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Will China overtake US and Russia in nuclear weapons arsenal? How China is modernizing its nukes?

Will China overtake US and Russia in nuclear weapons arsenal? How China is modernizing its nukes?


  • GS 3 || Security || Tackling Security Threats || Nuclear Weapons

Why in the news?

According to a recent analysis by the Swedish think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) all nuclear-weapons states have continued to upgrade their arsenals, while India and China have boosted their nuclear warheads in the previous year.

China, India & Pakistan expanding nuclear arsenal:

  • According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China is in the midst of a massive modernization and increase of its nuclear weapon stockpile, while India and Pakistan look to be doing the same (SIPRI) 2021 Yearbook.
  • The total number of warheads in worldwide military stockpiles looks to be rising, indicating that the downward trend in global nuclear arsenals since the conclusion of the Cold War has come to a halt.
  • According to the yearbook, India had 156 nuclear weapons at the start of 2021, up from 150 at the start of the previous year, while Pakistan had 165, up from 160 in 2020.
  • At the start of 2021, the nine nuclear-armed powers the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea had a combined nuclear arsenal of 13,080 warheads, up from 320 at the start of 2020.
  • Russia and the U.S. together possessed over 90% of global nuclear weapons, as per SIPRI report.
  • The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) published a report titled ‘Nuclear Deterrence and Stability in South Asia: Perceptions and Realities,’ which stated that chance played a significant role in the February 2019 India-Pakistan crisis, and the two countries “risk stumbling into using their nuclear weapons through miscalculation or misinterpretation in a future crisis.

  • According to the study, “India and Pakistan are exploring new technologies and capabilities that threaten each other’s security within the nuclear threshold.” China’s growing prominence as a nuclear-weapons state, it said, was exacerbating India’s security concerns.

In the neighborhood, nuclear arsenals are on the rise:

  • China is in the midst of a major nuclear-weapons modernisation program.
  • For the first time, it is building a nuclear triad, consisting of new land and sea-based missiles as well as nuclear-capable planes.
  • China’s nuclear arsenal increased from 290 to 320 warheads in 2020, while India’s increased from 130-140 in 2019 to 150 in 2020.
  • In 2019, Pakistan’s arsenal was expected to be between 150 and 160 tons, and it has now surpassed 160 tons in 2020.
  • Nuclear arsenals in China and Pakistan remain to be bigger than those in India.

Global scenario:

  • At the start of 2020, the nine nuclear-armed powers the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea had an estimated 13,400 nuclear weapons, down from an estimated 13,865 at the start of 2019.
  • The reduction in total numbers was primarily due to Russia and the United States dismantling outdated nuclear weapons, which together account for over 90% of all nuclear weapons in the world.

A general decline across the globe:

  • At the start of 2020, the nine nuclear-armed powers the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea had a total of 13,400 nuclear weapons.
  • This was down from an estimated 13,865 nuclear weapons at the start of the year.
  • The dismantlement of outdated nuclear weapons by Russia and the United States, which together own over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, was primarily responsible for the drop in total numbers.

How to control the nuclear arsenal?

  • Complete nuclear disarmament is, without a doubt, the ultimate risk reduction option, and nuclear weapon nations should genuinely collaborate in working toward this objective, including problems such as credible disarmament verification.
  • Even if nuclear disarmament is a long-term process, nuclear weapon nations might at least demonstrate their readiness to progress by taking tiny measures in the right direction.
  • A prohibition on the manufacture of fissile materials or a freeze on nuclear weapons upgrading are two examples of policy choices in this category of minor steps toward genuine disarmament.
  • A (combined) investigation of other ways to dissuade enemies that do not include the worldwide catastrophic dangers associated with nuclear weapons is also possible.
  • In the long run, a quest for innovative, imaginative ideas to alternatives to nuclear deterrence may be sparked.

Controlling the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons:

  • The NPT is a historic international treaty whose purpose is to prevent nuclear weapons and weapons technology from spreading, to encourage cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to advance the goal of nuclear disarmament and general and full disarmament.
  • The Pact is the only multilateral treaty that contains a legally enforceable commitment to the objective of nuclear disarmament by nuclear-weapon states. The Treaty of Rome was signed in 1968 and came into force in 1970.
  • The Treaty was renewed indefinitely on May 11, 1995. The Treaty has been signed by 191 countries, including the five nuclear-weapon states. The NPT has been ratified by more nations than any previous arms control and disarmament pact, demonstrating the Treaty’s importance.
  • The Treaty established a safeguards mechanism under the authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency to promote the aim of non-proliferation and as a confidence-building measure between States Parties (IAEA).
  • Inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are used to verify conformity with the Treaty. The Treaty encourages cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear technology and provides all States parties with equal access to this technology, while safeguards prevent fissile material from being diverted for military purposes.

Additional info:

About SIPRI:

  • Independent international organization committed to conflict, weapons, arms control, and disarmament research.
  • The Stockholm-based Institute delivers open-source data, analysis, and recommendations to policymakers, scholars, the media, and the general public.


In this period of rising geopolitical tensions, effective mechanisms to monitor nuclear arsenals and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and materials are necessary.

Mains oriented question:

“India has no first-use strategy based on the principles of minimum deterrence and nuclear non-proliferation.” In light of this, consider if India’s No First Use policy should be revisited. (250 words)