China’s Nuclear Ambition Grows

Despite international protests, China continues to conduct nuclear tests to develop lighter warheads for new missiles that fly farther and are more accurate.

“China is in the process of building a more reliable and longer-range arsenal because that is what great powers do. The Chinese are expending an enormous amount of money, but prestige has an awful lot to do with it,” says one U.S. government specialist who tracks China’s nuclear program. Many U.S. officials do not believe that China poses a direct threat to the United States, but U.S. defense planners still evaluate potential military scenarios in which Chinese nuclear forces could be turned against American targets. “There is a real possibility that the Chinese are developing their arsenal to keep the United States at bay as they work their will in East Asia,” says a U.S. government analyst. Chinese generals view China’s “sovereignty” as extending to Taiwan and disputed territories such as the Spratly Islands, which China seized in February 1995.

In the May issue of the Risk Report on China’s missile program, former Ambassador to China James Lilley cautioned that it is important not to have any illusions about China’s military ambitions. Asked why the Chinese continue to test nuclear weapons despite international efforts to ban such tests, Ambassador Lilley tells the Risk Report: “They consider a nuclear weapon program important because the United States has never fought a war with a nuclear power. If you cancel out the nuclear option by having capability on both sides, you drop down to conventional capabilities.” The Chinese plan years ahead and foresee a gradual expansion of their influence, Lilley says. “If you project ahead ten years, the Americans are drawing down their forces in Asia and the Chinese are building theirs up; so the balance of power will have shifted and that’s in China’s interest.”

China became the fifth nuclear weapon state in 1964 when it successfully tested its first nuclear bomb, made with high-enriched uranium. The bomb was set off at the Lop Nur Nuclear Test Base in Xinjiang province and had an explosive yield of 22 thousand tons of TNT. Shortly after the design work for the first atomic bomb was completed, Chinese scientists turned their attention to thermonuclear weapons, capable of destroying entire cities. In June 1967, China conducted its first multi-stage thermonuclear test explosion. To date, China has tested and deployed six different nuclear warhead designs, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Nuclear Weapon Databook.

U.S. officials estimate that China has roughly 450 nuclear warheads, though China has produced enough weapon-grade uranium and plutonium to build an arsenal more than three times that size. In August, China conducted its 43rd nuclear weapon test. U.S. analysts expect that Beijing will test again this year, and maybe two or three times in 1996 before an international treaty to ban nuclear tests comes into effect.

In 1956, China established a central nuclear ministry the Third Ministry of Machine Building Industry, now known as the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) to take charge of the country’s entire nuclear program. By mid-1958, Deng Xiaoping, the Central Committee General Secretary, had approved the sites selected for nuclear weapon development. The first major site, the Beijing Nuclear Weapons Research Institute, was a temporary facility replaced in 1962 by the Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Academy, called the Ninth Academy. Located near Haiyan in Qinghai Province, the Ninth Academy was built from Soviet designs and known as the “Los Alamos of China” during its heyday in the 1960s.

In fact, the Soviet Union built all the essentials of China’s fledgling nuclear infrastructure, based on six Sino-Soviet nuclear cooperation and assistance agreements between 1955 and 1958. The first of these, signed in April 1955, resulted in the supply of a Soviet reactor and cyclotron, useful in uranium enrichment research. During the 1950s, a time of rapid growth in China’s nuclear program, many of China’s top nuclear scientists and engineers were trained in the United States. Ironically, this was also a time when China viewed the United States as its chief adversary. Indeed, China’s nuclear arsenal and missiles were originally conceived and designed to target U.S. forces and allies. China’s first major task was to find and mine uranium ore. The ore would then be purified and converted to uranium hexafluoride gas that could be enriched to weapon-grade. In January 1955, a week after China’s official decision to pursue the bomb, China and the USSR signed a secret agreement to conduct joint surveys for uranium in China and to sell Chinese uranium to the USSR. The Soviets guided China’s early mining efforts, and China eventually developed 26 major uranium mines.

According to China Builds the Bomb, a ground-breaking work by China experts John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, the most extraordinary Sino-Russian agreement was the New Defense Technical Accord of October 1957, in which the Soviets agreed to give China a prototype atom bomb. The prototype was never delivered, however, because Sino-Soviet relations soured in 1960 and Moscow withdrew some 230 Soviet advisors and technicians working in China, along with important technical data and blueprints. The cutoff of Soviet assistance delayed Chinese weapon progress by several years, in particular plutonium production.

After relations with Moscow deteriorated, Chairman Mao authorized the rapid construction of new nuclear production facilities in Sichuan. The first Soviet-designed nuclear plants had been built near the Soviet border and were highly vulnerable to air or missile strikes. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, China rapidly duplicated its nuclear facilities in remote regions to make it more difficult for enemy aircraft to penetrate Chinese air defenses.

These “Third Line” facilities included a gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment plant, a plutonium production reactor and extraction facility, a Nuclear Fuel Component Plant, and an alternative weapon design center established in the late 1960s at Mianyang.

China is believed to have stopped making enriched uranium for military purposes in the late 1980s, and to have stopped producing plutonium for bombs in 1991. But a U.S. government nuclear specialist cautions that China’s declarations are “a masterpiece of Chinese-speak; you must listen carefully when they say they have stopped making plutonium for military purposes.'” China continues to enrich uranium for use as reactor fuel, and is building a pilot plutonium extraction plant, scheduled to start by the year 2000. China also may build another large plutonium extraction plant for “commercial” purposes, but Beijing promises that the new facilities will be open to international inspection.

The next great leap forward in China’s nuclear program will be in the civilian sector. China has embarked on a crash program to build nuclear power reactors and has plans to market its nuclear products to other countries, including Pakistan and Iran. Coming full circle, China is once again working closely with Russia. Sino-Russian relations have warmed considerably since the Cold War. The two countries have signed de-targeting agreements, and defense and nuclear cooperation is budding. European, Japanese and Canadian companies are also active in Chinese nuclear projects, but Americans are limited by the lack of an effective U.S.-China nuclear cooperation agreement.


Capital: Beijing
Political System: Communist
Chief of State: Jiang Zemin
Head of Government: Li Peng
Population: 1.2 billion
Gross Domestic Product: $510 billion (1994 est.)
Armed Forces: 3 million, the largest in the world
Nuclear Weapon Capability: Tested first bomb in 1964
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT): Signed in 1992
Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG): Not a member
Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR): Not a member
Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC): Signed but not ratified