DF-31A missiles, the tailor-made launch vehicles for Chinese nuclear warheads, seen during a military parade in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

Fresh calls to scale up China’s nuclear arsenal have caused a few raised eyebrows, as the Global Times, sister publication of the paramount Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, has argued that China risks being eased out of the global superpower club if it fails to strengthen its strategic deterrence.

The paper insisted that China must ditch the notion that it must not engage in an arms race and that the size of its nuclear arsenal must not exceed the minimum requirements of a symbolic bulwark against external threats.

Chinese soldiers stand guard in front of a model of a nuclear warhead in a nuclear research institute in northwestern China’s Qinghai province. Photo: Xinhua

The reason, the paper argues, is that the administration of US President Donald Trump is expected to adopt a more pre-emptive approach to leveraging its nuclear power, including unfettering the development of miniaturized nuclear weaponry for conventional warfare as well as maintaining dominance in the global nuclear stockpile and its edge over Russia and China.

The shift from Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama’s denuclearization policy will be manifested in the current president’s first Nuclear Posture Review, scheduled to be made public next month.

In an op-ed published on Tuesday, the Global Times said the US had long stretched its nuclear lead over China in terms of both size and strength, and even Russia – which boasts 7,300 nuclear warheads, of which 1,790 are operational, according to the Federation of American Scientists – pales in comparison with the US in the technology stakes.

The US spends more on its nuclear arsenal than all other countries combined, according to the federation’s report.

The corresponding figure for China is 260 warheads, even fewer than France, with none ready to be launched.

The Beijing newspaper, known for its bellicose stance, thus urged the top leadership to give more substance to China’s nuclear deterrence as the “cornerstone of national security and willpower,” adding that without the clout underpinned by awesome nuclear capabilities, China would not be able to project its influence in a way that is commensurate with its rising global stature.

“If we sit idle, if we fail to act now and act fast to boost our own nuclear deterrence, we will have to pay a price way higher than the cost of modernizing and [building] up our nuclear inventory,” the paper said.

Front page of a People’s Daily special issue on October 16, 1964, the day China detonated its first atomic bomb. Photo: Handout

China has conducted a total of 45 nuclear tests, with the last known one in 1996, since its first successful detonation of an atomic bomb in 1964.

It is so far the only nuclear-weapons state that has pledged a “no-first-use rule” while maintaining a deterrent retaliatory force.

Nuclear strengths of US, Russia and China

(Data: Federation of American Scientists)

United States

  • Total nuclear weapons: 6,970
  • Number operational: 1,750
  • Number retired/awaiting dismantlement: 4,670
  • Total nuclear tests: approximately 1,030
  • First test: July 1945
  • Most recent test: September 1992

Russia

  • Total nuclear weapons: 7,300
  • Number operational: 1,790
  • Number retired/awaiting dismantlement: 4,490
  • Total nuclear tests: approximately 715, according to the Arms Control Association
  • First test: August 1949
  • Most recent test: October 1990

China

  • Total nuclear weapons: 260
  • Number  operational: zero; all are in stockpile
  • Number retired/awaiting dismantlement: 260
  • Total nuclear tests: approximately 45
  • First test: October 1964
  • Most recent test: July 1996

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