Last Updated: October, 2016
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. 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, the United States continues to sanction Chinese companies for sensitive exports. 
China's nuclear weapons program began in 1955 and culminated in a successful nuclear test in 1964.  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 estimation unusually difficult. However, China has approximately 260 nuclear warheads.  The U.S. Department of Defense asserts that China has approximately 50-60 nuclear-capable ICBMs, and four operational JIN-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) with one more under construction, which will carry the JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). 
Although not announced officially, China is reported to have placed a moratorium on fissile material production.  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. 
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’s program. 
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.  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 2004, China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).  China ratified the IAEA Additional Protocol, making it the first nuclear weapon state to do so.  Although there was 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, China did reaffirm its “no first-use” commitment in the most recent publication.  China’s current nuclear posture focuses on survivability and maintaining a second-strike capability. 
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. 
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 against Chinese entities. 
The Chinese government fulfills its responsibilities under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and “supports the multilateral efforts to strengthen the effectiveness of the Convention,” and has “already established a comprehensive legislation system for the implementation of the Convention.”  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.” 
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.  Additionally, as of 2012, it declared slightly over 200 CW production facilities open for inspection.  As of April 2013, China hosted more than 300 inspections by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).  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 2011 Condition 10(C) Report the U.S. State Department states, “The United States has since resolved its concerns about historical CW production and disposition”; however, the U.S. government maintains its concerns about the possible transfer of a Schedule 1 chemical to a third country, and undeclared facilities.  The U.S. State Department has not addressed concerns about China in subsequent Condition 10(C) Reports. 
At the end of World War II, the Japanese army abandoned an estimated 700,000 CW munitions on Chinese territory.  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 both parties agreed to an extension until 2016 for already excavated ACW (not in Haerbaling) and 2022 for ACW in Haerbaling. In November 2015 China’s representative to the OPCW criticized the slow pace of ACW destruction and urged Japan to expedite the process to avoid falling further behind schedule. 
Though not a member of the Australia Group (AG), China has maintained an AG-consistent chemical control list since 2002.  Beginning in 2006, in consultation with the AG, China has consistently updated its chemical control list to reflect changes made to the AG chemical control list, and continues to reaffirm its compliance with the CWC as well as its support for the activities conducted by OPCW. 
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, road-mobile missiles, such as the DF-11, DF-15, and DF-21, and the DF-31 ICBM, as well as the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) as a way to increase the survivability of its force. In September 2014, China conducted a flight test of its DF-31B missile, an upgraded version of the DF-31A with an estimated range of 10,000km.  China is now capable of placing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) warheads on the DF-5 Mod 3 missile; although still under development, the road-mobile DF-41 may too be equipped with MIRV warheads in the future.  The U.S. Department of Defense claims that China is developing “decoys, chaff, jamming, and thermal shielding” in order to penetrate ballistic missile defense systems. China continues to make advancements in boost-glide systems, railgun technology, and other next-generation missile weaponry. In November 2015 China conducted the sixth test of its hypersonic strike vehicle, the DF-ZF, and announced a breakthrough in electromagnetic missile launching technology. 
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.  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, and the U.S. continues to issue sanctions against Chinese companies.  In August 2002, China issued regulations and a control list restricting the export of missiles and missile technology.  Since 2004, China has been engaged in consultation with the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR); however, its application for membership is still under review as suspicions persist, especially in the United States, about Chinese missile technology transfers. 
 Jeffrey Bean, “New START is Not About China,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 15 December 2010, www.csis.org.
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 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.
 “Global Fissile Material Report 2013: Increasing Transparency of Nuclear Warhead and Fissile Material Stocks as a Step Towards Disarmament, 2013, p. 13, p. 20, www.fissilematerials.org.
 Joby Warrick and Peter Slevin, “Libyan Arms Designs Traced Back to China,” Washington Post, 15 February 2004, www.washingtonpost.com.
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 "China tests 10,000-km range nuclear missile," The Hindu, 4 September 2014, www.thehindu.com.
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 U.S. Department of Defense, "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2015," April 2015, p. 32, www.defense.gov; Richard D. Fisher, “US Officials Confirm Sixth Chinese Hypersonic Maneuvering Strike Vehicle Test” Janes 360, 26 November 2015, www.janes.com; “China Makes Breakthrough in Electromagnetic Missile Launching Technology” People’s Daily Online, November 20 2015, http://en.people.cn.
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 Philip P. Pan, "China Issues Rules On Missile Exports," Washington Post, 26 August 2002, p. 11.
 Niels Aadal Rasmussen, “Chinese Missile Technology Control: Regime or No Regime?” Danish Institute for International Studies, February 2007, www.diis.dk; Mary Beth Nikitin, Paul K. Kerr, and Steven A. Hildreth, "Proliferation Control Regimes: Background and Status," Congressional Research Service, 25 October 2012, p. 35, http://fas.org.
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