The Development of Nuclear Weapons in China

By Xiangli, Sun | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports, October 28, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Development of Nuclear Weapons in China


Xiangli, Sun, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports


INTRODUCTION

China launched its nuclear-weapon program very rapidly, after giving it the green light in January 1955. Since then, for the past several decades, apart from nearly ten years of slow progress due to the Cultural Revolution, the entire program has been carried out in an orderly and efficient manner, and its development strategy has been quite stable. In the process, China has created its own distinctive path to developing nuclear weapons that reflects its unique nuclear doctrine, and its nuclear forces have become a cornerstone of its national security.

Now, however, in today's new international security environment, China's nuclear deterrent capability faces fresh challenges to remain effective, and the country's nuclear weapons development program is also encountering new issues and choices. This chapter reviews the course of development for nuclear weapons in China, examines the decisionmaking mechanisms and main development principles behind the country's nuclear-weapon program, uncovers its underlying philosophy and thinking, analyzes current challenges and possible future directions for nuclear deterrence, and provides views on the relationship between nuclear force development and the nuclear arms control agenda.

ESTABLISHING A NUCLEAR-WEAPON DEVELOPMENT POLICY

DECISIONMAKING MECHANISMS

The guidelines for China's nuclear strategy were established by its top decisionmaking circle, led by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and the country's nuclear-weapon program was launched under their leadership. Mao was at the heart of this decisionmaking process, and he dominated the general direction of China's development of nuclear forces. Meanwhile, Zhou was the central figure in leading the nuclear program.

On July 4, 1955, soon after the decision was made that China would develop nuclear weapons, the central government formed a three-person committee, consisting of thenvice premier Chen Yun; the vice chairman of the People's Revolutionary Military Commission, Nie Rongzhen; and the chairman of the State Construction Commission, Bo Yibo. This group was to be responsible for directing the government's work related to atomic energy development. In December 1962, to strengthen the leadership mechanism of the country's nuclear-weapon program, the central government established a fifteenperson special committee and made it responsible for leading both the nuclear energy program and the nuclear-weapon program. Seven vice premiers and seven ministerial leaders served on the committee, and Zhou Enlai was the chairman. In March 1965, the central government decided that the committee would also be responsible for supervising missile research and testing. Meanwhile, the committee grew in size, as General Yu Qiuli and other new members were added, and it was renamed the Central Special Committee. Thereafter, this committee led all development work related to all nuclear submarines and satellites.1 In the early and intermediate phases of China's nuclear force development, this decisionmaking circle-with Mao and Zhou serving as the core, and the Central Special Committee functioning as the main body-dominated the overall progress of China's nuclear-weapon program.

As the leader of the country's nuclear-weapon program from the start, Zhou played a central role in making decisions related to strategies about how to develop and deploy these weapons. He led the Central Special Committee as it established the main principles of China's nuclear-weapon development, involving major issues such as the program's direction, scale, and structure, as well as the technical requirements of the country's nuclear forces. Furthermore, he guided the Central Military Commission (previously known as the People's Revolutionary Military Commission) and relevant military departments to formulate nuclear-weapon deployment and operational strategies, make specific arrangements for the construction of missile bases, and establish a full set of guidelines and principles related to the storage and deployment of nuclear weapons, as well as other operational matters. …

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