The Chinese government has now made a little noticed step toward nuclear transparency. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, in April 2004, released a fact sheet entitled China: Nuclear Disarmament and Reduction … that states:
Among the nuclear-weapon states, China has performed the least number of nuclear tests and possesses the smallest nuclear arsenal.
Not more than 200, seriously.
This is the first official, public statement on the size of China’s nuclear arsenal.*
The statement implies that China maintains fewer than 200 nuclear weapons, the generally accepted size of the British nuclear arsenal.
Most estimates put the Chinese nuclear arsenal at 400 warheads, but until now the Chinese government has refused to provide an official estimate.
The best guess, derived from official [US Defense Department] sources, estimates the size of the Chinese strategic arsenal around 80 operationally deployed nuclear warheads. Only a handful of China’s ballistic missiles are ICBMs: probably 18 CSS-4 (DF-5A) missiles and about 12 CSS-3 (DF-4) missiles. The remainder of the nuclear force, numbering about 45 launchers, comprises what one member of the intelligence community called “theater” forces: medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) like the liquid fueled CSS-2 and its replacement, the solid-fueled CSS-5. These launchers may have a re-fire capability.
I confess that I didn’t notice the Chinese statement in April, but several Chinese scholars have subsequently employed this small increase in transparency in their own writings. Ye Ru’an, Vice President of the Chinese Arms Control and Disarmament Association, describes China’s nuclear forces as the “smallest of the N-5,” while Li Bin, a professor at Tsinghua University, described the Chinese arsenal as “the smallest and least sophisticated arsenal of the five declared nuclear powers…”
Of course, being able to place the size of the Chinese arsenal between 100 and 200 warheads is still far from precise. But it is a start.
*Then-Director-General of the Department of Disarmament and Arms Control Sha Zukang said in 2001 that China had the smallest arsenal, but that may say more about Sha than his talking points. On other occasions, he was careful to restrict himself to discussing Western estimates and reminding listeners that he “didn’t know personally how many warheads” China had.