If China increases nuke arsenal to 1,500, what does it mean for Israel? - analysis

Besides the security implications for Washington, what impact might China's bigger arsenal have on the nuclear standoff with Iran, including for Israel?

 Military vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles DF-17 travel past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 1, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/JASON LEE)
Military vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles DF-17 travel past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 1, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JASON LEE)

For decades, the world has had two premier nuclear powers: the US and Russia. Combined, they have consistently possessed around 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons.

A US Pentagon report issued on Tuesday indicated that China is on the verge of drastically changing that picture.

Besides the security implications for Washington, what impact might this have on the nuclear standoff with Iran, including for Israel?

First, it is important to understand the broader picture.

Depending on your estimate and how you count, the US and Russia each have around 5,400 or 5,900 nuclear weapons, respectively, of which around 1,600 for each country are deployed (as opposed to stockpiled or intact-retired).

 Military vehicles carrying hypersonic cruise missiles DF-100 drive past Tiananmen Square during the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China in Beijing (credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS) Military vehicles carrying hypersonic cruise missiles DF-100 drive past Tiananmen Square during the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China in Beijing (credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS)

Both powers also have significant nuclear triad capabilities – meaning they can almost instantly fire nuclear missiles from land, air and sea.

China has always been part of a much more junior group of nuclear powers, including France, England, Pakistan, India and Israel (according to foreign reports), which have less than 300 nuclear weapons, mostly in the 100-200 weapons range.

North Korea is the newest addition to the nuclear club, currently estimated as possessing dozens of nuclear bombs. But they may also eventually join the medium-powers nuclear club.

Tuesday’s report said that Beijing is shattering the pace expected of it to increase its nuclear inventory. The Pentagon said that China had passed the 400 nuclear weapons in around two years, as opposed to the 10-year pace expected from it.

Moreover, the report said, “The PRC [People’s Republic of China] is investing in and expanding the number of its land-, sea- and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces.”

“The PRC is also supporting this expansion by increasing its capacity to produce and separate plutonium by constructing fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities,” according to the Pentagon.

Finally, it said, “The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] plans to ‘basically complete modernization’ of its national defense and armed forces by 2035. If China continues the pace of its nuclear expansion, it will likely field a stockpile of about 1500 warheads by its 2035 timeline.”

Broken down, what this means is that in 13 years, China will have a nuclear weapons volume, industrial development and strategic and tactical diversity that will rival Washington and Moscow in every way that matters. China is accomplishing this by essentially ignoring all calls for arms control negotiations and lectures about nuclear proliferation, and simply barreling forward to the extensive arsenal which it wishes to wield.

The lesson could not be clearer to Iran.

If you ignore global objections, eventually you can develop a nuclear arsenal – and no one can stop you.

Of course, the Islamic Republic’s situation is more complex because it does not yet have a nuclear capability and it has a thorn in its die called Israel, which at least says it is willing to launch a massive aerial strike or covert strikes to block progress to an actual weapon. Less certain, but not completely worth ignoring is the American commitment to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and the sanctions the regime faces.

However, when the 2015 JCPOA Iran nuclear deal was signed, nuclear weapons in the world were dropping, not growing. There was still a strong nuclear non-proliferation architecture and seeming unity among the top and medium nuclear powers to keep the nuclear numbers low.

Moscow’s playing with the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine has broken some of that, and breaking nuclear arms control deals between the US-Russia has harmed things more.

Yet, what China is doing is a far greater change because it is altering the entire strategic balance into there being three premier nuclear powers and greatly increasing the number of nuclear weapons globally after decades of the numbers dropping.

How can China lecture Tehran about staying away from nuclear weapons in these changed circumstances? At the same time, Beijing is the primary party facilitating Iran’s resistance to Western sanctions.

In this environment, it should be less surprising that China refuses to condemn Iran as it creeps closer to the 90% weaponization level of uranium and as it accumulates enough of a mix of 60% and other levels of enriched uranium to be only a matter of months away from multiple nuclear bombs.

All of this greatly complicates current diplomatic attempts to rein in the Islamic Republic.

China’s work on hypersonic missiles – which are harder for US missile defense to stop and on the path of developing Iranian claims to be on – does not help.

As China’s nuclear arsenal grows and Iran increases all the categories a country needs for nuclear weapons, the chances continue to grow that the only way to block the ayatollahs will be through Israeli overt or covert action.