May 1991
Vol. 47, No. 4

 

China's mixed signals on nuclear weapons.

 

By Richard Fieldhouse

 

At 9:00 a.m. on a sunny day in late June 1982, Chinese military forces began
a huge exercise in Ningxia Province some 700 kilometers south of the
Mongolian border. The exercise, a pretend Soviet invasion and
counterattack, involved several hundred thousand men. For the first time,
China included a simulated tactical nuclear airburst in the exercise,
complete with mushroom cloud. Both sides in the exercise used simulated
tactical nuclear weapons. The defenders' counterattack was described as
follows: "Our troops' nuclear strike capability zeroed in on the targets,
took the enemy by surprise and dealt his artillery positions and reserve
forces a crushing blow." (1) The June 27 Ningxia Daily carried a photo with
the caption, "An 'atomic bomb' exploding deep in the ranks of the 'enemy."'

This exercise was the most vivid evidence of China's interest in tactical
nuclear weapons, signifying a departure from China's program of acquiring a
limited but credible arsenal of strategic retaliatory weapons. Other, more
recent exercises also have been conducted "under nuclear conditions. "
Western analysts see the move toward nuclear war-fighting as a conflict with
the Maoist strategy of People's War, which maintains that China's many
soldiers can surround and defeat any attacking military-regardless of their
number or weapons. Practicing for tactical nuclear retaliation, or
acquiring such weapons, contradicts this fundamental tenet.

But it is unclear whether China has done more than just practice mock
nuclear battles-whether it has actually built tactical nuclear weapons such
as artillery shells, atomic land mines, short-range missiles, and aerial
bombs. China has tested nuclear weapons with yields below 20 kilotons,
although we do not know precisely how low the yields have been. One test in
September 1988 was a "neutron bomb" design, according to a reporter who
spoke with both Chinese and foreign officials. (2) Reports circulated in the
United States in November 1990 that China had obtained secret data for this
experimental design illegally from the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons
laboratory in California. (3) As the Ningxia exercise suggested, China' s
nuclear-capable aircraft can drop low-yield nuclear bombs on a battlefield.
And China's new M-9 short-range (600 kilometer) ballistic missile, which has
been offered for export to Middle East nations, could carry a nuclear warhead.

Ultimately, it is unclear whether the Chinese leadership has made up its
collective mind on tactical nuclear weapons. We know from Chinese official
sources, including articles in Communist Party and military publications and
histories of the Chinese nuclear program, that an internal debate has
proceeded for more than two decades, punctuated by occasional nuclear
exercises or low-yield warhead tests. But China presumably has less reason
now to pursue development of tactical nuclear weapons than in previous
decades: relations with the Soviet Union have improved and military
confrontation has eased; China's relations with India and Vietnam are also
improving. The decision may already have been made, however, and the
weapons built.

The mystery surrounding Chinese tactical nuclear weapons is itself
interesting, but it is also symbolic of the difficulty of understanding
China's nuclear weapons program and policies. The West has accumulated a
considerable body of knowledge about China's nuclear forces, especially
historical material. But important aspects of China's nuclear behavior and
its future as a nuclear power are hard to discern.

A key question is China's future role in the spread of nuclear-capable
weapons to other countries. China might add to international efforts to
stem the proliferation of nuclear-related technology, or it might become the
world's missile merchant. It could make a constructive contribution to arms
control efforts in general, or it could act as a spoiler. China's
remarkable nuclear development has proved beyond prediction in the past. But
reviewing important parts of China's nuclear story may clarify why and how
China arrived at its present nuclear position and also help anticipate
future possibilities.

A nuclear panacea

The origins of China's nuclear weapon program can be traced to the founding
of the People's Republic of China itself in 1949 and to the determination of
the new China's leadership, especially Mao Zedong, that China would be a
major world power, sovereign and independent, well armed and the leader of
the communist world. The People's Republic was born with a host of woes: a
history of foreign invasion and intimidation, dire poverty and backwardness,
virtually no industrial or scientific base, and a nuclear-armed adversary
supporting the nationalist government on Taiwan. Nuclear weapons were seen
as a potential solution to such problems.

