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Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: China
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Updated: November 2016

This profile summarizes the major arms control agreements, regimes, initiatives, and practices that China subscribes to and those that it does not. It also describes the major weapons programs, policies, and holdings of China, as well as its proliferation record. This profile is one of a series focused on the arms control record and status of key states, all of which are available on the Arms Control Association’s website at http://www.armscontrol.org. These profiles will be regularly updated.

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties



Biological Weapons Convention

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Chemical Weapons Convention



Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty


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Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)

-Recognized as one of five nuclear-weapon states.

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Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

-Party to four of five protocols.[1]



Outer Space Treaty

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Ottawa Mine Ban Convention

-Stockpiles some 110 million antipersonnel landmines.[2]

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Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)

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CPPNM 2005 Amendment

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International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism



*China stated that it will not be bound by the dispute settlement procedures in Paragraph 2, Article 17

Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Australia Group: Not a member.

Missile Technology Control Regime: Not a member, but China in 2004 applied for membership. Beijing’s bid has not won the necessary consensus approval of the group because the United States and some other countries continue to find fault with Chinese missile and technology exports.

Nuclear Suppliers Group: Member.

Wassenaar Arrangement: Not a member.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol: Yes, entered into force in 2002.

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism: Participant.

Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation: Not a participant.

Proliferation Security Initiative: Not a participant.

UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673: China has filed reports on its activities to fulfill the resolutions.

Major Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

Biological Weapons:

China contends it is in compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention despite U.S. allegations asserting the contrary. U.S. State Department compliance assessment reports have said that China possessed an offensive biological weapons capability prior to joining the BWC in 1984. The 2014 report indicates that China "engaged during the reporting period in biological activities with potential dual-use applications. However, the information did not establish that China is engaged in activities prohibited by the BWC."[3]   

Chemical Weapons:

China has declared that it has destroyed all chemical weapon agent production facilities and solely conducts defensive chemical warfare research.

Conventional Weapons Trade:

China is a key country in the global arms trade. It is a leading buyer of advanced conventional weapons, particularly from Russia, and a supplier of less advanced arms, such as small arms and light weapons, to poorer countries. Most Chinese clients are in Africa and Asia. From 2007 to 2010, China averaged $1.9 billion per year in total arms transfer agreements. Recent trends have shown an increasing focus on arms exports. China is now the third largest arms exporter in the world, overtaking Germany in 2014. China’s arms exports rose 143% between the five-year period that ended in 2009 and the five-year period that ended in 2014, according to the annual report on weapons transfers from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The country was the top arms importer in the 2005 to 2009 period, and now has fallen to third. The level of imports fell 42% during the period.[4]  

The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview:

Because of the secrecy surrounding the Chinese nuclear arsenal, it is impossible to know the exact number of nuclear warheads China possesses. As of 2016, the Federation of the Atomic Scientists assessed that China has 260 warheads. In a July 2012 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists report, however, Hui Zhang puts the total number of Chinese warheads at 170--with 110 operationally deployed. China's nuclear policy has been defined by possessing the minimum capabilities needed to deter a first strike from a potential aggressor. Accordingly, China has prioritized modernization efforts of its delivery systems.

Delivery Systems


  • Ballistic Missiles: China has developed and deployed short- to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). According to the U.S. Department of Defense, China continues to field new and more advanced systems with improved range and destructive capability. China appears to maintain a minimal force of nuclear-armed ICBMs to deter a first strike. Of its estimated 110 deployed nuclear-armed missiles, approximately 50-60 ICBMs are believed to have the capability of striking the continental United States.[6] China is in the process of replacing the older liquid-fueled DF-5A with the solid-fueled DF-31A ICBM. Of the 35 ICBM's capable of reaching the U.S., about 15 could be DF-31As, with an estimated range of over 11,200 km.

  • Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles: China currently has two ballistic missile submarines armed with 12 JL-1 SLBM's. China is pursuing a new SLBM, the JL-2, to equip a new class of submarines, the Jin-class (Type 094). The JL-2 missile, however, is still in flight-testing, and likely will not be operational until 2014. [7]

  • Cruise Missiles: China has been actively developing cruise missiles with foreign assistance, primarily from Russia. It already possesses nearly a dozen varieties of anti-ship missiles, such as the Russian-made SS-N-22, and is pursuing land-attack cruise missiles. [8] The Department of Defense stated in 2011 that China is deploying several new cruise missiles, however only one type, the DH-10, is believed to be capable of delivering nuclear payloads. [9] This new missile is expected to be deployed with China’s new fleet of aircrafts.


