China may seek to close nuclear gap after US and Russia agree to extend New START treaty
• The deal between Moscow and Washington gives Beijing the chance to play catch-up, but it may face increasing pressure to join future talks on non-proliferation
• One military source says the country now has around 1,000 warheads, but less than 100 of these are active
The extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the United States and Russia to 2026 may not only prevent an out-of-control arms race but also gives China an additional five-year buffer period.
Chinese military experts and sources said the extension, announced by the White House on Tuesday, means the gap between China and the two nuclear giants, which own 90 per cent of the world’s warheads, will not widen and Beijing can spend the next five years catching up.
In the 1980s, the US and former Soviet Union each possessed more than 10,000 warheads, but these stockpiles have been cut to between 5,000 to 6,500 under the New START, which aims to reduce the total to just 1,550 as the ultimate goal.
China has not disclosed how many warheads it has, but an assessment by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute put the number at 320.
However, a source close to the Chinese military said that its stockpile of nuclear warheads had risen to 1,000 in recent years, but less than 100 of them are active. “Both the US and Russia have competed with each other to upgrade their nuclear arms over the past few years, especially their intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs], submarine-launched and airborne missiles, as well as other new weapons to upgrade their nuclear triad capability,” the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, said.
A nuclear triad is a three-pronged structure that consists of ground-based ICBMs, plus submarine and air-launched missiles.
“Nuclear warheads would be distributed to the rocket force only when a war is likely to happen,” the source said.
Hong Kong-based military affairs commentator and former PLA instructor Song Zhongping said Beijing might use the five-year period to narrow the nuclear modernisation gap with the US and Russia.
“Since [late leader] Deng Xiaoping’s era, the Beijing leadership has believed that the country doesn’t need so many expensive weapons, because the exorbitant maintenance costs would drag down China’s economic development,” the source said
The treaty restricts US and Russian warheads, but China is not a party to it. Photo: AFP
The source said China has a strict nuclear arms control mechanism which means only the chairman of the Central Military Commission – now President Xi Jinping – has the right to decide the deployment of nuclear warheads.
“Based on the fact that China currently has only about 100 nuclear warheads in active service, it is not enough to completely destroy all major cities in the US,” Song said