A recent report on China’s nuclear weapons capabilities has re-ignited debate on the country’s nuclear policy and the overall lack of transparency surrounding the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
In its China’s Nuclear Arsenal: Status and Evolution briefing paper released on Monday last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said the Chinese government had no intention of reaching numerical parity with the US on nuclear weapons and did not have the nuclear material to do so.
Released to coincide with the arrival of PLA Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde (陳炳德) in Washington, the paper said recent advances in China’s nuclear forces were intended to ensure the arsenal would survive an attack and preserve China’s ability to retaliate.
Beijing was not focused on increasing its offensive capability, it said, and its relatively small nuclear arsenal is solely for deterrent purposes.
“Some members of [US] Congress and the intelligence community overstate China’s nuclear capabilities and the scope of changes it is making to them,” said UCS China project manager Gregory Kulacki, who authored the paper. “Claims that China is rapidly modernizing its nuclear arsenal and seeks numerical parity with the United States are contradicted by the facts we can nail down about China’s nuclear arsenal.”
According to the report’s findings, China currently possesses an arsenal consisting of about 155 nuclear warheads ready to be deployed on six types of land-based missiles. It also said that limited stocks of plutonium “significantly constrain China’s ability to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal” and adds that “China’s focus is on improving its delivery systems to increase their survivability, and not on designing or developing new nuclear warheads.”
“China’s lack of nuclear testing since it signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996 restricts its ability to develop and deploy new, smaller warhead designs,” it says.
Seen as the latest salvo in an ongoing debate on China’s nuclear missile arsenal and strategy, the report has been met with some skepticism by defense experts, who say that the UCS may have underestimated the number of nuclear warheads in the PLA arsenal.
“Promoting continued nuclear weapons reductions is a core mission for the UCS, so making sure nobody ‘overestimates’ PLA nuclear capabilities and intentions — which of course the PLA seeks to keep as secret as possible — is a high priority for the Union as well,” Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington, told the Taipei Times.
Kulacki’s insistence that the fundamental purpose of China’s nuclear arsenal is to prevent or counter foreign military coercion was simply wrong, Fisher said, adding that despite China’s declared “no first use” policy, there was “ample literature” and “PLA statements” pointing to a substantial coercive mission for China’s nuclear forces — especially as concerns a potential Taiwan contingency. It is believed by many experts that under certain circumstances, for example, China could detonate a nuclear device at high altitude to disrupt Taiwan’s electronic capabilities or destroy those of a carrier battle group at sea.
“This is why it is crucial that the US not get this wrong, and why it is critical that the US government be much more forthright about developing PLA strategic capabilities,” Fisher said. “The PLA is not going to tell us anything.”