China recognized nuclear weapons as the sine qua non of major military power
and national sovereignty. They would either deter or make horrendously
costly any foreign nuclear attack against China, and presumably quell U.S.
nuclear threats. In 1957 Deng Xiaoping, later to become the Communist Party
general secretary, articulated a succinct rationale for Chinese nuclear
weapons: "The Soviet Union has the atom bomb. Where does the significance
lie? It lies in the fact that the imperialists are afraid of it. Are the
imperialists afraid of us? I think they are not.... The United States
stations its troops on Taiwan because we have no atom bombs or guided
missiles."'

The United States had considered using nuclear weapons against China on
several occasions during and after the Korean War, and even deployed
nuclear-armed B-29 bombers to Guam in 1951 for possible use against targets
in China. This was the first time since 1945 that the United States gave
custody of complete nuclear weapons (nine bombs) to the military, and also
the first time they had been deployed outside the United States. (5) The
United States also deployed nuclear-capable weapons systems, presumably with
nuclear warheads, on Taiwan in the 1950s and early 1960s. The first
overseas deployment of the Nike Hercules surface-to-air missile system was
in Taiwan in September 1958; likewise with the Improved Nike Hercules, which
became operational in Taiwan on December 2, 1962. 6 At least one squadron of
nuclear-capable Matador surface-to-surface missiles (the 17th Tactical
Missile Squadron) was apparently deployed at Tainan Air Base, Taiwan, in
1958. Nuclear-certified F-84 and/or F-86 aircraft were also apparently
deployed on rotation from the Philippines to Taiwan during this period.
Thus China had every reason to fear the threat of U.S. nuclear weapons.

But besides their military functions, Chinese nuclear weapons were a means
to win prestige abroad and self-esteem at home. China has always seen
nuclear weapons as an important indicator of a nation's industrial,
scientific, and technological level. It has aspired to be among the leading
ranks of advanced nations, while also claiming the mantle of champion of
nonaligned and developing countries. If China could achieve the greatest
scientific and technological advance of the day, what could it not
accomplish? On the economic front, nuclear weapons would be a driving force
for science and technology that would produce impressive industrial
spinoffs. This is particularly true for China's space program, which was
created from a rib of the missile effort and eventually made China an
impressive contender in the international satellite-launch market. Perhaps
no other single Chinese effort has been accorded such a high priority and
has won such consistently strong support as the nuclear weapons program,
even during periods of extreme political upheaval and economic hardship.

A crash program

Mao may have determined personally even before 1949 that China should have
its own nuclear weapons, but the government could not act on this imperative
until January 15, 1955, when Mao and the Chinese leadership formally decided
to obtain their own nuclear rsenal, with Soviet assistance. Believing that
the United States might attack it with nuclear weapons, China was eager to
achieve nuclear capability as quickly as possible. It was both natural and
necessary to turn to the Soviets for help. On February 14, 1950, China and
the Soviet Union had signed a 30-year Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and
Mutual Assistance. This set the stage for massive Soviet arms assistance to
China during the Korean War and afterward. At that time nobody imagined
that within a decade the Soviet Union would be China's main adversary and
the eventual target for virtually all of China's nuclear eapons.

China's quest for nuclear weapons was especially difficult since it began
from scratch: China had virtually no adequately trained personnel, no
nuclear experience, and no equipment or facilities for the project. Unlike
other nuclear powers, China launched a crash program that was to pursue all
tasks simultaneously, mastering nuclear and then-non-nuclear weapon theory,
technology, design, and construction in the shortest time possible. This
was in addition to a similar effort to produce the missiles and aircraft
that would carry the nuclear weapons. Soviet assistance was therefore
absolutely essential.

The Soviets designed and built China's aircraft industry and its initial
nuclear weapons infrastructure, including equipment, plans, and training.
On October 15, 1957, the two nations signed the New Defense Technical Accord
in which the Soviets promised, among other things, to supply China with
blueprints for, and a working prototype of, an atom bomb, as well as
missiles.

Proceeding with Soviet assistance, China began the process of building
nuclear weapons by searching for uranium deposits. This massive effort led
to substantial finds and opened the way for research on extracting,
concentrating, processing, and enriching uranium for bombs. Having learned
from U.S. and Soviet experience and having Soviet design help, China chose
the gaseous diffusion method of enriching uranium to weapon grade.

