Chinese Nuclear Push in Cold War 2.0 Makes World Unsafe

With the over-involvement of USA to weaken Russia in continued Cold War 1.0, unrestrained China is making rapid strides in enhancing its Comprehensive National Power including nuclear power using Russian resources and technology, due to latter’s increased dependence on it. In May 2023,  Russia agreed to supply highly enriched uranium-235 to energy-hungry China over the next three years. The final product could be plutonium 239, that is primarily used in nuclear warheads, which can support President Xi Jinping’s pledge at last October’s 20th Communist Party congress to “strengthen strategic deterrence” as its military tensions with the United States and its allies rise, to expand its nuclear arsenal. On the Chinese eastern sea board, 135 miles from Taiwan, China is preparing to start a fast breeder nuclear reactor, designed to make Plutonium, which the Pentagon views as fuel generation facility for its vast expansion of nuclear arsenal.

How Chinese Grand Strategy Propagates Nuclear Expansionism?

The Peoples Republic of China’s (PRC) strategy aims to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049 to match USA’s global influence and power, eventually displace it, its alliances and security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. The aim being to build a China centric Asia initially, and later a China dominated  international order to suit CCP’s authoritarian system and Chinese national interests. This strategy demands multi-dimensional expansion of Chinese national power including its nuclear power.

China’s nuclear doctrine has gradually experienced the process change from a ‘Counter-nuclear Blackmail Strategy’ to a ‘Minimum Deterrence Strategy’ and now seems to be graduating to ‘Limited Nuclear Deterrence’. China’s counter-nuclear blackmail doctrine included the fact that finally winning a war will require conventional weapons, however Beijing feels that the relevance of its nuclear weapons’ is to deter the enemy from launching an initial nuclear attack against China.

Towards this aim China aims to expand, modernise, and diversify its nuclear forces,  having established a “nuclear triad” already.  It is estimated that China has produced a stockpile of approximately 410 nuclear warheads for delivery by land-based ballistic missiles, sea-based ballistic missiles, and bombers. Additional warheads are thought to be in production to eventually arm additional road-mobile and silo-based missiles and bombers. The Pentagon’s 2021 report to Congress estimated that by 2030 China’s nuclear stockpile “will have about 1,000 operational nuclear warheads, most of which will be fielded on systems capable of ranging the continental United States” If expansion continues at the current rate, the Pentagon projected, China might field a stockpile of about 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035.

These targets along with Chinese hunger for more nuclear energy, initially looked to be difficult due to the bottleneck of scarcity of uranium, but with Russian assurance of supplies of 30 percent concentrated uranium-235, makes it achievable, with estimated capacity of adding 50 nukes per year to its stockpile.  With the continuous increase of China’s nuclear power plant capacity, it is estimated that by 2030, China will replace the US to become the world’s number one uranium buyer, with the gap between uranium demand and domestic supply being bridged with Russian help.

Chinese Nuclear Modernisation Trajectory

China reorganised its Strategic Rocket Forces, (PLARF, previously called the Second Artillery) with modern C4ISR capabilities as well as logistics capabilities to facilitate its mobility, maintenance and storage capabilities. The successful test of a hypersonic glide vehicle in 2021 demonstrated enhanced global reach of China’s strike capabilities.

In last few years, China has continued to modernize its road-mobile and rail mobile DF-31 and DF-41 (intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with ranges from 7000 to 15,000 kilometres), has significantly advanced the construction of its three new missile silo fields for solid-fuel ICBMs, and has also expanded the construction of new silos for its liquid-fuel DF-5 ICBMs and its variants with ranges up to 13000 kilometres. China is also significantly expanding its DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile force and has also begun replacing some older conventional short-range ballistic missiles with new DF-17 medium-range ballistic missiles equipped with hypersonic glide vehicles. The DF-41 can carry multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV).

In maritime domain, China apparently has refitted its six Type-094 ballistic missile submarines with the longer-range JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile. Reportedly, a larger Type 096 is in development, which can enhance range from 7,200 kilometres to 9,000 kilometres. The PRC is also developing Type 096 SSBNs with the ability to launch SLBMs with multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs).

The mainstay of PLAAF component of the nuclear triad through the H-6N bomber. The bomber has an air-to-air refuelling mechanism to extend its range of 1,800 km. In addition, China has recently reassigned a nuclear mission to its new strategic bombers and is developing an air-launched ballistic missile with nuclear capability. This includes the development of the nuclear-capable subsonic strategic stealth bomber, the Xian H-20, which could enter service as early as 2025, comparable to the U.S. B-2 bomber.

New developments suggest that China  intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving on to a ‘launch-on-warning’ (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force, from ‘launch on attack’ mode. With 120 silos under construction at Yumen, another 110 silos at Hami, a dozen silos at Jilantai, and possibly more silos being added in existing DF-5 deployment areas, PLARF appears to have approximately 250 silos under construction – more than ten times the number of 20 ICBM silos in operation today. It is believed that more than 14 sites are associated with Nuclear weapon programmes.

How Chinese Nuclear Strategy Puts Global Disarmament in Reverse Gear?

China’s stated Nuclear Doctrine is no different from most of the nuclear powers and it will like the world to believe that its totally benign. Itis composed of five policies: policy of declaration, nuclear development, nuclear deployment, nuclear employment, and nuclear disarmament. Its stated characteristics include  no-first use of nuclear weapons, building of a lean and effective strategic nuclear force, maintain a second strike capability, nuclear employment is self-defence/retaliation. It maintains that its policy on nuclear disarmament regards the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons. 

