Podcast host Alexander Gabuev is joined by Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program, and Elena Chernenko, a special correspondent at Kommersant, to discuss China’s plans for its nuclear arsenal.

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Gabuev Hello, everyone. My name is Alex Gabuev. I’m a senior fellow and host of Carnegie Moscow Center podcast and today, we’re going to talk about a really important, exciting topic that I don’t think gets much of attention in Russia, but that’s a crucial one going forward to define Russia’s security and basically global security. It’s China’s nuclear buildup and impact of the architecture in the big nuclear triangle between Russia, U.S., and of course, People’s Republic of China. Today, I’m thrilled to be joined by two of the most knowledgeable experts on the issue, my Beijing-based colleague Tong Zhao, who’s a senior fellow with the nuclear program at Carnegie.

Zhao Hi, Sasha, it’s such a great pleasure to be on the program.

Gabuev And here we also have with us special correspondent of Kommersant, Elena Chernenko, who is one of the most serious voices on everything arms control and strategic stability. Hi, Elena.

Chernenko Hi, Sasha, thanks for the invitation.

Gabuev Let’s grab the most crucial issue. Tong, you just published a terrific op-ed in the New York Times laying out reasons why China might be engaged in a serious nuclear buildup. So how real is that? And what might be driving Beijing’s behavior? What is it trying to achieve?

Zhao I think China can be capable of being both paranoid and ambitious at the same time, when it comes to its nuclear planning and thinking. Being paranoid means China has, probably, exaggerated threat perception about American missile defense, conventional precision strike weapons, and China has been worried about those American threats for decades. And, you know, over the years China has been incrementally modernizing its nuclear forces to counter those threats. Some of the programs like multiple-warhead technology, for example, could be very effective in countering that threat. But I think this threat could be exaggerated in my personal view, because China has very suspicious understanding about American strategic intent toward China. And as a result, U.S. officials, their statements sometimes are ambiguous, and that ambiguity leads Chinese experts to read American intent in the most serious manner. You know, [former] president Trump’s comments about [how] U.S. needs missile defense to defend against any missile from anywhere, anytime, really, I think, leaves the impression in the minds of many Chinese experts that the U.S. is really using missile defense to try to undermine and neutralize China’s nuclear deterrent; whereas, in fact, the statement from [former] president Trump is not fully consistent with American official policy, which is that the U.S. does not intend to use missile defense against Russia or China. The U.S. relies on its own nuclear deterrence to prevent nuclear attack from these near competitors. But that exaggerated threat perception is, I think, really providing incentives for China to invest more and more in its nuclear modernization, as China’s economy grew very quickly and provided more than sufficient resources and funding for the nuclear program. I think Chinese nuclear engineers were able to pursue basically all interesting ideas and projects that they believe could contribute to a more credible nuclear deterrent.

Gabuev Yeah, and I think that just reading the papers, it’s not only about the conventional nuclear forces, like, traditional nuclear forces, but we see Chinese engineers testing radically new systems like the one reported by FT’s Demetri Sevastopulo recently.

Zhao Yeah, you know, the recent reported testing of an orbital hypersonic system is really interesting. There is so much still unknown about what exactly happened. According to reports, it looks like China basically launched an object into orbit, which travelled across the globe, it re-entered the atmosphere using a glider system, and then maybe the glider launched another object when it was gliding through the atmosphere. That was really fancy, it was technologically challenging. I think maybe that part was what really impressed American officials. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, called it a “near Sputnik moment.” You know, that type of technology, using hypersonic glider vehicle at long, very long range, and maybe even intercontinental range, could really help penetrate U.S. missile defense. And I think it could play a role in Chinese efforts to develop escalation management capability, because for a long time China’s nuclear strategy is based on a simple idea of being able to conduct an all-out second strike after absorbing a first strike. But China hadn’t really considered what happens if the U.S. only launches a limited nuclear attack on a regional target near or in China. So, I think over time that nuclear engineers and strategists may be thinking about more sophisticated nuclear strategy, being able to respond to a limited U.S. nuclear attack in a proportional manner, and that requires more accurate and various ranges of nuclear weapon systems. The hypersonic missile can certainly help China launch a limited nuclear counterattack on the U.S. homeland, if a nuclear war escalates to that level.

