CSR Blog: China’s Vertical Nuclear Proliferation – A short history

By Natalie Craig

In October 1964, the People’s Republic of China tested its first nuclear bomb, forever shifting the balance of power in Asia. The Chinese people persisted and struggled forward to build up their nuclear program, coupled with a “no first use” (NFU) policy announced by Zhou Enlai the same year the bomb was successfully detonated. This is an example of successful horizontal proliferation, or the spread of nuclear weapons to a new country. Since 1964, the PRC has engaged in vertical proliferation efforts, modernizing and expanding their nuclear capabilities, particularly under the leadership of Xi Jinping. 

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with Mao Zedong as the paramount leader of the PRC, China positioned itself as the mortal enemy of the United States, opposing US imperialism and ideals. This rivalry, along with the Sino-Soviet split, led the Chinese to independently proliferate away from the Soviet nuclear umbrella and develop its own program. While the Chinese program remains small by comparison to this day, the government has continued to emphasize the development of nuclear weapons throughout various administrations. Today, Xi is pursuing a “nuclear triad” through the development of air, ground, and sea nuclear capabilities. 

Along with the normalization of Sino-US relations in the 1970s came arms control agreements in the 1980s. China reduced the number of ballistic missiles in its arsenal by half. Beijing decided at this time to use nuclear weapons purely for deterrent means, and this strategy appeased Washington. However, as relations become strained between the two countries, it is questionable how long China will pursue this nuclear policy. 

In 2006, China scholar Albert Willner assessed that “China’s negative perception of the United States has not affected its decision on proliferation and arms control policies.” This implies that although the United States may be perceived as an enemy or rival of the PRC, the government does not make nuclear policies with this relationship in mind. While this may have been true fifteen years ago, much has changed in Sino-US relations. Xi Jinping’s government differs greatly from that of his predecessors with regards to their vision for China and the emphasis on militarization. For example, Xi’s emphasis on “China 2049” and the “Chinese dream” have shaped the country’s pursuit of global power and therefore its nuclear priorities. By 2049, Xi has pledged that China should be “a rich country with a strong military (富国强兵), restored to its rightful place in global affairs.” Through this initiative, the PRC has strengthened and modernized the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), and the number of ICBMs capable of threatening the US is expected to double from 100 to 200 in the next five years. These efforts to increase stockpiles and improve the technical sophistication of the PLARF’s weapons pose a novel challenge to US security. 

As China’s nuclear capabilities grow vertically, the US must continue to calculate the implications of China’s proliferation and what it means for US strategy in Asia. At present, three key strategic interests are threatened by Chinese nuclear proliferation. First, nuclear proliferation in China harms the national security of the United States itself. The threat of a first strike against the US has become more legitimate in recent years as the number of ICBMs capable of reaching the US has increased and as relations between China and the US have soured. 

Second, security in Asia, specifically in the Taiwan Strait, is increasingly threatened by the growth of Chinese nuclear power. The US has supported Taiwan economically and militarily since the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, while also trying to balance the relationship between China and Taiwan through a policy of strategic ambiguity. If China were to use nuclear weapons against Taiwan, the United States would not be able to retaliate to save Taiwan until it was too late. This benefits the PRC’s position on the role and status of Taiwan and potentially helps it to advance the goal of full reunification of Taiwan by 2049. By building up its nuclear arsenal, China deters third-party intervention that would lead to a large-scale theater campaign in the Taiwan strait, which causes Washington to re-evaluate its support of Taiwan.

Third, US security and economic interests in India are threatened under the China-Indian border crisis escalation and the potential impact of nuclear weapons used in that conflict. The US and India cooperate closely as members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) and have many shared interests. In 2016, the US designated India as a major defense partner, with commitments to increase defense trade to over $20 billion in 2020. Therefore, a nuclear conflict between China and India would undermine US interests in the region. 

Aside from these three key interests, the US must consider the role of Xi Jinping as leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A cult of personality has developed around Xi, bolstering nationalism and pressure on the Party to appear unwavering in their pursuit of power consolidation. If this domestic pressure required action on a primary goal of the government, like reunification with Taiwan, there are no assurances that the NFU policy would hold. Xi’s personality cult is devoted to him, allowing his government leeway to pursue more aggressive foreign policy. Furthermore, the most concerning aspect of the NFU policy is the perceived shift away from it. In 2012, General Secretary Xi gave a speech to the Second Artillery Force in which he failed to mention China’s NFU promise. In April 2013, a national defense white paper also omitted mention of the NFU pledge. In 2020, the Department of Defense annual report to Congress found that “there is some ambiguity over the conditions under which China’s NFU policy would no longer apply…[but] there has been no indication that national leaders are willing to attach such nuances and caveats publicly to China’s existing NFU policy as affirmed by recent statements by the PRC Foreign Ministry.” These signals towards ambiguity with the NFU policy should concern other countries, especially the United States.

In response to this looming risk, the US needs new treaties and mechanisms to deter Chinese aggression and prevent a potential arms race. However, if China were to require reciprocity from the US on an NFU policy, which the US currently does not have, it could be detrimental to US credibility, especially among allies. This policy could undermine deterrence and signal to some allies that the US is not prepared to use any means necessary to help defeat a shared enemy. 

Several countries in the Indo-Pacific rely on the US to protect them under its nuclear umbrella. With Xi striving for dominance in Asia, the US is forced to reevaluate and strengthen its position in support of its allies in order to remain credible. Taiwan will certainly be at the center of these concerns, with the nuclear umbrella currently extending over the Strait. As China changes its nuclear posture, along with its growing prominence in the world, it may develop a nuclear umbrella of its own, offering nuclear security guarantees to its allies. This could launch the US into a new Cold War with China, centered not only around nuclear capabilities but around technology as well. This is the gravest implication of the Chinese vertical proliferation efforts in recent years, something that US policymakers are looking to avoid for the US to maintain its interests in Asia.

The status of Sino-US relations is the linchpin holding together the current nuclear structure in China. As relations continue to deteriorate, the US needs to prepare to see further nuclear development in China, along with a shift away from the current NFU policy. The US needs to find ways to reason with Xi to address the recent military buildup, such as re-entering the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and encouraging Chinese involvement or engaging the PRC under the New START Treaty with Russia. Therefore, a new path must be devised with accountability mechanisms and new treaties to prevent further escalation of the threat.

Natalie Craig is a second-year M.A. student at Johns Hopkins SAIS concentrating in China Studies. Last year, she received a graduate certificate in Chinese and American studies from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. Prior to attending SAIS, Natalie attended the University of Kansas, majoring in Journalism and Chinese Language and Culture. She has spent almost two years in China, living in Beihai, Beijing, Tianjin and Nanjing.

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