  • China has two Jin-class submarines in service according to the U.S. Department of Defense, and a third being built, which would give them the potential to deploy a total of 36 JL-2 SLBM's in the future. [10]

Strategic Bombers

  • As part of its nuclear deterrent triad, China has also begun to update its outdated bomber fleet in addition to the development of new submarines. The current fleet consists of about 20 Hong-6 bombers based on Soviet designs, with a range of only 3,000 km.  These planes are only capable of delivering gravity-based bombs.

Nuclear Doctrine

China is the sole nuclear-weapon state to declare publicly that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Beijing has emphasized that this vow stands “at any time or under any circumstances.”

China has conducted 45 nuclear tests. The first test occurred Oct. 16, 1964, and the last test took place July 29, 1996.

Fissile Material

Although China has not publicly declared a halt to the production of fissile material, highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, general speculation is that Beijing has stopped. The International Panel on Fissile Material's 2011 report estimates that China has accumulated 12 to 20 metric tons of HEU and 1.3 to 2.3 metric tons of plutonium for weapons.

Proliferation Record

China’s proliferation record has been less than exemplary. Most notably, China aided Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs. Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia also have been identified as Chinese proliferation recipients. As of June 2007, the George W. Bush administration had imposed more sanctions on Chinese entities than those of any other country. All told, the administration levied 78 separate sanctions on a total of 32 Chinese entities.

Exacerbating the challenges of nuclear proliferation, the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation (CNEIC)--with government authorization--has exported Miniature Neutron Source Reactors (MNSR) to Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Ghana, and Nigeria. These reactors run on highly enriched uranium fuel, which has been supplied by China to recipient states. There have been efforts made by China to work with those states to convert these reactors to use low enriched uranium fuel, including a 2010 agreement between the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory and the China Institute of Atomic Energy for a new facility in China to produce LEU replacement cores in MNSR's.

China’s proliferation activities have diminished over the past several years. Indeed, Nuclear Supplier Group members, including the United States, saw enough improvement in China’s nuclear export behavior that they extended membership to China in 2004. At the same time, many of those same governments have refused China’s bid to join the Missile Technology Control Regime, citing continuing concerns about Chinese missile and missile technology transactions. A 2011 report from the Director of National Intelligence confirmed that Chinese entities continue to sell missile technology to Pakistan and Iran, among others.[11]

Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

China has signed protocols stating its intent to respect and not threaten the use of nuclear weapons against states-parties to the Latin America, South Pacific, and African nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties. China has not signed the protocols for the Central Asian and Southeast Asian zones, but has indicated to the commission that it will sign the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) protocol. Beijing stated in April 2004 that it “undertakes unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against…nuclear-weapon-free zones.”

At the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD), China expresses support for negotiation of an “effectively verifiable” fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) while declaring its top priority to be the prevention of an arms race in outer space. Chinese insistence that the conference take some action on the outer space issue in parallel with any negotiations on a cutoff treaty and the U.S. opposition to that approach has stalemated the conference over the past several years. In 2003, China said it would accept discussions on outer space rather than formal negotiations but that formulation remained unacceptable to the United States. China, however, did not agree to a 2007 compromise formula, including talks on outer space, which the United States said it would not oppose. China refused to participate in Australian and Japanese-led side meetings at the CD in 2011, insisting that the CD was the only proper conduit for FMCT negotiations. The U.S. has stated that the lack of support by China and other key countries resulted in the failure of the side meetings to make progress.

At another Geneva forum, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), China joined with Pakistan and Russia to block an initiative to negotiate restrictions on the use of anti-vehicle mines. But Beijing went along with consensus in November 2007 to begin CCW negotiations on cluster munitions. China, however, is not participating in a separate Norwegian-led effort to negotiate a treaty to ban cluster munitions that “cause unacceptable harm to civilians.”

China has played a key role in hosting and helping mediate the so-called six-party process to achieve North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. Although those talks broke down in 2008 and have yet to resume, China maintains that they remain an effective mechanism for achieving disarmament in North Korea. China has participated in P5+1 talks with Iran.

-Updated by Joseph Rodgers and Kingston Reif


1. China has not ratified Protocol V on Explosive Remnants of War.

2. International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Landmine Monitor Report 2006, July 2006, 1,236 pp.

3. U.S. Department of State, Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, July 2014.

5. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, "Rise in international arms transfers is driven by Asian demands, says SIPRI," March 2012,

6. Hui Zhang, "How US restraint can keep China's nuclear arsenal small,"Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, July 2012.

7. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2012, May 2012, 23 pp.

8. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2007, May 2007, 42 pp.

9. SIPRI Yearbook 2013, (Oxford: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2012), p 306.

10. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2012, May 2012, 23 pp.

11. Director of National Intelligence, Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January Through 31 December 2011,February 2012, http://www.fas.org/irp/threat/wmd-acq2011.pdf.

Posted: July 29, 2008