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Keeping a close eye on China’s nuclear capabilities


The only real substantive outcome of the recent virtual summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping has been some unconfirmed reports of the two sides, the United States and China, agreeing to hold strategic nuclear talks sometime in the near future.


GS-II: International Relations (India’s Neighbours,

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Evidence of China’s expanding Nuclear Arsenal
  2. Other Highlights from the SIPRI Year Book 2021
  3. Reasons behind current expansion by China
  4. India’s Cause for concern
  5. Impact on India

Evidence of China’s expanding Nuclear Arsenal

  • Recently, greater evidence has emerged that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is expanding the size of its nuclear arsenal by building more missile silos (storeroom).
  • It indicates that the PRC is fielding a larger nuclear force based on fixed land-based capabilities.
  • The nuclear missile silo field in the Xinjiang region in western China is believed to host 110 silos.
  • Also, there is evidence that China had built a site with 120 silos in the arid region of Yumen, in the Gansu province.

Evidence from the SIPRI Year Book 2021

  • According to the SIPRI Year Book 2021, China’s nuclear arsenal consisted of 350 warheads at that start of 2021, up from 320 at the start of 2020.
  • China is pursuing a planned modernisation of its nuclear arsenal because it fears the multi-layered missile defence capabilities of the United States.
  • China is arming its missiles with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) capabilities to neutralise America’s missile shield.
  • The Peoples Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) fields a range of Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) and Short-Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs), and China also on a sizeable inventory of fissile material.
  • China’s expansion is cause for concern because even as the U.S. and Russia are attempting to reduce the size of their respective arsenals, the PRC is on an expansionist mode.

Other Highlights from the SIPRI Year Book 2021

  • The overall number of warheads in global military stockpiles now appears to be increasing, a worrisome sign that the declining trend that has characterized global nuclear arsenals since the end of the cold war has stalled.
  • According to the year book, India possessed an estimated 156 nuclear warheads at the start of 2021 compared to 150 at the start of 2020, while Pakistan had 165 warheads, up from 160 in 2020.
  • The nine nuclear armed states – the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – together possessed an estimated 13,080 nuclear weapons at the start of 2021.
  • Russia and the U.S. together possessed over 90% of global nuclear weapons and have extensive and expensive modernisation programmes under way, SIPRI said.

Reasons behind current expansion by China

  • Increase the survivability of its arsenal against a first strike from their nuclear adversaries, most prominently the United States. Washington, which possesses a larger arsenal, stands at 3,800 warheads, and paired with its growing missile defence capabilities poses a threat to Chinese retaliatory nuclear forces. However, other countries too figure in China’s nuclear expansion such as Russia and India, even if Russia is not an overriding concern presently.
  • To mislead enemies: The current silo-based missile expansion being undertaken by China can also be to mislead and deceive enemies by hiding actual number of nuclear tipped warheads.
  • A credible nuclear deterrent: Land-based nuclear capabilities, like silos also mean that for its enemies China will be a country with a huge number of targets to strike. The larger the target list for any potential opponent, the greater the chances of China’s arsenal surviving a first strike, thereby boosting the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent. In all probability, China is expanding its nuclear forces to withstand a first strike and then execute a retaliatory attack that would defeat its enemy’s missile defences.

India’s Cause for concern

  • The increase in unclear arsenal of China might not seem large relative to the size of the nuclear arsenal of the U.S. and Russia but it indicates a gradual shift toward a larger arsenal. This presents India with challenges because New Delhi has to contend with a nuclear-armed Pakistan as well.
  • The Indian nuclear arsenal, according to the SIPRI, stands at roughly 150 nuclear warheads with the Pakistani slightly ahead with 160 warheads.
  • China’s nuclear modernisation and diversified nuclear capabilities during conventional military escalation along the China-India boundary is one of the major concerns for India.
  • The PRC is believed to base a part of its nuclear arsenal in inland territories such as in the Far-Western Xinjiang Region, which is close to Aksai Chin.
  • Also, the concern is the rate and extent of the production by PRC as making a precise estimate of the PRC’s nuclear strength is not easy.
  • China’s nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles forces (land-based and sea-based) have improved in quantity and quality.
  • China’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capabilities and Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) capabilities in the form of the Dongfeng-41 (DF-41) and the DF-26, respectively, are its most potent land-based missile systems.
  • At least 16 launchers of the DF-26 are known to be deployed in the Xinjiang region close to the Sino-Indian border.

Impact on India

  • China has refused to enter any tripartite arms control negotiations with Americans and Russians.
  • It possibly sees its current build-up as a necessity to bridge the nuclear asymmetries it faces against Washington and Moscow.
  • While the growth in China’s nuclear arsenal might not have an immediate impact on India, its development of land-based nuclear silos in the Xinjiang province is a cause of concern – given the region’s proximity.
  • It is likely to have an impact on the ongoing boundary stand-off between the two countries in Eastern Ladakh.
  • The major concern is the coercive leverage fixed land-based nuclear capabilities give the Chinese in consolidating their territorial gains in Depsang, Demchok and Gogra-Hotsprings.
  • It is unlikely that the strategic balance between China and India will change because of the Chinese nuclear expansion, but it is essential for India to keep a close eye on its neighbour and work on enhancing its own strategic capabilities.

-Source: The Hindu

March 2024