The split

The Sino-Soviet ideological rift grew so wide that the two nations entered
what the CIA called "their own 'cold war," (6) and the Soviets reneged on
their promises in June 1960. (7) By August 24 all Soviet aid to the Chinese
nuclear program was over, and all Soviet advisers had left China.
Nonetheless, the Soviet help saved China years of effort and incalculable
cost, and permitted China to advance far beyond its existing indigenous
abilities.

Naturally, China was bitter about the Soviet action and was forced to
practice what it preached about self-reliance, a lesson etched deep on the
Chinese psyche. In the end China would point with pride to its own
considerable nuclear accomplishments. But the split caused major
disruptions to the program, forcing China to reorganize its all-at- once
approach. China made uranium enrichment the highest priority and suspended
work on plutonium production.

The Soviet pull-out caused delays in the construction of the main gaseous
diffusion plant at Lanzhou and brought to a halt design and construction
work in the main plutonium production and processing center in Subei county.
A nuclear fuel component plant was built in Baotou, for producing uranium
tetrafluoride, nuclear fuel rods, and lithium-6 deuteride. Plutonium work
was resumed after China's first nuclear test in 1964 and the Subei facility
is now known as the Jiuquan Atomic Energy Complex, where nuclear weapons
also are assembled. A nuclear weapon design academy was established near
Haiyan, east of Lake Qinghai.

Starting in the late 1960s China built a duplicate set of nuclear weapon
research, production, and assembly facilities in Sichuan Province. These
include a weapon research and design center in Mianyang; an entire atomic
energy complex, larger than the Jiuquan complex, in Guangyuan county; and a
nuclear fuel production plant in Yibin. China is believed to rely mostly on
these facilities today.

The other major nuclear weapon facility is the nuclear test site at Lop Nur,
where China has conducted all 36 of its tests to date. These facilities
constitute the core of China's nuclear weapon research, design, and
production infrastructure. China relied on them, along with missile and
bomber production and test centers, to build a nuclear arsenal intended
initially to strike at U.S. targets.

The split with the Soviets culminated in a complete reversal of Chinese
orientation, from Soviet ally to Soviet enemy. Fighting broke out along
their border in 1969, and China ordered its nuclear weapons retargeted on
the Soviet Union, a condition that exists today. This is the only nuclear
about-face in the history of the arms race.

The arsenal

China maintains a small arsenal of nuclear forces, estimated to contain
250-350 deployed warheads and structured in a "triad" of land-based
missiles, bombers, and submarine-launched missiles. (8) Detailed information
is unavailable, however, on the undeployed stockpile; China's nuclear
stockpile could be two or three times as large as these estimates.

Land-based missiles comprise the bulk of the forces. The Dong Feng (DF)-3,
-4, and -5 missiles have ranges varying from 2,800 to 13,000 kilometers.
Because of their range the great majority of these can strike only at Asian
targets. Perhaps 20 DF-4 missiles with limited intercontinental range
(7,000 kilometers) can strike targets as far as Europe, and up to 10 DF-5
missiles have intercontinental range and can hit targets in North America.
So far, all Chinese ballistic missiles are thought to carry one warhead
each. The Chinese have undertaken research on multiple warheads, but it is
unclear whether they plan to deploy them.

China also maintains a nuclear bomber force of approximately 160-180 Hong-6
and Hong-5 aircraft and an unknown number of Qian-5 nuclear-configured
attack jets, with an estimated stockpile of over 200 nuclear fission and
fusion bombs. China is developing a new supersonic bomber for deployment in
about 1993. The newest leg of China's triad is the small force of
Daqingyu-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and the Julang-1
ballistic missiles they carry. Two submarines are thought to be operational
and several more under construction, each carrying 12 missiles.

Mixed signals

Three issues related to China's nuclear weapons policy cause current
concern: nuclear proliferation in South Asia, China's missile exports, and
China's policy and deeds on nuclear proliferation. The first two bring back
the topic of tactical nuclear weapons.