Gabuev In terms of the size of the arsenal and time frame, do we have a rough idea of where China is heading? And what’s the end goal there is?

Zhao Well, the most cited and the most authoritative open-source research, conducted by American experts at the Federation of American Scientists, they estimate that China currently has about 350 nuclear warheads. That was a slightly larger arsenal, compared with a few years ago, when China had maybe 300 or so weapons, so the number is already growing at a faster speed than before. But according to American military and intelligence assessments, [the growth of] China’s arsenal is going to accelerate even further. And by 2027 China may have up to 700 nuclear warheads, and by the end of this decade, 2030, China may have at least 1,000 according to the most recent DoD report.

Gabuev Well, that puts China really in the more or less same category as Russia and the U.S., the two only superpowers. And, Elena, I think that as the U.S. and Russia have renewed the START treaty earlier this year, when Biden administration came, without any preconditions. Now the two countries are engaged in strategic talks in Geneva that, I think, you’re one of the most credible sources, at least from the Russian side, on what’s going on there. Is China at all a factor in the discussions? Because we are talking about arms control regimes, and an arms control regime that’s not only based on the same principles as START treaty, but also fuses in cyber in its relation to nuclear forces, maybe of space, maybe non-nuclear strategic assets like high precision missiles, hypersonic weapons, and all of that. But that should take into account the progress on the Chinese side. Trump had this idea to bring China to the negotiation table together with the Russians and the Chinese, but that doesn’t work out. And now the two countries are talking in the bilateral track. But is China a subject on these discussions? What do you hear?

Chernenko You’re exactly right. It’s very much different, the approach that the Biden administration is taking compared to the one under the Trump administration, where the American negotiators really tried everything to get the Chinese onto the negotiating table. We have seen even this picture that went around the internet, where they had the Russian flags, the American flags, and the Chinese flags at the negotiating tables, although it was clear from the start that the Chinese delegation would not pop up in Vienna. But we see that the Biden administration is taking a different approach. We are looking most probably and hopefully at two parallel tracks, a U.S.-Russian track and a U.S.-Chinese track, maybe. It’s not clear yet whether there will be such one. There were some hopes before this virtual summit, of Biden and Xi Jinping, that maybe they would start a nuclear dialogue. As far as I can see, it’s not formalized. It hasn’t been outlined yet. But maybe we’re looking at this in the coming years that there will be some parallel tracks, and maybe they will lead to some results.

Gabuev But I guess that the problem is this: if China is not engaging in any arms control negotiations with the U.S. and doesn’t want to limit its program, because it’s still not in the same category, and it wants to get there before it starts to talk arms control, then probably the incentives for the U.S. and particularly for the U.S. to negotiate something with Russia are getting diminished, because here your primary adversary is rapidly advancing in strategic arms. Why would you limit yourself by something signed with the Russians?

Chernenko You are exactly right. That is a dilemma that the U.S. is facing and that the Russians have to take into consideration. But still, the Russian arsenal is very big. It’s in some numbers higher than the American one. Russia has all the shiny new weapons that Vladimir Putin has introduced a few years ago. So Russia is still a threat factor in this strategic stability domain, and that’s why definitely the U.S. has an incentive to talk to Russia, even without the Chinese at the table yet. But you’re also right that they’re mainly interested in doing something with the Chinese. And we have seen the Trump administration trying to get Russia to put pressure on the Chinese. Russia didn’t want to do that. The Russian position is that the French and the Brits also have to join so that the negotiations would maybe continue in a P5 format, which is quite unrealistic at this moment. But, I mean, the situation is changing quite rapidly. We see definitely the Chinese building up their arsenal, maybe at some point Russia will also, at least officially, already be ready to show more interest in talks with the Chinese too.

Gabuev Tong, what’s the official position of China on talking arms control and strategic stability with the U.S. and, like, what’s the realistic position? Is it as many experts read it? We get there where you are, Russia and America, and then we gonna talk? Or is China ready to start some preliminary discussions with the U.S.? I think that we got the idea that during Biden-Xi teleconference that topic has been discussed, but I don’t think that Jake Sullivan, our former colleague, in his debrief gave too much meat on what the substance of the discussion has been. So, I think that everybody’s puzzled out there.

