An Overview on China's Nuclear Weapons Program

Jinglin Shan
May 21, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Fig. 1: China's first atomic bomb test (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

China has been neglected in the global nuclear equation by many American policymakers, as the Cold War nuclear paradigm remained centered on Russia. One evidence is a quote from a U.S. government official in 1998 that "the evolution of Chinese nuclear force structure is not attended to at the highest levels of U.S. government". Yet exceptions happened when China detonated its first nuclear weapon in 1964 and hydrogen bomb in 1967. [1] What initiated China's nuclear weapons program, and how does the program evolve?

Quest for Security

It is universally accepted that China's motivation for nuclear program was its quest for security. In 1946, Mao Zedong, China's supreme leader in the period, asserted that Washington was trumpeting about a U.S.-Soviet war because "it was attempting to turn all the countries which are the targets of U.S. external expansion into U.S. dependencies." [2] This strategic view was tested by the Korean War, which resulted in the expansion of Soviet assistance and strengthened resolve of China. [3,4] The war, moreover, introduced Mao's China of advanced armaments and the threat of nuclear attack. Chinese leaders therefore started to agree that to survive in the modern world, China should inaugurate the nuclear weapons program. [5]

U.S.-Taiwan Defense Pact

Acquisition of nuclear weapon for China became a compelling desire as U.S. moves toward a U.S.-Taiwan Defense Pact after Korean War. As official Washington had been burdened by more urgent matters such as Southeast Asia and military part of its China policy in the following year, the mutual defense pact was not signed until December 1954. During the negotiation period, both China and U.S. escalated their provocations against the other. [5] Washington believed that Chinese reaction demonstrated a military weakness, that Beijing did not expect to halt the treaty negotiations because "the Chinese knew they had no power to do so". [5]

Soviet Aid

Aiming at "destroying the nuclear monopoly of China's adversaries", the Chinese Politburo launched the nation's nuclear weapons program. [6] Both Soviet and Chinese military doctrines expressed great fear of nuclear war, and such shared horror led to growing cooperation between the Soviet and Chinese military establishments. In 1955, the Soviet government decided to give aid to China for atomic energy research. In parallel with this, Mao had resolved to build up China's own military nuclear capability for the long term, because he believed that China's dependence on Moscow would be short-lived. China quickly set up a national organization of the nuclear weapons program.

Fall of Sino-Soviet Strategic Cooperation

As expected by Mao, a Sino-Soviet split happened later, the major cause of which, as confessed by Nikita Khrushchev, was the conflict between Khrushchev's and Mao's views on nuclear war and American power. Mao's slogan "Imperialism is a paper tiger" was incredible to Khrushchev, because in his view, U.S. was "a dangerous predator". When they argued about the strategic implications of nuclear weapons in 1956, Mao tried to reassure Khrushchev that "the atomic bomb itself was a paper tiger". [7] The words registered great horror on Khrushchev. The Soviet Union was almost ready to send a prototype of the atomic bomb to China at that point, yet in the end they decided to postpone the delivery, and the Soviet Central Committee decided to suspend assistance on strategic weapons in 1959. [8]

Detonation of the Bomb

It took China years to conquer technical challenges. When the first atomic bomb of China was detonated (Fig. 1), joy erupted in Beijing, and the news was released to the world a few hours later. [7] In the review of Hongqi, the Central Committees organ, wars were believed to "stem from the aggressive nature of imperialist states and the inherent contradictions among them". [9] The possession of nuclear weapons indeed liberated Beijing's policy makers on the issue of survival, yet overtime, China has acknowledged the special burdens of managing a nuclear arsenal, that the nuclear weapons themselves impose great limitation on Chinese defense planning. [5]

© Jinglin Shan. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] B. Hahn, "Strategic Implications of People's Republic of China Nuclear Weapon and Satellite Rocket Programs," Asian Research Service, 1980.

[2] Mao Zedong, "Talk with the American Correspondent Anna Louise Strong, August 06, 1946," Woodrow Wilson Center, 1998.

[3] A.S. Whiting, China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War (Stanford University Press, 1960).

[4] "Effects of Operations in Korea on Communist China," U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, NIE-32, 15 Jun 51.

[5] J. L. Lewis and L. Xue, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford University Press, 1988).

[6] Chou En-Lai et al., People of the World, Unite, for the Complete, Thorough, Total and Resolute Prohibition and Destruction of Nuclear Weapons! (Foreign Languages Press, 1963).

[7] "Statement of the Government of the People's Republic of China, October 16, 1964," Woodrow Wilson Center, October 1964.

[8] N. S. Krushchev, Khrushchev Remembers (Little Brown and Co., 1970), pp. 465 - 470.

[9] More on the Differences between Comrade Togliatti and Us (Foreign Language Press, 1963).