China’s Evolving Nuclear Forces: Changes, Rationales and Implications

Adam MacDonald


China is embarking on a comprehensive modernization program to quantitatively and qualitatively improve their nuclear force. These efforts, however, do not reflect or indicate a distinct shift in Chinese views towards or policy governing the purpose and use of nuclear weapons, but to achieve and maintain a secured second strike capability in a changing strategic landscape. Specifically, military developments by the United States including Ballistic Missile Defence and Precision Global Strike are seen as threatening the credibility of their nuclear deterrent, motivating the construction and deployment of a more modern, diverse and capable force. These force reconfigurations, however, create the potential of causing confusing and misunderstandings with the United States, and other nuclear powers, of the rationales informing their improvement. Ensuring the nuclear force balance between Beijing and Washington remains a minor and largely benign matter separated from and not influencing other more divisive matters is critical in the maintenance of their relatively stable, but increasingly complicated and tense, great power relationship and the international system in general. In order to achieve this, both states must clearly signal an understanding of their nuclear relationship as one defined by mutual vulnerability and the necessity of providing guarantees and evidence that their respective military technological developments and force structure changes are not designed to alter this reality.

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