The Best Defense is a Good Offense: Analyzing China’s Nuclear Weapons Program

Chair for the foreign affairs committee of China’s National People’s Congress Fu Ying speaks at the Munich Security Conference. Photo Credit: EPA

By: Nick Impson

When the US Department of Defense released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in February of 2018, China immediately criticized the U.S. focus on developing additional tactical nuclear weapons. In a statement China chastised the United States for the “Cold War mentality” surrounding the policy. China’s National Defense Ministry said the NPR was mistaken in its belief that China was seeking “an advantage through the limited use of its theater nuclear capabilities,” and reminded the United States “that China will resolutely stick to peaceful development and pursue a national defense policy that is defensive in nature.”[i] Two weeks later at the Munich Security Conference, Fu Ying, chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, reaffirmed China’s commitment to a no-first-use policy, telling attendees that the country “maintains a very small nuclear arsenal” and would continue to follow “the policy of self-defense and minimum deterrence.”[ii]

While China’s statements about a limited, defensive arsenal are encouraging rhetoric, the ever-modernizing missile systems being deployed by the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Rocket Force and long-range nuclear capabilities in development for the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) paint a different picture of the country’s attitude towards nuclear proliferation. Coupling these advances with China’s so-called “Underground Great Wall” – a network of tunnels that can potentially store (or in the view of some, hide) up to 3,000 nuclear warheads – some observers have concluded that China’s “limited, defensive arsenal” stands to become more robust than government statements would lead one to believe. [iii]

China’s nuclear program, thanks to significant assistance from the Soviet Union, began with a 22 kiloton explosion in Xinjiang province on October 16, 1964.[iv] Following a bomber-dropped test in 1965 and intermediate-range ballistic missile test in 1966, China first tested a thermonuclear weapon on June 17, 1967, two and half years after the program’s inception and at a pace faster than any other nuclear power.[v] China’s penchant for nuclear innovation has continued to present day, as its nuclear arsenal now contains 270 disclosed warheads with delivery systems varying from submarine launched ballistic missiles to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of carrying multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRV).[vi] As opposed to traditional single-warhead missiles, weapons with MIRV capability are able to carry numerous nuclear warheads that can be delivered to different targets.[vii]

If the modernization of Chinese nuclear capabilities continues at the pace we have seen throughout the program’s history, the US position of military power in the Pacific will likely erode. In 2013, China sought to rectify what was seen as a weakness in its array of delivery systems and built the nuclear-capable H-6K, a variant of its long-serving bomber. When reporting the delivery of the bombers, state media noted that new engines in the H-6K would improve the aircraft’s range, unsubtly pointing out this range was “long enough to reach Okinawa, Guam and even Hawaii from China’s mainland.”[viii] With an eye on its own shores, the H-6K is also allowing China to advance the country’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. An August test of an air-launched ballistic missile, a weapon that could target naval vessels in the contested areas of the East and South China Seas, is rumored to have a “nuclear option.”[ix] China’s ballistic missile advances also continue on the ground, with road-mobile ICBMs such as the DF-41 adding another layer to the country’s arsenal. On May 27th a DF-41 successfully released a MIRV payload during a test in western China, leading the PLA to report the missile was “among the most sophisticated ones in the world.”[x] With an estimated range of 12,000-15,000 km, this missile is capable reaching the mainland United States.[xi] The developments across these different platforms all serve China’s strategy to position itself as a regional hegemon and to counter what it sees as an intrusive US military presence in the Pacific.

The current political climate between the United States and China makes pursuit of an arms control deal unlikely, though this would be the most prudent path forward. If negotiations were to come to fruition, discussions could be muddled by the Underground Great Wall and the difficulty the 5,000 km long[xii] tunnel system poses for an effective verification regime, which is imperative for any worthwhile arms control deal. President Trump signaling that the U.S. would withdraw from the INF treaty also complicates potential negotiations.[xiii] Proliferation of US intermediate-range missiles would be viewed in China through the lens of “a potential clash over Taiwan or other contentious strategic issue”, and push China to bolster their own already-formidable cruise missile capabilities.[xiv] The United States and China may be destined for continued competition in the nuclear arena with hopes that the forces of deterrence guide the relationship. While this arrangement has yielded peace thus far, continuing on the current path promises a rivalry fraught with tension in the future.















[i] “China Firmly Opposes U.S. Nuclear Posture Review: Spokesman,” Xinhua, February 4, 2018,

[ii] “China Reiterates Non-First-Use Principle of Nuclear Weapons,” Xinhua, February 18, 2018,

[iii] Hui Zhang, “China’s Underground Great Wall: Subterranean Ballistic Missiles,”Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Power & Policy Blog, January 31, 2012,

[iv] “‘Operation 596′ on 16 October 1964: China’s First Nuclear Test,” Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, 2012,

[v] Steve Weintz, “China’s Nuclear Weapons: Everything You Always Wanted to Know,” National Interest, May 25, 2018,

[vi] Doug Tsuruoka, “Is China Really Threatening America with Nuclear Weapons?” Asia Times, February 20, 2018,

[vii] “Multiple Independently-Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV),” Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, August 28, 2017,

[viii] Chen Boyuan, “H-6K bombers delivered to PLA Air Force,” China Internet Information Center, June 22, 2013,

[ix] Dave Majumdar, “China’s Xian H-6K Bomber Might Have a New Weapon to Sink the U.S. Navy,” National Interest, August 1, 2018,

[x] Qiu Yue, “Expert: DF-41 Among Most Advanced Missiles in the World,” China Military Online, June 11, 2018,

[xi] “Dong Feng 41 (DF-41 / CSS-X-20),” Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 12, 2016,

[xii] James R. Holmes, “China’s Underground Great Wall,” The Diplomat, August 20, 2011,

[xiii] Julian Borger and Martin Pengelly, “Trump Says US Will Withdraw from Nuclear Arms Treaty with Russia,” The Guardian, October 1, 2018

[xiv] Mercy A. Kuo, “US Withdrawal From INF Treaty: Impact on China,” The Diplomat, November 6, 2018,

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