Zhao Well, during the Trump administration the Chinese official position was very clear and explicit, which is [that] China was not going to join U.S.-Russia-China trilateral arms control, which reflects a general Chinese disinterest in the idea of arms control. As I said before, part of the Chinese nuclear buildup is driven by paranoia, but the other part is driven by ambition. China, especially under current paramount leader, Mr. Xi, really believes that in order for China to become a great country, it needs a great military power, including nuclear power, and that is written into the most recent historical resolution passed at the sixth party plenum of the 19th Party Congress. So, I think with the current leadership came into power, come into power, he brought this idea to the Chinese bureaucratic system, and really promoted this idea within the system that China needs a stronger nuclear force and needs a stronger military capability. And China wants to, I think, narrow the gap between the nuclear forces of itself and the other big powers. So, the other part is driven by this ambition. And, of course, if China wants to achieve other goals of national rejuvenation, including to secure its control over disputed territory, and to achieve unification with Taiwan, a greater nuclear capability could provide a protection, could provide a cover, because it would deter the U.S. from threatening a conventional conflict with nuclear coercion, the U.S. wouldn’t be able to escalate a conventional conflict to the nuclear level; whereas at the conventional level, the time is on China’s side, at least at this moment, China has been gaining greater and greater conventional level military advantage vis-à-vis the United States in Asia-Pacific region. So, the nuclear power plays a role of helping achieve China’s national rejuvenation. So, for all those reasons, I don’t think Chinese government has a deep interest in pursuing arms control. The overall mainstream consensus appears to be that it is time for China to quickly build up its strategic power, not the time to consider limiting or restraining Chinese power development. The official position expressed by Chinese officials was that once the U.S. is waiting to reduce or decrease its nuclear arsenal to the level of China, then China would be more than happy to join arms control talks. To many that sounds not very sincere, because we all know that U.S. would not consider doing that in the foreseeable future, but that was a position expressed by the Director General of the Arms Control Department of the MFA. It may not represent the highest-level official thinking or position, so far we haven’t seen higher-level Chinese officials explicitly talking about these issues at all, which, again, testifies to the fact that arms control is not a hot topic, it’s not a priority in the Chinese security and strategic community. But it’s good that President Biden and President Xi discussed nuclear issues as strategic stability issues in their recent virtual summit. It looked like President Biden really pushed President Xi on those issues. And we don’t know what specific commitments President Xi made. My speculation is, again, he was not really interested in promoting these discussions, but he probably expressed in a very polite way his agreement about the importance of these issues. So, there’s a lot to be decided at the operational level in terms of how to implement the two leaders’ joint consensus on the importance of having a bilateral discussion on strategic stability. I’m sure the U.S. government is thinking about what specific demands they will ask for their Chinese colleagues. There may be similar [thoughts] in the Chinese policy community, but a lot is uncertain. I think China itself may not have a very good idea of what specific goals it wants to pursue in a future bilateral talk or even negotiation. Those issues have now been thoroughly studied in the Chinese expert community. I think that China faces a lot of challenge to figure out what to discuss with United States in the future.

Gabuev But here is the challenge, and I think that it’s very relevant to both Russia and China. I hear that some people in the Pentagon and in the U.S. strategic community say, well, Russia and China are moving closer. They are not formal treaty allies, but there is a lot of convergence between the two authoritarian states. So, they do these joint patrols of strategic nuclear carriers, they have these joint drills. So, Russia is helping China with the early missile attack warning system. So, there is a lot of stuff going on between the two. And in future, the U.S. will need to have capabilities to counter them both at the same time. So, let’s assume that they are allies already. And let’s plan our nuclear posture, trying to take aim at both. And I think that if you are in a conspiracy theory camp, you can say that this is [the] military industrial complex pushing for more U.S. taxpayers dollars going that way to radically upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal. But I think that, strategically, the challenge is particularly real. And if you think that it might be some Trump-like Republican president in the White House, at some point, I think the danger becomes really acute. And the surest way to prevent that is to start at least seriously engaging in some arms control discussions with the Americans, right now, not probably about arms limitation, but talking through what it could be, like, by 2030. Doesn’t it make sense to the Chinese strategic community, Tong?

