With a new leadership in China it’s worthwhile to ask how China’s changing technological, political and security situation will shape its strategic forces.

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, China moved quickly in its nuclear testing programme to develop thermonuclear warheads, burning thermonuclear fuel in its third nuclear test (prior to demonstrating a missile-deliverable fission device) and successfully conducting a staged thermonuclear explosion with its sixth test. At the same time, China pursued an ambitious missile-development programme called Eight Years, Four Missiles (Banian Sidan) based on technological steps toward an ICBM.

Despite relatively rapid advances in research and development, China was slow to deploy operational forces, completing its deployment of first-generation nuclear-armed ICBMs in 1988. China’s emphasis on technological goals, rather than near term acquisition of usable weapons systems, reflected the unique circumstances that led to China’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Chinese leaders initially expected substantial Soviet assistance in developing nuclear weapons. After the Soviets suspended assistance in 1960 and amid the lingering chaos of the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese leadership split over the issue of strategic programmes. Afterward, support for the development of sophisticated weapons would depend on the broader theme of China’s economic development and emphasised the possession of advanced capabilities, rather than their battlefield uses.

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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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