Nuclear arms in South Asia. India and Pakistan are engaged in a nuclear
arms race that has brought dangerous nuclear capabilities and tensions to
the subcontinent. India revealed its nuclear weapon capability by exploding
a "peaceful" nuclear device in 1974, although it has not yet openly deployed
nuclear weapons nor tested another device. It is believed that Pakistan may
have readied or even assembled nuclear weapon components in spring 1990,
during tensions with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir. (9) As
required by law, the U.S. government suspended military and economic aid to
Pakistan last fall because it could not certify that Pakistan did not have a
nuclear explosive device.

If India were to deploy nuclear weapons, Pakistan would be under intense
pressure to reciprocate. But India's motive to deploy may stem from China
rather than Pakistan. India began its nuclear program with China, not
Pakistan, in mind. In 1965 the head of India's atomic energy program told
U.S. officials that India wanted to "counteract the 'noise' of Communist
China's nuclear explosion," and would need to ,'make some dramatic
'peaceful' achievement to offset the prestige gained by Communist China
among Africans and Asians." (10) Rumors about Chinese deployments of
tactical as well as strategic nuclear weapons facing India have again
fostered Indian nuclear anxiety.

China should be in a position to reassure India either that it has no
tactical weapons or that its nuclear weapons are not meant or deployed to
threaten India. As Thomas Graham suggested at a November 1990 conference,
this would help India to reduce its nuclear worries and ambitions in
general, and specifically help diminish Indian incentives for deploying
nuclear weapons. At a minimum, any attempt to address nuclear proliferation
in South Asia must keep China's central role in mind.

Missile merchant. Just as the Western powers-who are also the
traditional missile exporters-began worrying about missile proliferation,
China emerged as a major merchant of ballistic and cruise missiles. China
sold Silkworm antiship cruise missiles to both sides in the Iran-Iraq War,
then stunned the world with its secret sale of several dozen (reportedly 36)
DF-3 intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in 1987- without
the original 3-megaton nuclear warheads, said buyer and seller.

At the same time, China offered its new M-9 short-range ballistic missile
for sale at international arms bazaars. The missile could carry a Chinese
tactical nuclear warhead and has range and payload characteristics banned in
the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Export of this
sort of missile is also banned by the multinational Missile Technology
Control Regime, of which China is not a part. China has apparently not sold
any M-9 missiles yet, but Syria, Iran, Libya, and Pakistan are reportedly
interested. (11)

The United States has pressed China for assurances that it would not sell
ballistic missiles in the Middle East, but China has said only that it would
not sell more "medium-range" (DF-3) missiles-nothing about the M-9. If
China sells the M-9 it will adversely affect the Missile Technology Control
Regime and other efforts to prevent proliferation of nuclear-capable
missiles.

Nuclear proliferation. In the early 1960s China supported nuclear
proliferation to socialist states. Before joining the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1984 and reversing that policy, China engaged in
questionable nuclear practices, reportedly including unsafeguarded exports
of nuclear materials.

Although China now conforms to most nonproliferation norms, several issues
remain. One is that its policy and practice omit several categories of
activity included in the IAEA-NonProliferation Treaty (NPT) regimes,
including information transfer. (12) Another is continuing reports that
China is involved in nuclear trade with would-be nuclear weapon countries.
For example, China allegedly provided Iraq with technology related to
uranium enrichment centrifuges. (13) In fall 1990 the London Independent
reported that the China Wanbao Engineering Company, a subsidiary of the huge
state arms export company North China Industries Corp., agreed to provide
Iraq secretly with seven tons of lithium hydride, a chemical that can be
used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, missile propellant, or chemical
weapons. (14) The company was apparently not under Beijing's control when it
made the agreement. These cases suggest that China has not strictly
enforced its nonproliferation policy and needs to tighten its control of
supplier companies.

A final issue is that China opposes what it calls unreasonable restrictions
on peaceful nuclear cooperation, "imposed under the pretext of preventing
nuclear proliferation." This is a jab at Western suggestions that all
nuclear suppliers should require full-scope safeguards in the nations with
which they trade. But the nonproliferation community came close to adopting
that goal at the 1990 NPT review conference (see December 1990 Bulletin).
The participants agreed unanimously on full-scope safeguards, although for
other reasons the conference never adopted a final declaration incorporating
this measure and others. If China is the only nuclear supplier to hold out
on requiring such safeguards, it could pose serious problems for
nonproliferation efforts. China should therefore be encouraged to support
the full-scope safeguards requirement for all nuclear trade.

