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China promises to use new nuclear weapons only for self-defence

Beijing issued a statement on Friday saying its nuclear weapons are only for self-defence and do not pose a threat to countries that are not going to attack China.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that the United States has about 3,700 nuclear warheads, Russia has about 4,500, and China has 410 warheads.

Beijing says it will only use its nuclear weapons in the event of attacked first. However, in recent years, President Xi Jinping has begun to actively modernise the state’s military, including upgrading its nuclear weapons to not only deter an adversary but also to be able to retaliate if deterrence fails.

US officials this week raised concerns that China is building up its nuclear capabilities much faster than expected. According to US projections, Beijing is likely to have more than 1,000 nuclear warheads in its arsenal by 2030. In response to the statement, China’s Foreign Ministry said it “strongly disagreed” with the US report, but its spokesman did not comment on the figures cited. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said:

 “China firmly pursues a nuclear strategy of self-defence. We have always kept our nuclear forces at the minimum level required for national security and have no intention to engage in a nuclear arms race with any country. No country will be threatened by China’s nuclear weapons as long as it does not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against China.”

It criticised US action to “invest heavily in modernising its nuclear forces” and the policy of providing nuclear protection to non-nuclear allies, formally known as “extended deterrence”. Ms Mao noted:

 “These policy actions aggravate the risk of a nuclear arms race and nuclear conflict, and will only worsen the global strategic security environment.”

Experts say China may change its assessment of what constitutes a credible nuclear deterrent, and a significant upgrade of the country’s armed forces would bolster its military capabilities, especially in Taiwan and the disputed South China Sea, much of which China also claims.

China, which considers self-governing Taiwan its territory to be reunified, has regularly conducted military drills around the island in recent years in an effort to reassert its sovereign claims and put pressure on Taipei. Taiwan rejects China’s sovereignty claims.

In 2021, the US State Department said China’s nuclear development was concerning and that it appeared the Asian country was deviating from decades of nuclear strategy of minimal deterrence.  The State Department urged China to engage with it “on practical measures to reduce the risks of destabilizing arms races.”

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