Zhao Personally, I think it makes every sense, for China. We really don’t want to waste our money and resources on nuclear weapons, nuclear silos, submarines, launch vehicles at a time when Chinese economy is facing increasing challenge. We are a fastly aging society. People need healthcare and social security, etcetera. The young people…they don’t have enough resources; they don’t want to have kids; you know, we face so much socioeconomic challenge it’s not time to waste money on nuclear weapons. And clearly the Biden administration is willing to promote arms control, it would be a golden opportunity to have some genuine discussion on these issues, and to build some guardrails around the bilateral relationship. And if we can have some arms control agreements, that could give both sides a little more confidence about each other’s strategic intent. That could help stabilize the overall bilateral relationship and may help facilitate operational level cooperation in other issue areas. It makes every sense for both countries, but I think a key obstacle here is there is this real confidence, self-confidence in the Chinese community that China, the Chinese economy, is still performing better, maybe not this year or this quarter, but in general, there is confidence that China’s economy is going to outperform the U.S., which means Chinese military will be able to modernize faster than the United States. China, you know, given time, China is going to further narrow the gap with the U.S. military. So, China shouldn’t tie its own hands right now. China shouldn’t fall into the trap set up by the United States by promoting arms control with China. The suspicion about U.S. intentions behind arms control talks is a real obstacle.

Gabuev So, strategic stability is not only about the size of the nuclear arsenal, but about all other systems, including satellite weapons. And Russia has recently tested one, and it’s the first recorded test. Elena, and I think that you were the first reporter to actually call the military part of the exercise. And I think that everybody who’s reading your Twitter has enjoyed that part a lot. What’s the message there? Is it just Russia showing that we have these capabilities? And we are now in the same league as the countries that have tested those weapons like the U.S. has, China has, India has? Or is it a message to force everybody else who has these capabilities to join negotiations on this particular aspect of strategic stability in arms control?

Chernenko Oh, Sasha, I so much wish I knew the answer to your question, because I think so many people were puzzled by this test. And it could be both. I mean, it could be, as well you said, a demonstration of capabilities, but also an invitation to negotiations, because Russia and China have been promoting this idea of a new treaty for space. And, maybe this is, kind of, well, we will test to show that we can, and maybe you will now get serious, but, I mean, I haven’t seen a real explanation of why this has been done now and why this has been done this way. Because before that we have seen several times Russian officials criticizing those countries that you have mentioned for creating debris in space after they have destroyed their own satellites. So, I don’t have a good explanation of this unfortunately. And the call to the NOTAM guys that you mentioned, asking them what happened to the missiles and why they destroyed their satellite that is now seemingly threatening the International Space Station didn’t help much out. They didn’t expect a call from a journalist asking them why they sent a missile to destroy an old Soviet satellite that has now created so much debris it is seemingly threatening the International Space Station; they were totally puzzled and asked me, very politely I must say, to never ever dial this number again.

Gabuev That is fun. Well, I think that we need to conclude by wishing good luck to all of the capable negotiators working on the Geneva track between Russia and the U.S. Because it’s indeed not only about building yet another version of START treaty, but about a new generation of arms control agreement that will probably include other elements like cyber, hypersonic, high precision weapons and satellites, and probably will serve as a model for future talks between China and the U.S., the two superpowers with the most acute geopolitical contradictions, and the two superpowers where if you’re looking for a risk of nuclear, use of nuclear weapons in a conflict, that’s probably something where we’re all mostly looking at. Dear Lena, thank you for your excellent reporting. Dear Tong, thank you for excellent thinking and researching. I think that we should reconvene at some point just to check what has happened in this very important domain. I thank you both.

Chernenko Thank you so much, Sasha, for the invitation.

Zhao Thank you so much.

  • Elena Chernenko
  • Alexander Gabuev
  • Tong Zhao