China is modernising and expanding its nuclear weapons stockpile but it still has a fraction of the inventory held by the United States and Russia, according to researchers at a Sweden-based global security think tank.
Releasing its 2021 yearbook on Monday, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said China had 350 warheads this year, up from 320 last year.
Russia still led the world with 6,255 warheads and the US was second with 5,550, despite both countries reducing their stockpiles during the year.
Russia and the US also increased the number of warheads placed on missiles or located on bases with operational forces.
“Both are estimated to have had around 50 more nuclear warheads in operational deployment at the start of 2021 than a year earlier,” the report said.
The report comes just days after China criticised the US over plans to deploy missiles and defensive systems in neighbouring countries.
In an address to the United Nations-backed Conference on Disarmament on Friday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for cuts to the American and Russian nuclear arsenals, urged fresh efforts to advance nuclear talks with Iran, and criticised Washington’s “unilateral bullying” on Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Sipri researchers said that overall the number of deployed nuclear warheads rose from 3,720 in 2020 to 3,825 this year. Of those, around 2,000 were in a “state of high operational alert”, the report said.
North Korea did not conduct nuclear tests or long-range ballistic missile tests during 2020, but it continued production of fissile material and development of short- and long-range ballistic missiles, the report said.
The world’s nine nuclear-armed states – the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – together possessed an estimated 13,080 nuclear weapons at the start of 2021, 320 fewer than the estimate for a year earlier. The decrease happened mainly because of the US and Russia dismantling retired warheads, the report said.
Hans Kristensen, associate senior fellow with Sipri’s Nuclear Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme, said it was worrying that the total number of warheads in global military stockpiles appeared to be increasing.
“The last-minute extension of New START by Russia and the US in February this year was a relief, but the prospects for additional bilateral nuclear arms control between the nuclear superpowers remain poor,” Kristensen said.
In February, the US and Russia extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to 2026, a move that was widely seen as a cornerstone of international security.
But Kristensen said Russia and the US appeared to be increasing the importance they attributed to nuclear weapons in their national security strategies, with both implementing extensive programmes to replace and modernise their nuclear warheads, missile and aircraft delivery systems, and production facilities.
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