China may seek to close nuclear gap after US and Russia agree to extend New START treaty

Minnie Chan
·5-min read

The extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the United States and Russia to 2026 may not only prevent an out-of-control arms race but also gives China an additional five-year buffer period.

Chinese military experts and sources said the extension, announced by the White House on Tuesday, means the gap between China and the two nuclear giants, which own 90 per cent of the world’s warheads, will not widen and Beijing can spend the next five years catching up.

In the 1980s, the US and former Soviet Union each possessed more than 10,000 warheads, but these stockpiles have been cut to between 5,000 to 6,500 under the New START, which aims to reduce the total to just 1,550 as the ultimate goal.

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China has not disclosed how many warheads it has, but an assessment by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute put the number at 320.

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However, a source close to the Chinese military said that its stockpile of nuclear warheads had risen to 1,000 in recent years, but less than 100 of them are active.

“Both the US and Russia have competed with each other to upgrade their nuclear arms over the past few years, especially their intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs], submarine-launched and airborne missiles, as well as other new weapons to upgrade their nuclear triad capability,” the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, said.

A nuclear triad is a three-pronged structure that consists of ground-based ICBMs, plus submarine and air-launched missiles.

“Since [late leader] Deng Xiaoping’s era, the Beijing leadership has believed that the country doesn’t need so many expensive weapons, because the exorbitant maintenance costs would drag down China’s economic development,” the source said.

The treaty restricts US and Russian warheads, but China is not a party to it. Photo: AFP
The treaty restricts US and Russian warheads, but China is not a party to it. Photo: AFP

The source said China has a strict nuclear arms control mechanism which means only the chairman of the Central Military Commission – now President Xi Jinping – has the right to decide the deployment of nuclear warheads.

“Nuclear warheads would be distributed to the rocket force only when a war is likely to happen,” the source said.

Hong Kong-based military affairs commentator and former PLA instructor Song Zhongping said Beijing might use the five-year period to narrow the nuclear modernisation gap with the US and Russia.

“Based on the fact that China currently has only about 100 nuclear warheads in active service, it is not enough to completely destroy all major cities in the US,” Song said.

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In 2018, China disclosed that its air-launched CJ-20 cruise missiles, with a range of 2,000km (1,200 miles), were able to carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, indicating it had finally caught up with the US and Russia’s preliminary strategic technology.

“But that means the PLA just completed the initial requirement of the nuclear triad’s second-strike capability in recent years, but the US and Russia completed most of the nuclear triad in the early 1960s during the Cold War,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher from Yuan Wang, a Beijing-based military science and technology institute.

Zhou said the extension of New START gave China more time to reconsider its future security policy, including biochemical weapons as well as nuclear.

“If China is going to join the New-START in the future, Beijing needs to adjust its strategic weapons development direction, for example, no more long-range strategic bombers and ICBMs, which may be cut,” he said, referring to calls from Washington that the treaty should also include Beijing.

A Russian strategic ballistic missile launch vehicle on parade in Moscow. Photo: EPA
A Russian strategic ballistic missile launch vehicle on parade in Moscow. Photo: EPA

However, the Chinese military source and observers said even though Beijing may benefit from the extension of the treaty, it is worried that the US would exert more pressure on it to join.

In an article published by the Washington-based news website The Hill, Rose Gottemoeller, who served as the State Department’s top arms control official during the Obama administration, said Joe Biden’s administration should try to bring China to the negotiating table.

“We also need to draw China into talks, to focus on constraining the intermediate range missiles at the heart of its force structure – the ‘carrier killers’ that are dangerous to our naval operations in the Pacific,” Gottemoeller wrote.

She was referring to the PLA’s DF-21 and DF-26 dual-capability intermediate-range ballistic missiles, a type of weapon banned under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by the US and Soviet Union towards the end of the Cold War.

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Gottemoeller said urgent discussions were needed on whether the hypersonic glide vehicles and other new weapons with nuclear strike capabilities should be defined as strategic weapons and covered by the treaty.

David Santoro, vice-president and director of nuclear policy at the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based affiliate of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that if Washington and Moscow wanted to bring China to the negotiating table, the pair may also have to include nuclear states like India, Pakistan and North Korea.

“It’s possible to imagine realistic trilateral (US-Russia-China) arms control bargains. By and large, however, multilateralising arms control is more likely to be successful if it includes all or most nuclear-armed states,” Santoro said.

But he stressed that the three powers faced another challenge to reaching an agreement because both the US and Russia have large strategic nuclear arsenals, but lack intermediate-range forces, which China has fully developed.

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