferiority in perpetuity as it seeks to resume its historic status as a great world power. Moreover, America’s superiority and its capabilities to reduce or eliminate China’s ability to make a retaliatory strike might force Beijing to consider giving up its long no-first-use posture. China is likely to speed up its nuclear build-up and enhance its deterrent capabilities in a catch-up race, as the nuclear sabre-rattling persists.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China will go full steam ahead in nuclear race