From the wikipedia page about the number of nuclear weapons we see that China only has 250 nukes, which puts it in the same league as France or the UK, and way under the 1000+ actives held by Russia and the US. That number has been unchanged for decades.

Yet, China is putting some major effort in deploying better weapon systems, has a somewhat aggressive foreign policy in the South China sea area, along with a number of deep held priorities, like Taiwan, that might involve the US against it.

Besides equipment that is still catching up to the West, Chinese troops lack experience, especially compared to US forces that have amassed considerable combat experience, albeit against technologically inferior foes, over the last 18 years.

This part is especially important, as nuclear weapons don't rely on combat-seasoned troops.

Last, but not least, the fledgling Anti Ballistic Missile defenses the US has deployed are not credible against a full-on Russian launch, but are more relevant against an opponent that has a limited number of nukes at hand. China is above that threshold, but not by much.

Have there been indications from China why they have not much strengthened their nuclear forces? They have the technology, funding and are not averse to competing in other areas. They're not much bound by law or treaties, being a recognized nuclear power, having their UN veto, and not being party to the various nuclear disarmament treaties signed between the US and Russia. It seems like it would go a long way to equalize their position wrt the US.

Note: while I don't rule out an official Chinese government explanation, nuclear armament is certainly a domain where countries use a lot of spin in describing what they are up to.

Also, I am mostly interested in the reasons for this restraint from a realpolitik Chinese military planning point of view, rather than other perspectives which, correctly, find nuclear reduction a laudable goal.

  • 1
    Is there an arms limitation treaty in place?
    – pjc50
    Dec 12, 2019 at 8:02
  • 73
    Because it’s enough? Might be more interesting to ask why Russia and the US have so many.
    – chirlu
    Dec 12, 2019 at 8:13
  • 33
    Who says they have 250? China? Dec 12, 2019 at 18:07
  • 13
    what makes america's amount a regular size? because america says?
    – Emobe
    Dec 13, 2019 at 12:48
  • 4
    They recently bought a company that delivers mainframe software to US banks. Who needs bombs when you can bomb the economy by switching it off? Dec 13, 2019 at 13:38

6 Answers 6


"Only 250"?

That's plenty for their purposes. Nukes are meant to be seen, not heard. Even if the US could intercept 99/100 missiles, having 250 means china can deliver a devastating enough attack that the US is encouraged to avoid the scenario at almost all costs. That's reasonable deterrence for their particular threat model, and for a fledgling superpower, it fits their needs.

250's also more than enough to fend off local challenges, like another Japanese invasion for example. There's little tactical advantage to being able to blow up the world ten times instead of just once. A shotgun might be more deadly than a pistol, but either one can easily kill you. Development is massively expensive, polluting, and physically risky, so why waste effort on over-kill?

It makes no sense for them to "catch up" with Russia and the USA.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about nuclear missile defense has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Dec 14, 2019 at 12:03

There are different approaches to nuclear strategy, deterrence, and warfighting.

For deterrence, you want a credibly survivable second strike capability. That is, so many and so well hidden or hardened missiles that you can inflict unacceptable damage to the enemy even after the enemy strikes you first, without warning.

  • Estimate how many major cities would be acceptable damage to your enemy.
  • Estimate how many surviving missiles you need to overcome the enemy defenses, if any.
  • Estimate how many of your missiles the enemy can destroy with a "bolt from the blue" attack.
  • Multiply to find out how many weapons you need to inflict unacceptable damage.

During the Cold War, the UK had what was dubbed the "Moscow Criterion." They wanted to be sure that, if the Soviet Union destroyed the entire UK, they could still destroy a place like Moscow, or Leningrad, or Kiev. Their estimate was that for deterrence purposes, putting one such city at risk would be enough. The Royal Navy got themselves enough ballistic missile submarines that one should be at sea at all times.

The kind of attack this envisions is called a countervalue targeting. Another option is a counterforce first strike.

Counterforce means attacking the enemy nuclear (and conventional) forces to take them out before they can launch. Both the US and the Soviet Union envisioned that as an option during the Cold War and built the necessary arsenals. While a counterforce attack would have been unlikely to work completely, it might have decisively blunted the enemy second strike.

Killing a city is much easier than killing a hardened missile silo, so counterforce arsenals have to be bigger than countervalue arsenals.

Finally, there is the question of tactical use. Both the US and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons to attack armies in the field, which is also harder than attacking cities.

  • 2
    So are you saying that China has adopted more of a second strike capability, vs the US and USSR which built arsenals capable of first, second, and tactical strikes?
    – divibisan
    Dec 12, 2019 at 17:20
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    @divibisan, it looks that way, but China might well have a first strike capability against India or North Korea. Unlikely that they would do that, probably.
    – o.m.
    Dec 12, 2019 at 17:32
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    @divibisan the PRC has a stated no-first-use policy en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_first_use#China
    – llama
    Dec 12, 2019 at 17:33
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    I guess I'm trying to get at the tl;dr for this, which I'm guessing is that China has a different approach to the use of Nuclear weapons that the US or USSR during the Cold War, and that approach requires fewer weapons
    – divibisan
    Dec 12, 2019 at 17:35
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    @divibisan, yes. Their publicly stated doctrine is a minimal viable deterrent, not a warfighting capability. What is minimal against the US or USSR is plenty on a regional basis, however.
    – o.m.
    Dec 12, 2019 at 18:34

Nukes are expensive to create and to keep. Keeping is the worse part - it takes a small army just to guard them adequately, you need to keep a great deal of smart people around to maintain them and be ready to operate them and you have to keep both the small army and the smart people loyal for an extended period of time (e.g. forever).

