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What are the China’s Nuclear Capabilities

  • IAS NEXT, Lucknow
  • 23, Nov 2021
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The only real substantive outcome of recently held virtual summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping has been some unconfirmed reports of the two sides, the US & China, agreeing to hold strategic nuclear talks sometime in the near future. 

Issues with China’s Nuclear capabilities:

  • China’s nuclear capabilities, in particular, are undergoing a fundamental transformation and a shift seems to be evident in both the quantity and the quality of the PRC’s atomic arsenal.
  • There is growing concern globally about the trajectory of China’s strategic capabilities. 
  • China Military Power Report (CMPR) recently released by the US reveals four specific areas where change is underway — quantitative strength, atomic yield, delivery capabilities and posture.

Size of the PRC’s nuclear arsenal

  • Until now, China’s nuclear arsenal has hovered at roughly 200 nuclear warheads, half of which directed at USA. 
  • By 2027, it is estimated that this number is likely to increase to 700 weapons consisting of varying yields which is three and half times the current Chinese warhead strength. 

Low Yield Weapons

  • Low-yield weapons have been an area of interest and development for China. 
  • They are weapons meant for battlefield use during conventional military operations and against conventional targets such as concentrations of armoured, artillery and infantry forces. 
  • Lower yield warheads help the PRC avoid causing collateral damage. 
  • Prior to the release of the CMPR, evidence that China was testing low-yield devices has periodically surfaced in years past. 
  • There is growing concern that China’s atomic arsenal consists of a large number of low-yield weapons ideal for battlefield use. 

Delivery Capabilities

  • These low-yield nuclear warheads are also likely to find their way into a key delivery capability — the PRC’s Dong-Feng-26 (DF-26) ballistic missile. 
  • This missile has already undergone deployment at Korla in the Xinjiang region in Western China.
  • In addition to the DF-26, China has also developed the JL-2 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) with a range of 7,200 kilometres capable of striking targets across continental Asia.

Nuclear Posture

  • Finally, China’s move towards a Launch on Warning (LoW) nuclear posture marks an important shift in the PRC’s commitment to ensuring that no adversary doubts its response in the event of a nuclear first strike.
  • A higher alert posture not only risks reducing the threshold for nuclear use in the form of preemption but it could also sow the seeds of miscalculation and unintended nuclear use. 

Implications on India

The PRC’s nuclear competition with the United States will have a cascading effect.

  • First, the size of China’s nuclear arsenal complicates the potency of India’s nuclear arsenal
  • Second, is the Beijing’s pursuit of a Launch on Warning (LoW) posture. Such a posture reduces the decision time for any Indian retaliatory nuclear strike in the heat of a war or crisis and places pressure on India to pursue its own LoW. 
  • Despite Beijing’s pursuit of No First Use (NFU), which is reversible, the PRC could also significantly degrade an Indian retaliatory strike if China chooses to resort to First Use (FU) of nuclear weapons, 
  • Indian strategic planners will have to think about the quantitative nuclear balance and India’s nuclear posture vis-à-vis China.
  • Finally, India must pay close attention to the sub-surface leg of China’s nuclear arsenal. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese have added two new Type 094 (Jin class) SSBNs/nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines to their existing fleet. 
  • The maritime dimension of China’s nuclear capabilities might not be an immediate strategic challenge but will potentially become one in the coming years for New Delhi.