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Overview Last updated: March, 2014

China possesses nuclear weapons, a range of ballistic missile capabilities, and the ability to develop chemical and biological weapons. A key uncertainty is how current military modernization efforts will ultimately reshape China's strategic nuclear capabilities. China is diversifying and modernizing its nuclear arsenal, and U.S. officials and experts remain concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding China’s nuclear arsenal and doctrine.[1] U.S. deployments of missile defenses, the weaponization of space, and cyber warfare capabilities will likely influence China’s future military development.

China currently participates to some degree in all of the multilateral regimes dedicated to the nonproliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons. It has also joined or enacted control lists consistent with export control regimes concerning proliferation-sensitive goods and technology. Although Chinese controls on the trade of sensitive WMD-related materials have improved over the last decade, concerns remain about China's proliferation of WMD-related technologies. Chinese companies have in the past been sanctioned by the United States for sensitive exports, although U.S. sanctions against China have been on the decline since 2007.[2] However, China's ability to fully control sensitive dual-use materials is unclear.[3]

Nuclear

China's nuclear weapons program began in 1955 and culminated in a successful nuclear test in 1964.[4] China conducted 45 nuclear tests, including tests of thermonuclear weapons and a neutron bomb. The series of nuclear tests in 1995-96 prior to China's signature of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) resulted in a smaller and lighter warhead design for a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

China closely guards information about its nuclear arsenal, making estimates unusually difficult. However, the U.S. Department of Defense asserts that China has approximately 50-75 nuclear-capable ICBMs, and three operational JIN-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), which will carry the JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM).[5]

Although not announced officially, China is reported to have placed a moratorium on fissile material production.[6] The International Panel on Fissile Materials estimates that China produced 20 ± 4 metric tons of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU), and still holds 16 ± 4 metric tons. In terms of plutonium, it estimates China produced approximately 2 ± 0.5 tons of plutonium, with 1.8 ± 0.5 tons remaining.[7]

China joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1984, but supplied nuclear technology and reactors to several countries of proliferation concern in the 1980s and early 1990s. Most notably, the Chinese are widely understood to have supplied design information (including warhead design), and fissile material to the development of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program that were later transferred to Libya for its program.[8]

China acceded to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1992 as a nuclear weapon state and has since improved its export controls, including the promulgation of regulations on nuclear materials and nuclear dual-use exports, and has pledged to halt exports of nuclear technology to un-safeguarded facilities. In 2002 China ratified the IAEA Additional Protocol, the first nuclear weapon state to do so. In 2004, China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). China is the first nuclear weapon state to adopt a nuclear "no first use (NFU)" policy and an official pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states. There has been some controversy following the release of China's 2013 Defense White Paper, which did not explicitly use the phrase “no first-use,” as it did in the 2010 Defense White Paper, and previous white papers.[9] China’s current nuclear posture focuses on survivability and maintaining a second-strike capability.[10]

Biological

China is a party to most of the major international agreements regulating biological weapons, including the Geneva Protocol and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). China is not a member of the Australia Group (AG), a voluntary supply-side export control regime focused on chemical and biological weapons; nevertheless China's export control regulations currently bring its laws in line with the AG guidelines and control lists.[11]

China has publicly declared itself to be in compliance with the BTWC; however, past U.S. government reports have alleged that China has a small-scale offensive biological weapons program, and that Chinese entities have transferred controlled biological weapons-related items to nations of proliferation concern such as Iran. Such transfers have resulted in U.S. nonproliferation sanctions being imposed on Chinese entities.[12]

The Chinese government has affirmed its support of "multilateral efforts to strengthen the effectiveness of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)" and its commitment to "the comprehensive and strict implementation of the Convention."[13] While historically, there were concerns in the U.S. about the Chinese political will to fully enforce export control on BW-related dual use items, in its most recent compliance report, the State Department concludes, “No BWC compliance issues were raised between the United States and China.”[14]

