China’s Vertical Nuclear Expansion is Real
As the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to flout international norms, the world is falling behind in terms of any meaningful effort to confront their calculated aggression. Some positive, yet incremental events have occurred recently: namely, the Biden Administration issuing two new rules limiting American companies from exporting chips and chipmaking equipment to China; providing anti-ship and air-to-air missiles in the recent arms sale to Taiwan; Congressional movement on the Taiwan Policy Act; Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s perfectly acceptable summer visit to Taiwan; and reportsshowing a deep decline in projected Chinese GDP for 2022.
However, Chinese military growth and combativeness remains unconstrained. They treat the South and East China Seas as if they were China’s exclusive economic zones. This is a clear affront to international law and norms, as well as a show of flagrant disrespect for various countries with true and legitimate rights to use of those waters. Further, they disrespect the free and democratic Taiwan in every way possible. Most concerning is the PRC’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal. More precisely, the significant vertical expansion (an increase in the number of nuclear warheads) of this arsenal in the hands of such a destabilizing force. It needs to be confronted post-haste.
As a threshold matter, the world needs less not more nuclear weapons, including the United States. What complicates this is that for the last 75+ years, and for the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons have been the single greatest deterrent when one nation-state considers aggression against another. Also, in order to maintain nuclear superiority in relation to the malign Russian Federation, any reduction in nuclear warheads must have a correlative modernization component to ensure a meaningful deterrence and effective response.
The United States nuclear triad is old and in need of modernization, whereas an ideal arsenal would become lean, safer, and with greater durability and more lethality. This is exactly what the PRC is doing to their arsenal without regard to its impact on global stability and the proliferation interests of other nation-states. And while they are developing and building modern air, land, and sea capabilities, China’s vertical expansion should be the overriding concern rather than assessments and warnings focusing primarily on launch capability.
By public accounts, the PRC had approximately 240 nuclear warheads in 2010. Today, that number is around 350. By 2030, conservative public projections have that number around 1000. According to the most recent Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community:
Beijing will continue the largest ever nuclear force expansion and arsenal diversification in its history. Beijing is not interested in agreements that restrict its plans and will not agree to negotiations that lock in U.S. or Russian advantages. China is building a larger and increasingly capable nuclear missile and bomber force that is more survivable, more diverse, and on higher alert than in the past, including nuclear missile systems designed to manage regional escalation and ensure an intercontinental strike capability in any scenario.
The unclassified report describes Chinese nuclear program improvements, such as: building hundreds of new intercontinental ballistic missile silos; operationally fielding the nuclear capable H-6N bomber, providing a fixed wing platform for the PRC’s nuclear triad; and, most concerning, the flight test of a hypersonic glide vehicle flight test that circled the globe before landing inside China.
A world with more nuclear weapons, especially in the hands of a brutal communist regime (cue treatment of Uighur population and pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong) does not bode well for global peace and security. China continues to contravene international arms control regimes, non-proliferation agreements, and disarmament commitments as highlighted by the U.S. State Department earlier this year:
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has failed to adhere to its November 2000 commitment to the United States not to assist “in any way, any country in the development of ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons. Concerns remain about the PRC’s lack of transparency regarding the nature of its testing activities and its adherence to its testing moratorium, which the PRC declared in 1996, judged against the “zero-yield” standard.
During the Trump administration, great effort was made to bring the PRC to the negotiating table along with the Russian Federation with the legitimate aim of reducing nuclear proliferation and warhead production. Officials from the Cabinet on down to the operational levels engaged with the PRC directly and indirectly to entice, pressure, and cajole Beijing to discuss nuclear proliferation. The PRC flat-out refused.
The average person might be confused by the concern of many in the national security profession regarding the PRC’s vertical nuclear expansion. After all, public reports assert that both the United States and the Russian Federation have anywhere from 10x to 20x the number of warheads as compared to the PRC. According to the Arms Control Association, the world’s other nuclear powers have between 40-300 warheads, a sufficient number for those with deterrence in mind. (This excludes North Korea who will continue to increase their numbers as Kim Jong-un redirects money from starving children to nuclear expansion with Beijing’s blessing). The concern is because China’s desire to dramatically increase their numbers is all about pride, perceived inadequacy, and reputational positioning. For the United States and the Russian Federation, the unnecessarily large numbers of nuclear warheads correlate with historic, not current, Cold War-era build-up.
Speaking of missiles, the PRC’s destabilizing activities were on full display before, during, and after Speaker Pelosi’s legitimate visit to Taiwan, when President Xi decided to lob at least four ballistic missiles over Taiwan and into their northeast and southwest waters, as well as Japan’s exclusive economic zone. In addition to these missile launches, the PRC flooded the surrounding waters with war ships and dozens of sorties using bombers, attack aircraft, and 5thgeneration fighters. Oh, and according to press reports, they apparently executed multiple cyber-attacks in coordination with the Russian Federation. What about this activity from an advancing nuclear power can we call normative behavior within the bounds of international order? Absolutely none.
In short, the broad expansion of their nuclear triad and significant increase in the number of nuclear warheads is a global dilemma. The PRC threatens its neighbors, is the world’s second largest economy, and has the planet’s largest active military ground force at 2M personnel. In a broad context having another nation-state arsenal growing toward Russian and American numbers, the North Korean testing and demonstration, and Iranian nuclear pursuits, genuinely threatens worldwide security and economic stability. Little by little the PRC escalates and the hostilities in Ukraine have shown the world what happens when tyrannical governments go unchecked. While we may think this broad nuclear expansion and aggression towards Taiwan is saber-rattling, the march to war is the time to attend to our values and decide what kind of future we want.
Countering Chinese nuclear vertical expansion is paramount and necessary, and the U.S. government and its allies must do more, today. While modernizing the United States nuclear arsenal is essential, so too is compelling China to discuss nuclear proliferation. It should continue to be an aim and interest to American policy makers. Whether through establishing mutually agreeable confidence building measures or, less likely, by sanctions regimes taking steps to counter the growth is warranted. There is bipartisan agreement on these issues and there is opportunity. Just last month, President Biden updated U.S. policy relating to defense of Taiwan making clear that America will defend the island against a Chinese invasion. This is something members of Congress from both political party’s support. The Administration and Congress can unite to improve American nuclear systems and contain Chinese nuclear growth.
The clock is ticking.David F. Lasseter is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering WMD, visiting fellow at the National Security Institute, and Founder of