The Big Bang: The Evolution of US-China Nuclear Relations

Jessica Henn

Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons

Historical Overview of Sino-American Tensions

The US and China have a long and deeply interconnected nuclear history which stems back to the Cold War. The decision of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to develop a nuclear weapons programme was in large part a response to American intervention in the Korean War. Strongly opposed to communism, the US saw North Korea’s invasion of the south as a major threat. Influenced by the domino theory, which posited that  if one country in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow in a domino effect, the US believed they needed to contain communism and thus became involved in the war. As a communist state, China felt threatened by ideologically motivated American military action. Sensing vulnerability and still scarred by the Century of Humiliation, a period between 1839 and 1949 in which China’s government was forced to cede large parts of territory to imperial powers, officials at the time felt that the only way to protect national security was to develop nuclear weapons. As Mao stated, “If we are not to be bullied in the present-day world we cannot do without the bomb”. The idea of nuclear weapons as a necessary means to guarantee China’s security was thus popularised amongst policymakers and continues to be salient today.

Nuclear weapons also became a way to elevate China’s international image and global standing. At the time, China was considered a weak and backward nation by many in the international arena, however the establishment of the nuclear program demonstrated that China was advanced enough to master the most complex scientific and technological developments of the era. Deng Xiaoping concluded that “if it were not for the atomic bomb the hydrogen bomb and the satellites we have launched since the 1960s China would not have its present international standing as a great influential country.” Nuclear weapons thus became more than simply a defensive mechanism to China – they were a means by which this previously marginalised state could compete with the great powers of the time

Deteriorating Sino-Soviet relations starting in the 1950s, meant that initially China’s Nuclear Programme was developed to counter Soviet threats. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Beijing’s fears turned to Washington. The growing superiority of American conventional weapons and advances in their nuclear arsenal became a key concern to the PRC as they did not believe these developments were purely defensive and feared they would be used to “neutralise Chinese small nuclear forces and subject the country to blackmail particularly in a conflict over Taiwan.” This was aggravated when it was revealed the US 2002 Nuclear Posture Review containedcontingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons against at least seven countries, naming not only Russia and the “axis of evil”–Iraq, Iran, and North Korea–but also China, Libya and Syria.”

Since the 2000s Beijing has been disquieted by the fraying of arms control agreements and Washington’s lack of engagement on the issue. Beijing cited America’s withdrawal from the ABM treaty as “another sign that the United States will ignore any troublesome international arms control agreements in the pursuit of a narrowly defined national security.” Tensions have been further exacerbated by the US’ “refusal to even begin negotiations on Moscow and Beijing’s joint draft Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space Treaty” and rejection of the Non First Use policy (NFU) suggested by China. This allegation is disputed by Washington, with a recent State Department spokesman announcing that “it is our (US) hope, it is our intention to engage in an arms control dialogue with the PRC.” However, many Chinese officials remain sceptical and believe “the US call for strategic dialogue with China is in fact concealing an agenda designed to constrain China’s nuclear forces.”

What does this mean for disarmament today?

Although in recent years states closer to China (India, Pakistan and North Korea) have acquired nuclear capabilities, China’s nuclear programme continues to be centred on the United States. It accuses the US of “putting together exclusive small circles or blocs that polarize the world, of overstretching the concept of national security to hold back economic and technological advances of other countries, and of fanning ideological antagonism”. require a shift in policy from both parties if they are to be avoided. Both China and the US are in the process of modernising and expanding their nuclear forces. Many see this as a response to growing tensions between the two states, particularly over territorial issues related to the South China Sea and Taiwan. While China’s nuclear doctrine remains underpinned by the concept of deterrence and its NFU policy remains unchanged, rising distrust between the two states has the potential to threaten current and future disarmament efforts and could even raise the risk that either side might use nuclear weapons if a conflict were to arise. Whilst these scenarios are not inevitable, they require a shift in policy from both parties if they are to be avoided. Some possible steps include:

  • on the US side, Washington could adopt a NFU policy and agree to negotiations on PAROS. This will signal that the US is committed to peaceful resolution through developing an arms control framework to create stability;
  • on the Chinese side, Beijing could engage in strategic dialogue offered by Washington as initiating dialogue is essential in dispelling dangerous misconceptions which could result in crisis. By the same token, Beijing should be more transparent about its nuclear capabilities to avoid the US miscalculating Chinese nuclear capabilities and falling into a security trap;
  • as well as through governmental channels, civil society organisations (CSOs) could also play an important role in easing tensions. The nuclear posturing of both states is underscored by the notion of deterrence. CSOs can work to raise awareness of the dangers of deterrence and mobilise publics to pressure governments to move towards greater arms control and ultimately disarmament.

SCRAP Weapons aims to advance the agenda of general and complete disarmament and is working to build a global constituency to advocate the convening of a Fourth Special Session on Disarmament at the United Nations General Assembly. Follow our work at

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Jessica Henn

Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons