This Adelphi book documents and explains the evolution of China’s nuclear forces in terms of historical, bureaucratic and ideological factors. There is a strategic logic at work, but that logic is mediated through politics, bureaucracy and ideology.

China’s nuclear arsenal has long been an enigma. It is a small force, based almost exclusively on land-based ballistic missiles, maintained at a low level of alert and married to a no-first-use doctrine – all choices that would seem to invite attack in a crisis. Chinese leaders, when they have spoken about nuclear weapons, have articulated ideas that sound odd to the Western ear. Mao Zedong’s oft-quoted remark that ‘nuclear weapons are a paper tiger’ seems to be bluster or madness.

China’s nuclear forces are now too important to remain a mystery.  Yet Westerners continue to disagree about basic factual information concerning one of the world’s most important nuclear-weapons states. This Adelphi book documents and explains the evolution of China’s nuclear forces in terms of historical, bureaucratic and ideological factors. There is a strategic logic at work, but that logic is mediated through politics, bureaucracy and ideology. The simplest explanation is that Chinese leaders, taken as a whole, have tended to place relatively little emphasis on the sort of technical details that dominated US discussions regarding deterrence. Such profound differences in thinking about nuclear weapons could lead to catastrophic misunderstanding in the event of a military crisis between Beijing and Washington.

'An important book which must be read by anyone concerned about the survival of the
planet. The author shows that China and the US could drift into a nuclear confrontation
unless both sides engage in a serious nuclear dialogue.' 
Morton H. Halperin

'This book systematically explores all the important aspects of China’s nuclear weapons
policy and practice. It is a pioneering effort that consciously avoids the bias caused by
the US practice of mirroring, which interprets Chinese nuclear policy according to the
security outlook and perceptions of the US.' 
Li Bin, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Professor, Tsinghua University

'I had no idea so much had been learned about China's nuclear weapons programmes, policies, organisations, and diplomacy, in the decade that Jeff Lewis has been studying this crucially important and fascinating subject.  Here is everything you could want to know--I'd say more, except that once you're engaged it becomes worth knowing.  Meticulously documented, this is--for now!--the authentic analysis of China's nuclear status.' Thomas Schelling

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  • Introduction

    China’s nuclear arsenal has long been an enigma for Western policymakers and issue experts. The arsenal has historically been small, based almost exclusively on land-based ballistic missiles, maintained at a low level of alert, and married to a no-first-use doctrine – all choices that would seem to invite attack in a crisis. Chinese leaders, when they have spoken about nuclear weapons, have articulated ideas that sound odd to the Western...
  • Chapter One: Chinese views of nuclear weapons

    Studies of Chinese attitudes towards nuclear weapons can be built on quotations from various leaders, starting with Mao himself, but collections of Maoist aphorisms can also be orphaned from time and context. World leaders have a distressing tendency to say one thing about nuclear weapons while doing another. US president Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, once expressed dismay at the notion of 1,000 or more nuclear-armed 0 (ICBM), yet he...
  • Chapter Two: Nuclear-weapons design and testing

    China’s current nuclear forces consist of thermonuclear warheads with large yields. This includes multi-megaton yield thermonuclear warheads developed for the DF-3, -4 and -5 ballistic missiles, and at least one several hundred kilotonne (kt) yield warhead developed in the 1990s for China’s current generation of solid-fuelled ballistic missiles. These warheads probably make relatively inefficient use of plutonium in the primary to reduce the amount of explosives in, and therefore mass...
  • Chapter Three: China’s fissile-material production

    The availability of fissile material was from the outset a major factor shaping the pace and scope of Chinese nuclear-weapons deployments. Chinese weaponeers decided to pursue uranium implosion for their first nuclear test, an unusual choice for the time that reflected the relative state of the country’s fissile material facilities.  Fissile-material production also created the major bureaucratic divide within China’s strategic weapons programme, between the research and development bureaucracy that designed...
  • Chapter Four: China’s Missile Forces

    Since 1964, China has relied on a nuclear deterrent of land-based ballistic missiles deployed with the Second Artillery Corps, a rough equivalent to Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces. No air-force units are believed to have a primary nuclear mission and China’s new generation of ballistic-missile submarines (SSBN) is not yet operational. China is also deploying a variety of new short-range ballistic missiles, as well as ground- and air-launched cruise missiles, but...
  • Chapter Five: Strategic stability and regional security

    The US has sought a dialogue on strategic stability with China since resuming military-to-military contacts in the mid-1990s. At that time, the Clinton administration saw military-to-military contacts as part of a broader strategy of engaging China in a more cooperative relationship, a rationale that then-secretary of defense William Perry outlined in a now declassified memorandum to the service secretaries. Subsequently, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations each sought to initiate a...
  • Conclusion

    China’s initial acquisition of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles was driven by a desire to possess the same ‘sophisticated weapons’ as other major powers. From the very beginning, in the late 1950s, the Chinese leadership was committed to developing large, multimegatonne thermonuclear warheads that could be delivered at intercontinental ranges by ballistic missiles. This was an audacious goal for the poor, technologically inept China of the Great Leap Forward era.  Nevertheless...

Jeffrey Lewis Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an affiliate with the Center for Security and International Cooperation at Stanford University.

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