How China’s Nuclear Ambitions Have Changed the World

In the middle of the last century, as the United States and Russia rapidly amassed thousands of nuclear weapons, China stayed out of the arms race, focusing its energy on growing its economy and broadening its regional influence.

Beijing did build hundreds of nuclear weapons during those years, but the nation’s leaders insisted their modest arsenal was merely for self-defense. Since China’s first nuclear weapons test, in 1964, the country has pledged loudly to never go first in a nuclear conflict — no matter what. That stance, coupled with a stated strategy of “minimum” deterrence, didn’t demand the level of American fear, loathing and attention that the Russian threat did.

Now there is increasing unease in Washington about China’s nuclear ambitions. The Pentagon says Beijing is on track to double the number of its nuclear warheads by the decade’s end, to 1,000 from 500 — a development that senior U.S. officials have publicly called “unprecedented” and “breathtaking.” China has drastically expanded its nuclear testing facility and continued work on three new missile fields in the country’s north, where more than 300 intercontinental ballistic missile silos have recently been constructed.

China’s transformation from a small nuclear power into an exponentially larger one is a historic shift, upending the delicate two-peer balance of the world’s nuclear weapons for the entirety of the atomic age. The Russian and American arsenals — their growth, reduction and containment — have defined this era; maintaining an uneasy peace between the two countries hinged on open communication channels, agreement on nuclear norms and diplomacy.

Little of that nuclear scaffolding exists with China. In Washington, how exactly to interpret Beijing’s sharp nuclear buildup is still a matter of debate. At best, American officials say, their Chinese counterparts are trying to catch up with the United States and Russia, which still each have roughly a 10-to-1 nuclear advantage over China with their stockpiles. At worst, they say, this is Beijing’s boldfaced attempt to deter the United States from defending Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, the most likely flashpoint for an armed conflict between the competing superpowers.

In truth, no one knows what China is planning. President Xi Jinping’s government, as with much of its domestic policy, releases vanishingly little information about its nuclear intentions, strategies or goals, and it has been equally unwilling to engage on arms control.

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