China is developing nuclear weapons at a “terrifying speed.” It could have some 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035 if it continues to expand its arsenal at the current rate, The EurAsian Times reported on February 25, based on a late 2022 U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) report.
According to STRATCOM, China’s stockpile of nuclear warheads surpassed 400 in 2022 in a fraction of the estimated time. Two years prior, it was estimated that the country had fewer than 200 nuclear warheads, and that its arsenal would double in no less than a decade, CNN reported.
“For many countries like China, nuclear weapons are a symbol of power status; that’s the first conundrum,” Luis Rodríguez, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, told Diálogo on March 15.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has clearly stated its ambition to strengthen its “strategic deterrence” and has continued to accelerate the modernization, diversification, and expansion of its nuclear forces.
The PRC strategy aims to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, in a determined pursuit to amass its national power to transform an international system more favorable to the PRC’s interests, the DOD indicated.
Silos and reactors
Although China maintained a relatively small nuclear force for decades, in June 2021 satellite images revealed that it was building 120 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, U.S. magazine Foreign Affairs reported. In addition, another 110 missile silos in the construction phase were discovered in Xinjiang province, in the northwest of the country, the magazine indicated.
The missile silos are concrete structures that store these weapons, and both protect and launch them, the BBC reported.
According to a report from Spanish daily El Confidencial, China is also developing two fast breeder nuclear reactors. The first of these is scheduled to operate in 2023, the second in 2026, El Confidencial reported.
Although China claims the reactors are for civilian use (power generation), each reactor will be able to produce up to 200 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium each year, enough for about 50 nuclear warheads, U.S.-based international organization IEEE Standards Association said.
In a March 8 report, the DOD indicated that Russia’s state-owned nuclear power corporation Rosatom has been providing highly enriched uranium for the Chinese fast breeder reactors.
“It’s very troubling to see Russia and China cooperating on this,” John F. Plumb, U.S. assistant secretary of Defense for Space Policy, said, according to the report. “They may have talking points around it, but there’s no getting around the fact that breeder reactors are plutonium, and plutonium is for weapons.”
“This is the second conundrum,” Rodríguez said. “We are now facing a situation where we are probably going to have one more country with nuclear armaments large enough to endanger the planet.”
As these nuclear concerns mount, Russia suspended in Feburary its participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, designed to limit the number of nuclear warheads and prevent nuclear war, BBC reported.
“In this theater of operations, China has always said that it is not going to sit at the table to have a negotiation involving nuclear weapons agreements […] until it has nuclear parity,” Rodríguez said.
“The Russian decision to withdraw from the agreement is dangerous nuclear blackmail, because you can’t predict how Vladimir Putin will behave in the future and what he has in mind,” Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at international affairs think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the BBC.
If Beijing continues to expand its arsenal at this rate, there will be a greater risk of a nuclear arms race and greater incentives for states to resort to nuclear weapons in a crisis, The EurAsian Times reported.
“At the moment, I don’t see a security context in Latin America that would justify any of these countries to want to build nuclear weapons, because it’s very complicated and expensive,” Rodríguez said. “But China helps certain countries in the region to develop their nuclear power plants with ‘fewer restrictions.’”
“A nuclear conflict would cause incalculable human suffering and threaten the survival of humanity,” the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for Mexico and Central America said. “There is no adequate humanitarian response capability in the event of the use of nuclear weapons.”
“This is why it is a priority to stigmatize nuclear weapons and eliminate them completely,” Rodríguez concluded.