by Emanuele Scimia
The increase covers the 2020-2021 period. The number of nuclear weapons in the world is down. The US and Russia have made cuts under the New Start Treaty. For a Russian academic, the Chinese will stop expansion only if the Americans and the Russian accept nuclear parity.
Rome (AsiaNews) – China has 350 nuclear warheads in its arsenal, 30 more than last year, this according to the latest report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released today.
The Swedish-based institute noted that between 2019 and 2020 China’s warheads went from 290 to 320. However, China’s growth comes as the total nuclear weapons fell from 13,400 to 13,080 between January 2020 and January 2021.
In addition to China, several countries have increased their nuclear arsenals: the United Kingdom (+10 bombs), India (+6), Pakistan (+5) and North Korea. Pyongyang’s number is estimated to be between 40 and 50 warheads, up from 30-40 in 2020.
The drop in nuclear warheads is due to cuts made by the United States and Russia under the New START Treaty, which was renewed for five years in February.
Still, Washington and Moscow have increased the number of warheads deployed with operational forces. If French and British warheads are included, they rose from 3,720 in 2020 to 3,825 this year.
According to several observers, the New START Treaty creates a certain asymmetry in non-proliferation efforts. To renew the deal, former US President Donald Trump demanded Beijing’s membership. China refused to join unless Moscow and Washington accept nuclear parity.
Alexander Savelyev, chief research fellow at the Moscow-based Primakov Institute for World Economy and International Relations, sees no serious problems in China’s nuclear build-up. “For years, China many times said that it would join the nuclear arms control network only after its nuclear arsenal is equal to those of the United States and Russia,” he told AsiaNews.
Under the New START, the US and Russia can keep up to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads each (a long-range bomber is worth a warhead). However, the numbers go up considerably if tactical atomic weapons are also counted.
Speaking at the UN Disarmament Conference on Friday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on the US and Russia to further reduce their nuclear forces.
Savelyev, who participated as an adviser in the START-1 negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991, wonders whether Washington and the Kremlin are ready to treat China as an equal partner. “If ‘yes’, they should be ready to become equal in all the senses of the word”.
To break the deadlock, the Russian scholar proposes that Russia and the United States strike a new agreement for further, deeper cuts in their nuclear arsenal, both strategic and tactical. At the same time, Moscow and Washington should ask Beijing to make a voluntary commitment not to increase its nuclear arsenal beyond 400 warheads.
On 22 January, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came into force, but it remains pie in the sky since the major nuclear powers are not signatories. For Savelyev, it is important that Russia and the US do not use the expansion of China’s nuclear forces “as an excuse for doing nothing” towards the nuclear disarmament process.