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“For half a century, ACA has been providing the world … with advocacy, analysis, and awareness on some of the most critical topics of international peace and security, including on how to achieve our common, shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

– Izumi Nakamitsu
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: China
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Last Reviewed: 
January 2024

China, one of the five nuclear weapons states under the NPT, is estimated, as of January 2024, to possess roughly 500 nuclear warheads, an arsenal that has increased significantly in recent years. It has simultaneously sought to modernize and expand its nuclear delivery systems in pursuit of a robust nuclear triad. China continues to develop road-mobile ICBMs, advance the construction of three new ICBM silo fields, and improve the capabilities of its sea and air-based deterrent. China’s self-stated nuclear policy has been to keep its capabilities at the minimum level required to maintain its national security and deter a potential first strike, and it was the first nation to declare a “No First Use” policy.

Contents

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties

Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

  • The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview
  • Delivery Systems
  • Fissile Material
  • Proliferation Record
  • Nuclear Doctrine

Biological Weapons

Chemical Weapons

Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

  • Conference on Disarmament (CD)
  • Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
  • Nuclear Security Summits
  • Six-Party Talks
  • Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties

 

Signed

Ratified

Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

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1992

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

1996

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Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)

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1989*

CPPNM 2005 Amendment

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2009

Chemical Weapons Convention

1993

1997

Biological Weapons Convention

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1984

International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism

2005

2010

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

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Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Group

Status

Australia Group

Not a member

Missile Technology Control Regime

Not a member.  China, in 2004, applied for membership, but Beijing did not receive 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. China says it abides by the MTCR guidelines.

Nuclear Suppliers Group

Member

Wassenaar Arrangement

Not a member

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol

Signatory, 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 activities to fulfill the resolutions

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Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview
China does not publicly release information about the size of its nuclear arsenal. The independent sources generally assess that China's stockpile has exceeded 400 warheads. The U.S. government estimates that China had more than 500 operational nuclear warheads in May 2023, compared to 400 in 2022, and is an pace to have 1,000 or more by 2030. China's nuclear arsenal increased from 240 in 2011 to 280 in 2018, it is believed to have accelerated nuclear expansion in 2021.

The majority of China’s warheads are thought to be kept in storage under central control during times of peace, though some missile battalions conduct “high alert duty.” It is uncertain whether China possesses a low-yield nuclear arsenal.

China's nuclear policy has been defined by possessing the minimum capabilities needed to deter a first strike from a potential aggressor.

Delivery Systems

Nuclear Modernization

  • China’s nuclear delivery systems are undergoing modernization programs, keeping with the modernization efforts of its People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Chinese leaders consider these efforts essential for advancing national interests and meeting growing national security requirements as the country transitions.
  • Hans M. Kristensen & Robert S. Norris report that, “The modernized force is more mobile, responsive, and accurate, and can overwhelm a limited US ballistic missile defense system." 
  • According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), China continues to field new and more advanced nuclear delivery systems with improved range and destructive capability.
  • China’s decision to switch some of its missiles from liquid to solid fuel has improved their capabilities, in both range and promptness of launch. 

 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM)

  • Estimates place China as having around 382 nuclear-capable land-based missiles capable of delivering approximately 318 warheads. A 2024 Federation of American Scientists report estimates that around 140 of these land-based missiles are ICBMs, whereas the DOD’s 2023 China Military Power Report estimates 350 ICBMs in China’s arsenal. Up to 130 of China’s ICBMs can target the continental United States. 
  • China has embarked on its largest-ever expansion of new ICBM facilities, building approximately 320 new silos for solid-fueled ICBMS across three missile fields, while also modernizing and expanding its road-mobile ICBM force. 
  • The silo fields near the northwest city of Yumen (120 individual silos), Hami (110 individual silos) in Eastern Xinjiang, and Yulin (90 individual silos) in Inner Mongolia are located deep inside the Chinese mainland, beyond the reach of U.S. cruise missiles. 
  • U.S. Strategic Command asserts that the combined number of operational and under-construction Chinese mobile, silo, and training launchers exceeds 450. However, none of the silo fields have yet been loaded with missiles, and independent researchers estimate that they are likely several years from full operational capability. 
  • The DOD report in 2023 estimates that China "probably completed the construction of its three new solid-propellant silo fields in 2022, which consists of at least 300 new ICBM silos, and has loaded at least some ICBMs into these silos."
  • The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) controls China’s conventional and nuclear land-based missiles.

Submarines and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)

  • As of March 2023, China has a fleet of 6 Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Originally designed to carry JL-2 SLBMs, they are now equipped with new, longer-range JL-3 SLBMs.
  • China possesses two SLBM types:
    • JL-2 (CSS-NX-14): a modified version of the DF-31 ICBM; estimated range of 7,000+ km but some estimates place the number at 8,000-9,000 km.
    • JL-3 (CSS-N-20): likely MIRV-capable, with an estimated range of 10,000 km that enables targeting of the continental United States from the safety of waters near the Chinese coast.
  • The DOD assessed in 2023 that China “has six operational TYPW 094 JIN-class SSBNs, and these submarines are conducting at sea deterrent patrols. The PLAN's JIN SSBNs are equipped to carry up to 12 sea launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs); JL-2 (CSS-N-14) and JL-3 (CSS-N-20) representing the PRC's first viable sea-based nuclear deterrent."

Strategic Bombers

  • China continues to update its outdated nuclear-capable bomber fleet.
  • The PLA air force was assigned a “strategic deterrence” mission in 2012.
  • China’s fleet of nuclear-capable bombers consists of about 20 Hong-6 (H-6) bombers based on Soviet designs, with a range of only 3,100+ km. A variant of the H-6 capable of air-to-air refueling known as the H-6N, has been operationally deployed. China may intend to equip the H-6N with a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) to achieve a “viable” nuclear triad for the first time. 
  • The H-6 bombers are also capable of delivering an unspecified number of gravity-based bombs.
  • Media reports suggest that China may be developing a new strategic stealth bomber, the H-20. U.S. officials believe the bomber will have both conventional and nuclear capabilities.

