Country Profiles: China


China flag
NPT: 1992
CTBT: 1996 (signed, but not yet ratified)
First Test: 1964
First Hydrogen Bomb: 1967

Current number of nuclear warheads:
Strategic: ~200
Tactical: unknown
Total: ~200

Last Updated: 7/17/07

The Chinese government initiated a nuclear research program in 1953 and decided to pursue a weapons program by early 1956. Several agreements with the Soviet Union fostered the program in its early years, including a 1951 agreement that exchanged Chinese uranium ore for Soviet assistance with nuclear technology, a 1953 agreement on technology transfers, and other aid. The Soviets provided a variety of equipment, including an experimental nuclear reactor, facilities for processing uranium, a circular particle accelerator, and some equipment for a gaseous diffusion plant. However, Soviet aid largely ended in 1960, as a result of cooling relations between the two countries and disagreements over whether the Soviet Union would supply China with detailed plans for a working atomic bomb. Despite the cutoff of Soviet support, the Chinese nuclear program proceeded rapidly in the late 1950s and early 1960s as scientists methodically studied and replicated what information they could get about other countries’ nuclear programs, especially that of the United States. The Chinese government dedicated a very large proportion of the budget to these efforts during this period.

These efforts resulted in China’s first successful test of an atomic bomb on October 16, 1964. It launched its first nuclear missile on October 25, 1966 and tested its first hydrogen bomb on June 14, 1967. China began production of nuclear warheads in 1968 and of thermonuclear (hydrogen) warheads in 1974. Although China has conducted less than five percent of the nuclear tests of either the Soviet Union or the United States, it is believed to have successfully developed miniaturized and hardened thermonuclear warheads, warheads with variable yield options, and neutron bomb warheads. However, China has suffered setbacks in its development of nuclear weapons from time to time. For instance, the Cultural Revolution of 1966 disrupted nuclear development, although the disruption was less severe than that experienced in other scientific endeavors. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, which encouraged innovation and improvisation, led to unauthorized experimentation at a reactor under construction, causing at least 290 accidents, twenty of which were major.

China had a number of compelling strategic and defensive reasons to develop nuclear weapons. One analyst, Dr. Michael Swaine of the RAND corporation, points out that China’s long border, which includes many neighbors, and its proximity to several nuclear powers constitutes a real defensive liability. In addition, China has experienced several invasions and subjugations in the last century and a half, and has also been on the receiving end of nuclear threats by both the United States and the Soviet Union. These pressures, Swaine argues, compelled China to regard possession of a nuclear deterrent as vital to its national security.

However, China has maintained a unique stance in regards to nuclear weapons. On the day of its first test of an atomic bomb, China declared support for the prohibition and destruction of all nuclear weapons. It swore that its nuclear force was purely defensive and promised never to be the first to use nuclear weapons. This no first use policy has been reiterated numerous times. China maintains what it considers a “minimum deterrence” and keeps its weapons on low alert, leading Federation of Atomic Scientists president Jeremy Stone to remark that “No major nuclear power has been more responsible, in its nuclear doctrine and force posture, than … China.”

The exact nature of China’s arsenal is shrouded in extremely heavy secrecy. Most Western analysts estimate that China possesses between 300 and 500 nuclear weapons, but calculations vary widely. One of the higher estimates asserts that China had 200 weapons by the end of 1970 and 875 by 1980, and that with continued production may have even reached 2,000 weapons by the mid-1990s. (See China’s Nuclear Arsenal by Yang Zheng, National University of Singapore, 3/16/1996.) More recent estimates assume that China’s Nuclear Arsenal is smaller than previously thought. The Pentagon and defense analysts like Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists and Robert S. Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council meanwhile set the number of Chinese warheads, both deployed and in stockpile, to around 200. Between 130 and 145 of them are believed to be deployed on sea- and land-based missiles and on bombers. According to Kristensen and Norris no recent evidence exists to suggest that tactical nuclear weapons are part of China’s operational forces. A fact sheet published by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in April 2004 stated: “Among the nuclear-weapon states, China…possesses the smallest nuclear arsenal.” Estimates of the official nuclear weapon states, however, claim that Britain’s arsenal is the smallest with less then 200 declared warheads. The difficulty is –in the case of both countries- the unclear reference of those numbers. Do they refer to the entire stockpile or just operationally deployed warheads? The exact number of Chinese warheads remains ambiguous.

It is believed that whatever the size of its arsenal, China has never deployed more than 250 ballistic missiles, and has only 20 ICBMs in service. China has placed little emphasis on sea-based and air-based deterrence, and has only one operational ballistic missile submarine with questionable capabilities, though China’s ongoing modernization program will upgrade both its bomber and submarine forces. But according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (62/3 2006) this modernization process is advancing very slowly.


“Global Nuclear Stockpiles, 2006,” Bulletin of the American Scientists, July/August 2006
“Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2006,” Bulletin of the American Scientists, May/June 2006
Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning, FAS/NRDC, November 2006
U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimate on Chinese nuclear forces
World Nuclear Forces,” SIPRI Yearbook 2005, June 7, 2005

Hans M. Kristensen, et al., Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning, Federation of American Scientists and Natural Resources Defense Council, October 2006
Taeho Kim. “China and Virtual Nuclear Arsenals,” in Michael J. Mazarr Nuclear Weapons in a Transformed World (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 1997, pp. 219-228