The truck-mounted version of the Dongfeng 41 ICBM, which has a range of up to 15,000km, rolls along Chang'an Avenue in Beijing on October 1, 2019. Photo: Xinhua

China should more than triple its nuclear warhead stockpile, according to the editor of a leading newspaper, a rally cry that has put Beijing’s opaque nuclear arsenal into an unusual spotlight.

Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist Global Times tabloid, sister publication of the leading Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, openly called on China’s military to more than triple its nuclear bomb and warhead stockpile to 1,000 in Weibo social media posts that went viral over the weekend.

Hu opined China should quickly boost its nuclear deterrence, including through a stockpile of about 100 nuclear-capable Dongfeng 41 strategic intercontinental ballistic missiles. The missiles have a hit range of up to 15,000 kilometers and can reach the United States.

The Dongfeng 41 made its public debut during the chest-thumping military parade staged for the Communist Party’s 70th anniversary last October. Hu said the warheads and missiles could guarantee China’s peace of mind and counter an increasingly antagonistic US.

“Before long we may need more stamina to face up to the challenges, and that stamina is buttressed by the Dongfeng and Julang missiles,” wrote Hu. The Julang is a family of powerful intercontinental-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Hu also suggested that the size of China’s nuclear arsenal may determine how US political elites view and approach China. He wrote that peace between the two superpowers is never an act of largesse but is underlined by “strategic tools.”

Global Times chief editor Hu Xijin said on his Weibo account that China would need 1,000 nuclear warheads including at least 100 Dongfeng 41 missiles for better deterrence against the US.
Hu Xijin is one of the most influential opinion leaders in China. Photo: People’s Daily

In China, where nationalist sentiments have been whipped up by the Covid-19 contagion and associated rising tensions with the US, those in favor of non-proliferation are now being drowned out by netizens howling for a robust military build-up.

Most of the 25,000-plus replies beneath Hu’s post were supportive of China spearheading a new arms race, with some even calling for Beijing to scrap its “no-first-use” pledge.

Observers say Hu, whose Global Times is known for its pugnacious anti-US and anti-West tirades, is aware that his remarks and newspaper are usually interpreted as channeling Beijing’s official line – or at least the views of a hardline faction of the top leadership.

The fact that he dared to raise such a sensitive subject for public discussion over social media may be indicative of Beijing’s shifting stance on nuclear deterrence, some analysts say.

Li Mingjiang, a scholar at the Nanyang Technological University’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Hu’s nuclear build-up call could be indicative of a growing malaise among senior cadres and intellectuals.

It comes as China-US ties arguably hit a new nadir over the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, military posturing in the South China Sea and a lingering trade war.

“They think China needs to ratchet up its deterrence should ties with the US slip to new lows and when the two countries teeter on the brink of a war,” said Li.

He told the Singapore-based Lianhe Zaobao newspaper that he did not think China’s leadership would want to start an outright arms race to get close or even overtake America’s bulging nuclear stockpile.

The Dongfeng 41 in Tiananmen Square in Beijing during China’s National Day parade. Photo: WeChat
Members of the PLA’s Rocket Force, the branch formed by President Xi Jinping in 2015 for missile and nuclear strikes, in a parade. Photo: Xinhua

Other analysts say Beijing may feel it is imperative to boost its nuclear and missile strike capabilities after the US pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last August.

A political scientist with the Peking University’s School of Governance who wished not to be named told Asia Times that Hu, a shrewd news professional working for a “party paper,” must be aware of the rising calls within the military and the Communist Party for more nuclear investments and so he was likely speaking on their behalf when he broached the topic.

“There must be people high up in the hierarchy of the military and the central leadership who back Hu’s call for more nuclear capabilities … Let’s not forget that [President] Xi Jinping, as top commander of the People’s Liberation Army, elevated the military’s nuclear strike division to the position of a standalone branch on a par with the ground forces, air force and navy, and renamed it the rocket force during his sweeping reforms in 2015,” said the scholar.

Hu has since added to his original Weibo posts, writing that what was enough of a nuclear deterrent in the past may not be adequate going forward now that the US has apparently made China its main global adversary. He said China’s nuclear deterrence should be boosted accordingly.

The exact number of China’s deployable nuclear warheads is a closely guarded state secret. The US-based Federation of American Scientists, however, estimated the size of China’s nuclear arsenal at about 320 as of 2019.

The Washington-based think tank noted that China’s arsenal could be the second smallest among the five nuclear weapon states acknowledged by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

The US is sitting on a much more formidable stockpile of at least 5,800 warheads, the same research shows.

Source: Federation of American Scientists

China conducted its first nuclear weapons tests in 1964 under revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, far away from prying eyes in far-western Xinjiang province. The country detonated its first hydrogen bomb, again in Xinjiang, three years later.

Nuclear tests continued over the decades until 1996, when China signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. China also acceded to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in 1984 and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997.

In a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 8, Donald Trump reportedly proposed to include China in future disarmament negotiations. In response, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Sunday that countries with bigger nuclear stockpiles, including the US, should take the lead in disarmament.