Fissile Material

  • Although China has not publicly declared a halt to the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium, general speculation is that Beijing has stopped its production. China is reported to have last produced HEU in 1989 and last produced separated plutonium in 1991.
  • The International Panel on Fissile Material's 2015 report estimates that China maintains a stockpile of 18 ± 4 metric tons of military HEU and 1.8 ± 0.5 metric tons of weapon-grade plutonium. 
  • At present, the limited size of China’s military stockpile restricts its ability to produce more warheads. China may be able to double its arsenal size using current stocks but would have to divert fissile material from two civilian breeder reactors currently under construction to acquire over 1000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030 forecast by the DOD. 
  • China has not declared a civilian HEU stockpile and, as of 2016, maintains an estimated civilian plutonium stockpile of only 25.6 kg.

Proliferation Record

  • China has a record of assisting states with nuclear and missile programs in the past, but in 2000, China made a public commitment not to assist “in any way, any country in the development of ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons.”
  • China has aided Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs among other states. Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia have also been identified as recipients of sensitive technologies and materials from China.
  • 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, albeit a fraction of what is necessary for a nuclear warhead, 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.
  • Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) members, including the United States, saw enough improvement in China’s nuclear export behavior that they extended membership to China in 2004.
    • Nonetheless, China has sold reactors to Pakistan, as was revealed in a 2010 agreement between the two nations. This trade, however, contravenes NSG guidelines.
  • China’s bid to join the Missile Technology Control Regime failed in 2004, due to continuing concerns about Chinese missile and missile technology transactions. China, however, maintains that it voluntarily abides by the regime’s guidelines.

Nuclear Doctrine
China was the first 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 reaffirmed its no-first-use policy in its 2015 and 2019 white papers. The 2019 report also states,

"China has always kept its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for maintaining its national security. China will optimize its nuclear force structure, improve strategic early warning, command and control, missile penetration, rapid reaction, and survivability and protection, and deter other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China."

Regardless, some theorize that the modernization of China’s nuclear arsenal, its intent on increasing its nuclear warfare capabilities, and its posturing demonstrate a doctrine of counter-nuclear coercion or limited deterrence. The dramatic expansion in ICBM launchers challenges the claim that China keeps its deterrent at a "minimum level," though Beijing’s nuclear buildup can be interpreted as a means of safeguarding Chinese retaliatory capability in the event of a surprise first strike. Scholars remain divided over the reasons for China’s nuclear buildup (see ACT, June 2023).

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

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Biological Weapons

  • China contends it is in compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) 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 2015 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." The 2017 compliance report does not cite any Chinese violations.

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Chemical Weapons

  • China has declared that it has destroyed all chemical weapon agent production facilities and solely conducts defensive chemical warfare research.
  • Beijing’s official position emphasizes the complete prohibition and destruction of chemical weapons. In the past, the U.S. government has alleged that China may be violating its Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) commitments by secretly pursuing chemical weapons programs.
  • China inherited approximately 700,000 abandoned chemical weapon (ACW) munitions from the Imperial Japanese Army at the end of World War II. Many of these ACWs are not easily located or properly stored; many of them are buried.
  • Japan, as of 2017, continues to jointly work with China to destroy these ACWs. The destruction began in March 2010. In November 2014, the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged Japan to speed up the destruction process. As of December 2014, 50,800 ACWs had been recovered in China, of which 37,373 were verifiably destroyed. 

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Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

Conference on Disarmament (CD)
At the 65-member CD, China expressed support for the 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 (PAROS). 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, as of 2017, contributed to the stalemate of 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. China believes that a FMCT should not restrict the use of existing fissile material for weapons purposes.

Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
China has ratified additional protocols to the Latin American and Caribbean, South Pacific, African, and Central Asian nuclear weapons free zone treaties pledging not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the treaty’s member states. However, China maintains a reservation to Additional Protocol II of the South Pacific nuclear weapons-free zone. It has not ratified the Southeast Asia nuclear weapons-free zone treaty.   

Nuclear Security Summits
China participated in all four Nuclear Security Summits. China played an active role in these summits and in the 2014 NSS, President Xi Jinping put forward a Chinese approach to nuclear security for the first time.

Six-Party Talks
China played a key role in hosting and helping mediate the so-called six-party talks 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.  However, amidst mounting pressure and criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration for China to take charge of the North Korean threat, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stated, in February 2017, that “we have said many times already that the crux of the North Korean nuclear issue is the problem between the United States and North Korea,” and that “the Trump White House needs to make the first move and talk to Pyongyang.”

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
China took part in the negotiation of the July 2015 JCPOA, which limits and rolls back Iran’s nuclear program. Despite being a “quiet negotiator” in these talks, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed, at the conclusion of the negotiation, that “at some important points when the negotiation met with the difficulties and reached the deadlocks, China had actively explored ideas and approaches to resolve the problems and put forward its own solutions from a perspective taking into consideration of the common interests of all parties.”

U.S.-China Strategic Stability Dialogue 
The United States has repeatedly urged China to engage in arms control talks over its nuclear expansion through bilateral and trilateral U.S.-Russia-China frameworks and to restart military dialogue, citing concerns over conflict escalation. However, China has resisted U.S. overtures on both issues. Beijing has been more receptive to multilateral formats for diplomacy, with the P5 being one of its preferred venues for discussing nuclear arms reduction. In January 2022, China welcomed a joint statement with France, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom affirming that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” 

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