China does not want to be known as a notorious nuclear or missile
proliferator. It stands to gain more by playing a constructive and
cooperative role in arms control and nonproliferation. Recent evidence,
including arms control policy statements and an observer delegation to the
NPT review conference last fall, suggests that this is understood in
Beijing. But China's mixed signals, such as continuing interest in selling
ballistic missiles and technology useful for nuclear and other
mass-destruction weapons, perpetuate the Chinese nuclear enigma. China
would serve international security by clarifying its intentions.

MAP: China tests weapons at Lop Nur and has a uranium fuel component plant
at Baotou. In the late 1960s, China built new, allegedly underground
facilities in the mountains, at Mianyang, Guangyuan, and Yibin, to
supplement (or replace) weapons plants at Jiuquan, Haiyan, and Lanzhou. The
author estimates the location of the Lop Nur Test Range, an area of 1 00,000
square kilometers, based on John Lewis and Xue Litai's China Builds the
Bomb, nuclear test data, and discussions with seismologists and Western
researchers.

1. "The Might of Helan Shan Shakes," Ningxia Ribao, June 29,1982, p. 1,
trans. in JPRS-China, Aug. 3,1982, p. K8.

2. Washington Post, Nov. 8,1988, p. A23.

3. Dan Stober, "Lab Secrets Stolen: Chinese Allegedly Used Data for Bomb,"
San Jose Mercury News, Nov. 21, 1990, p. 1A; Michael Wines, "Chinese
Atom-Arms Spying in U.S. Reported," New York Times, Nov. 22,1990, p. 5.

4. Survey of China Mainland Press, no. 208, cited in Dingli Shen, "The
Current Status of Chinese Nuclear Forces and Nuclear Policies," report no.
247 (Princeton University, Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, Feb.
1990), p. 2.

5. Roger Dingman, "Atomic Diplomacy During the Korean War," International
Security, vol. 13, no. 3 (Winter 1988-89), pp. 50-91.

6. Mary T. Cagle, "History of the Nike Hercules Weapon System," (U. S. Army
Missile Command, April 19,1973), pp. 116,185.

7. Central Intelligence Agency, "The Deterioration of Sino-Soviet
Relations, 1956-66," Intelligence Handbook (sanitized copy) (CIA, April
22,1966), p. 1.

8. For detailed references on this section see Richard W. Fieldhouse,
Chinese Nuclear Weapons: A Current and Historical Overview, Nuclear Weapons
Databook Working Paper (Washington, D.C.: Natural Resources Defense Council,
March 1991).

9. John Burns, "U.S. Urges Pakistan to Settle Feud with India over
Kashmir," New York Times, May 21, 1990, p. A6.

10. U.S. State Department, Memorandum of Conversation, "Indian Nuclear
Energy Program," Feb. 22,1965 (declassified), p. 1.

11. Statement of Rear Adm. Thomas Brook, director of naval intelligence,
to House Armed Services Committee, March 14, 1990, p. 56.

12. Charles Van Doren, "The People's Republic of China as a Nuclear
Supplier: Export Policy, Capabilities and Constraints," China and Nuclear
Non-Proliferation: Two Perspectives, Occasional Paper no. 3 (Southampton,
UK: University of Southampton Programme for Promoting Nuclear
Non-Proliferation, July 1989), p. 8.

13. "Iraq and the Bomb," Financial Times (Mid-East Markets column), Dec.
11, 1989.

14. Em Kelsey, "China Ships Vital Nuclear Cargo to Iraq," The Independent
on Sunday, Sept. 30,1990, p. 1; Andrew Higgins and Tim Kelsey, "Peking, Arms
Undo Its Good Work," The Independent on Sunday, Sept. 30, 1990, p. 19; Tim
Kelsey and Andrew Higgins, "Pressure Grows on China over Nuclear Sale to
Iraq," The Independent on Sunday, Oct. 7,1990, p. 1.

Richard Fieldhouse, a senior research associate with the Nuclear Weapons
Databook Project of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington,
D.C., specializes in Chinese nuclear weapons.

 

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