Chemical

China ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in April 1997, declaring three former chemical weapon (CW) production facilities that may have produced mustard gas, phosgene, and Lewisite.[15] As of June 2011, China hosted 260 on-site inspections by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).[16] Historically, the U.S. expressed doubts about whether China had fully accounted for its previous CW activities or made a full declaration of its current activities in accordance with the OPCW. However, in its most recent Condition 10(C) Report the U.S. State Department states, “The United States has since resolved its concerns about historical CW production and disposition.”[17] However, the U.S. government maintains its concerns about the possible transfer of a Schedule 1 chemical to a third country, and undeclared facilities.[18]

At the end of World War II, the Japanese army abandoned an estimated 700,000 CW munitions on Chinese territory.[19] Under the CWC, Japan is responsible for the destruction of these munitions, and Beijing and Tokyo signed a bilateral agreement governing the destruction process for these abandoned munitions. After long delays, China and Japan began to work on the destruction of the abandoned chemical weapons (ACW) in 2010. However, the April 2012 deadline was not met, and the parties agreed to an extension.[20]

Though not a member of the Australia Group (AG), China has maintained an AG-consistent chemical control list since 2002. China updated its chemical control list in 2006 to reflect changes made to the AG chemical control list, and reaffirmed its compliance with the CWC as well as its support for the activities conducted by OPCW.[21]

Missile

China has deployed a wide variety of ballistic missiles, from short-range systems to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). A transition is currently underway from relatively inaccurate, liquid-fueled, silo/cave-based missiles, like the DF-3, DF-4, and DF-5, to more accurate, solid-fueled, mobile missiles, such as the DF-11, DF-15, and DF-21, and the new DF-31 ICBM and JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). China is replacing its older DF-5 missiles with new DF-5A variants, which may eventually be equipped multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) warheads.[22]

Chinese missile-related exports have been a concern since the 1980s. China transferred 36 DF-3 medium-range missiles to Saudi Arabia in 1988, and supplied Pakistan with 34 DF-11 short-range missiles in 1992.[23] China has provided technology and expertise to the missile programs of several additional countries with suspected WMD programs, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria.[24] In August 2002, China issued regulations and a control list restricting the export of missiles and missile technology.[25] Since 2004, China has been engaged in consultation with the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR); however, its application for membership has so far not been successful and suspicions persist, especially in the United States, about Chinese missile technology transfers.[26]

