The Real Motives for China’s Nuclear Expansion
Member Activities

The Real Motives for China’s Nuclear Expansion


APLN member Tong Zhao writes on the underlying drivers of China’s nuclear expansion, the implications for US-China security and overall relations, and essential measures needed to address core issues in nuclear and broader bilateral ties. The full article can be accessed on the Foreign Affairs website here, and an open-access Chinese translation can be found here.

China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing is on track to amass 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030, up from around 200 in 2019, according to Pentagon estimates. This nuclear buildup, combined with China’s broader investments in modernizing its armed forces, has caused deep concern in Washington. In 2023, the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States insistedthat China’s nuclear expansion should prompt U.S. policymakers to “re-evaluate the size and composition of the U.S. nuclear force.” In March, Admiral John Aquilino, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned, “we haven’t faced a threat like this since World War II.”

As Washington grapples with the severity of the threat and the risk of nuclear confrontation, U.S. policymakers must make an effort to better understand the motivation behind China’s actions. Analysts have been puzzled by China’s sudden shift away from its traditional policy of maintaining a relatively small nuclear arsenal. Some in Washington believe China’s buildup is a reaction to U.S. technological advances; others are concerned that Beijing may have unilaterally adopted a far more aggressive nuclear strategy.

A close assessment of the evolving thinking within China’s political leadership and security policy circles reveals that Chinese officials are not simply expanding their nuclear arsenal for military-technical purposes. Rather, Chinese leaders seem to have embraced the untested belief that nuclear weaponry grants them greater geopolitical leverage to counter perceived threats. Beijing’s objections to what it sees as an unfair U.S. nuclear strategy and illegitimate U.S. security interests further solidify its willingness to use unilateral measures to address its security concerns. Washington must understand how these underlying perceptions shape Beijing’s nuclear policy if it wants to steer the U.S.-Chinese relationship in a more prudent direction—or risk responding on the basis of flawed assumptions, with potentially counterproductive or even catastrophic results.

Image: iStock/Omer Serkan Bakir

Related Articles
  • U.S. Strategy of Damage Limitation Vis-à-Vis China: Long-Term Programs and Effects

    U.S. Strategy of Damage Limitation Vis-à-Vis China: Long-Term Programs and Effects

    25 Apr 2024 | LI Bin

    SPRINGER LINK - APLN member Li Bin co-publishes a paper with Wu Riqiang, highlighting that nuclear competition between the US and China needs to be mitigated and stabilized through nuclear dialogues.

  • Face-Off: The U.S. vs China - Doomsday

    Face-Off: The U.S. vs China - Doomsday

    16 Apr 2024 | Tong ZHAO

    FACE-OFF - APLN member Tong Zhao is featured in the podcast Face-Off, where he discusses whether China and the U.S. will come to the table and agree to nuclear arms control accords.

  • Understanding China's Nuclear Thinking

    Understanding China's Nuclear Thinking

    1 Jun 2024 | Tong ZHAO

    CSSPR - APLN member Tong Zhao was featured on the program INFOCUS With Ejaz Haider at Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research (CSSPR), where he commented on China's nuclear strategy and ...