Chinese Ambassador in UN on 11 October, 2022, accusing West (indirectly US) of Cold War mentality, obsessed with the “major power strategic competition” continuously instigating competition and confrontation among major countries in Eurasia and Asia-Pacific and stirring up bloc confrontation. He tabled China centric proposals of Global Security Initiative, to maintain global strategic stability. He put the onus of disarmament on US & Russia (who have maximum nukes) to start disarmament, for other nuclear states to follow. thereby justifying its expansion plan. China accused others for failed 10th NPT Review Conference, not arriving at a consensus, outsmarting accusation against itself of violating it. It made a case for Iran urging US to implement JCPOA, citing AUKUS as proliferation of NPT, cornering US  to stop regional and global deployment/mechanisms/extension of nuclear umbrella, especially in Asia-Pacific.

China has been projecting itself to be firmly upholding multilateral international order and its  active support to the international disarmament process. China puts the onus of it not ratifying CTBT, on US not doing so and India and Pakistan not even signing it.  China also takes an active part in the work of the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Nuclear Disarmament Verification  and early commencement of negotiation on a fissile material cut-off treaty within the (Conference on Disarmament) in accordance with the Shannon Report (CD/1299) to negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Chinese strategic aim in this case is to promote dialogue between P5 and ASEAN countries on the issue of signing the Protocol to the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, to avoid a potential nuclear deployment from US in its South Eastern neighbourhood. China doesn’t pay heed to US demand of entering into INF Reduction talks, has smartly remained out of START treaty citing limited capability, putting entire disarmament process in reverse gear, which is already suspended by Russia as a side-effect of Russia Ukraine War. 

How Does Chinese Nuclear Strategy Impacts India?

From Indian perspective, the rapid expansion of Chinese nuclear and missiles arsenal, deployment of several versions DF-21 in Tibet, Xinjiang and elsewhere, along with its alleged proliferation to Pakistan, poses a serious collusive challenge. India is the only country in the world having two nuclear armed belligerent neighbours with unsettled border in collusive arrangement, thereby posing  a potential ‘two-front threat under nuclear overhang’ although China and India have shown maturity by refraining themselves from any nuclear reference during three years of Ladakh standoff. Clearly Chinese nuclear ambition is USA centric, benchmarked for competition with USA, which can cater for any lesser adversary.

China along with other nuclear powers, imposed sanctions on India through 1172 resolution in the UN Security Council. While others have recognised India as a “State with nuclear weapons” and are supporting India for a clean waiver” at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) after the ‘123 agreement’ in 2008, China continues to block in India’s entry into the NSG, and quest for clean energy, although India is somehow managing it bilaterally.

China explicitly undertakes not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and unconditionally commits itself not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States or nuclear-weapon-free-zones. India doesn’t qualify in any of the two categories; hence nukes can be used against India if strategic situation demands so, but the restraining factor is that India too has ensured credible minimum deterrence, with a nuclear triad, and Agni 6 in pipeline.

The Chinese nuclear expansion of nuclear warheads, advanced delivery systems, can certainly accelerate nuclear arms race in the South Asian region increasing complication of fusion of conventional and nuclear systems using same delivery system.

Should  India Revisit Its Nuclear Doctrine or Modernisation Plans?

In May 2023, India celebrated its 25th Anniversary of Shakti tests to become a Nuclear Weapon State, and it must needs to do capacity building in all domains of warfare including nuclear dimensions in terms of strategic assets, delivery, control, communication and maintenance systems, with induction of state of the art technology.

India’s nuclear doctrine of maintaining a posture of “No First Use” nuclear weapons, will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere has served Indian strategic interest well so far. The current policy caters for nuclear retaliation to a first strike to be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage to adversary. It also lays down that in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.

China symbolically hasn’t changed its No First Use policy on paper, although on ground there are indications that it is planning to use nuclear weapons not only to deter the adversaries, but also be able to counter-attack if deterrence fails, to protect its national security. China is also known to have violated its signed policies at opportune moment, as seen in case of UNCLOS in South China Sea and CBMs in case of LAC in Himalayas; hence, its statements are not worth relying. India certainly needs to re-evaluate its strategies at appropriate levels and in case any changes are required it should be undertaken, wherever our national interest demands so.

India is a nuclear country with effective nuclear triad, maintaining the nuclear arsenal just to meet the requirement of minimum credible nuclear deterrence. India has an option of retaliatory nuclear strike in case of a nuclear attack and has delivery systems to reach Chinese heartland with Agni5 and will have capability to reach anywhere with Agni 6 under development.  India has its own air defence and missile defence umbrella and should constantly look to upgrade its capabilities.

The nuclear arms control will be driven by Big Power Contestation and is a global issue, which might not get resolved in Asia. China doesn’t recognise India as a nuclear state and any Strategic Arms Control talks or initiatives between the two are unlikely. Chinese are comparing themselves with US and Russia and all these powers have to be on board for any possibility of disarmament initiatives. We also have some rogue states like Pakistan, who attribute their survival to nuclear bomb. Indian policy supports disarmament and nuclear arms control in non-discriminatory manner and shall continue to do so, but currently there are not many takers. Conversely more countries in Asia are wanting to go nuclear like Iran or may be Japan or South Korea in future, should their adversaries continue with crude threat of nukes!  Possibilities of nuclear arms control don’t look positive in near term in Cold War 2.0 scenario. 

Gen. Shashi Asthana
Gen. Shashi Asthana
The author is a veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst; he is currently the Chief Instructor of USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India.