Sources:
[1] Jeffrey Bean, “New START is Not About China,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 15 December 2010, www.csis.org.
[2] Seth Brugger, “China Sanctioned for Chem, Bio Transfers to Iran,” Arms Control Today, March 2002, www.armscontrol.org.
[3] Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, “U.S. Concerned Chinese Companies may be Aiding Iran Nuclear Weapon Effort,” Bloomberg, 10 March 2011, www.bloomberg.com.
[4] "中华人民共和国政府声明 [Declaration of the Government of the People's Republic of China],"Renmin Ribao, 16 October 1964, www.xinhuanet.com.
[5] "Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China,"U.S. Department of Defense,  2013, p. 31 www.defense.gov.
[6] Ann MacLachlan and Mark Hibbs, "China Stops Production of Military Fuel: All SWU Capacity Now for Civil Use," Nuclear Fuel, 13 November 1989. The 1987 data is from a personal communication to one of the authors of the Albright report from Hibbs, who was told in turn by the head of the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation, www.world-nuclear.org.
[7]“Global Fissile Material Report 2011: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, 2012, p.10, p.18, www.fissilematerials.org.
[8] Joby Warrick and Peter Slevin, “Libyan Arms Designs Traced Back to China,” Washington Post, 15 February 2004, www.washingtonpost.com.
[9] Information Office, State Council of the People's Republic of China, "中国武装力量的多样化运用 [The Diversified Employment of China's Armed Forces]," 16 April 2013, www.xinhuanet.com. For some of the debate surrounding the meaning of the 2013 white paper, see: Fravel M. Taylor, “China Has Not (Yet) Changed Its Position on Nuclear Weapons” The Diplomat, 22 April 2013, http://thediplomat.com; James Acton, “Debating China’s No-First-Use Commitment: James Acton Responds,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 22 April 2012, http://carnegieendowment.org; Gregory Kulacki, “China Still Committed to No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” All Things Nuclear, Union of Concerned Scientists, http://allthingsnuclear.org; Gregory Kulacki, “Reconceiving China’s No First Use Policy,” All Things Nuclear, Union of Concerned Scientists, http://allthingsnuclear.org.
[10] "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China," U.S. Department of Defense, August 2011, p. 34, www.defense.gov.
[11] Anupam Srivastava, "China's Export Controls: Can Beijing's Actions Match Its Words?," Arms Control Today, November 2005, www.armscontrol.org.
[12] Bill Gertz, "Albright Concedes 'Concern' Over China-Iran Transfers," Washington Times, 24 January 1997, p. 6, www.washingtontimes.com.
[13] Information Office, State Council of the People's Republic of China, "2010年中国的国防 [China's National Defense in 2010]," 31 March 2011, www.news.xinhuanet.com.
[14] U.S. Department of State, "Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments," August 2011, www.state.gov.
[15] Eric Croddy, “Chinese Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) Capabilities,” National Intelligence Council Conference: China and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Implications for the United States, 5 November 1999, http://www.dni.gov.
[16] “The Chemical Weapons Convention,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, www.fmprc.gov.cn
[17] U.S. Department of State, "Development, Production, Stockpiling And Use Of Chemical Weapons And On Their Destruction Condition (10) (C) Report: Compliance With The Convention On The Prohibition Of The Development, Production, Stockpiling And Use Of Chemical Weapons And On Their Destruction," August 2011, www.state.gov.
[18] U.S. Department of State, "Development, Production, Stockpiling And Use Of Chemical Weapons And On Their Destruction Condition (10) (C) Report: Compliance With The Convention On The Prohibition Of The Development, Production, Stockpiling And Use Of Chemical Weapons And On Their Destruction," August 2011, www.state.gov.
[19] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Budget for the Destruction of Abandoned Chemical Weapons in China,” 24 December 1999, www.mofa.go.jp.
[20] “Statement by H.E. Ambassador Zhang Jun, Permanent Representative of China to the OPCW At the 67th Session of the Executive Council,” Embassy of the People’s Republic of China to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 15 February 2012, www.chinaembassy.nl; "OPCW Council Backs Deadline Extension for Destroying Japanese Chemical Weapons in China," Global Security Newswire, 16 February 2012, www.nti.org.
[21] Information Office, State Council of the People's Republic of China, "China's National Defense in 2010," Editor Wang Guanqun, March 2011, www.xinhuanet.com.
[22] U.S. Department of Defense, "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China," August 2011, p. 78, www.defense.gov.
[23] Shirley A. Kan, "China and Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Missiles: Policy Issues," Congressional Research Service, 26 May 2011; “Worldwide Ballistic Missile Inventories,” Arms Control Association, www.armscontrol.org.
[24] “Worldwide Ballistic Missile Inventories,” Arms Control Association, www.armscontrol.org; Shirley A. Kan, "China and Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Missiles: Policy Issues," Congressional Research Service, 26 May 2011.
[25] Philip P. Pan, "China Issues Rules On Missile Exports," Washington Post, 26 August 2002, p. 11.
[26] Niels Aadal Rasmussen, “Chinese Missile Technology Control: Regime or No Regime?” Danish Institute for International Studies, February 2007, www.diis.dk.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on China

  • Actively modernizing the delivery systems of its nuclear triad
  • Not a member of the Wassenaar Arrangement, the MTCR or the Australia Group
  • Approximately 700,000 Japanese chemical weapons munitions abandoned on Chinese territory after WWII