China’s Happy to Sit Out the Nuclear Arms Race

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February 21, 2017
Melissa Hanham

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy on January 30, 2017.

China's first atom bomb

China’s first atom bomb
Source: Wikimedia Commons

While U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin preen and compare the size of their nuclear arsenals, China has been quite modest on the subject. This macho dance doesn’t interest Beijing. Why? Isn’t bigger always better? For decades, when it comes to nuclear weapons, the answer from China has been a resounding no. The rest of the world would do well to consider their reasons why.

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For China, it’s not the size of the arsenal that counts, it’s how you use it. About 200 nuclear warheads are “enough.” China’s primary goal has always been to prevent the use of nuclear weapons against them. Beijing figured out that you don’t need 30,000 nuclear warheads to achieve that end — you only need enough that the risk of losing a major city in retaliation holds your opponents back. They have enough for escalation control, they have enough for deterrence, and they only need to mate their warheads to delivery vehicles to signal.

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