Generally, everyone made (back then) the ammount proportional to their economic, military and human potential (Russia is a separate case). When the world nuclear ballance formed (a few decades ago) China was "in the same league" (or even lower) as France / UK. In the meantime, the world changed and nukes are no more the most important (politically) military asset so everyone keeps whatever it has.

Making more nukes is hard politically (expenses) and generally frowned upon world-wide, reducing them is also hard because it can be seen as making the country weaker.


China has a different culture from that of the West. Which makes them think in a different way.

If you look at military conflict only in the short-term and only inside the geographical area of military operations, then clearly having more and better weapons than your opponents is what you need.

But if you take a long-term view and look at the whole world, rather than just the immediate theater of war, then you need to worry about not destroying the whole world, not committing inadvertent suicide, and not looking bad in front of civilian populations around the world, who are all threatened by nuclear war.

Threatening to destroy the whole world and having the means to do it is bad public relations. Because most civilians around the world see such threats as threats against them.

Threatening people is bound to make you unpopular among them. And when you threaten the whole world, then this makes you really unpopular.

Superior weapons are only good for winning a battle. Which isn't the same as winning the war. Because you can win your battles and lose the war. That's what happened with USA in Vietnam, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan.

I think this is the reason why China's strategy is so different from that of USA. The Chinese see the politics of it and not just the military side. Because military isn't everything. It's just a part of a much bigger picture.

In a recent survey of people in 65 countries, most people said that USA is the biggest threat to world peace. And surprisingly, even in countries allied with USA, people had this view of USA. While China isn't anywhere close to that.


Which means that USA is losing the hearts and minds of people around the world, compared to China.

Threatening people is never good public relations. The Chinese see this, but the Americans don't, perhaps due to their cultural differences.

  • 1
    +1 because I think they are playing a different game indeed, at least nuke-wise. but their attitude is hardly super-peaceful and has been rather worrying as of late. Spratleys for example is a ridiculous land grab, while their threats about Taiwan are anything but peaceful. To say nothing of the Uighurs. I really don't wish to see Cold War 2 happening - and I'd rather the world come to terms with a benign but dominant China. But anyone who thinks the Chinese will necessarily be better as sole superpower than the US is rather naive, IMHO. Dec 15, 2019 at 2:36
  • Trying to be a sole superpower, who tells everybody in the world what to do is bad public relations. Because people in other countries see this as imperialism and dictatorship, even when a democratic country does this. Because the democracy is only internal. People from other countries don't get to vote for the superpower's government. I don't think China will go this route. They have some regional ambitions and disagreements. And they'll probably keep it at that. Because they understand that in the long-term, politics matters more than military.
    – user29459
    Dec 15, 2019 at 8:30
  • Yup, like I said, tell that to their Spratleys neighbors, Tibet, etc... Especially the Spratleys is really odd behavior because the 9 lines map or whatever they call it is farcical and so over the top in its rapacity and it wasn't initiated under Mao like Tibet. They may end up being chill and good guys. Or they may not. Right now, the signs aren't super good, especially since Xi has been in charge. At least at a regional level, they don't seem to be that nice a neighbor. Keep in mind - as it's not a democracy the CCP relies quite a bit on nationalism for justification. Dec 15, 2019 at 8:57

and way under the 1000+ actives held by Russia and the US.

"+1000" is a gross underestimate.

"As of 2019, the U.S. has an inventory of 6,185 nuclear warheads; of these, 2,385 are retired and awaiting dismantlement and 3,800 are part of the U.S. stockpile." - Wikipedia

  • 5
    first off, this is not an\ answer to the question, but a comment about it. second, while the overall number is much larger, a number of both US/Russia nukes are not fully operational, but rather mothballed. the number of fully actives is < 2000 I believe on both sides. Dec 15, 2019 at 2:32

For historical reasons

Wikipedia has an article of Nukes over time. There we can sort of see, that China came into the Nukes game, when the US was at its peak (in terms of number of nukes).

So, another very interesting and related question would be: Why are the US and Russia cool with having < 10.000 nukes, when they had north of 30.000?

The answer is technology.

First, there were nuclear free fall bombs. Then, there were the first ICBMs. Finally, there are mobile and silo-based ICBMs, and also nuclear submarines.

Hence, the risk of losing the nuke-delivery system on its way has been greatly reduced over time. Thus, a stockpile of 100 nukes now presents a similar threat as a stockpile of 1000 in the 50s.

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