A day after the United States raised the issue of global arms control in a discussion between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Chinese state newspaper called for a sharp increase in the number of nuclear warheads. In an editorial written by its editor-in-chief, Global Times contended that geopolitical risks make it imperative for China to raise the number of nuclear warheads to at least 1,000.

Hu Xijin said China needs to reach this mark "in a relatively short time," adding that those who think China doesn't need to increase its nuclear weapons capacity are naive. "Don't be naïve. Don't assume that nuclear warheads are useless. In fact, they are being used every day as a deterrent to shape the attitudes of US elites toward China. Some Chinese experts say we don't need more nuclear weapons, I think they are as naïve as children," he wrote.

Trump warning on 'costly arms race'

The White House said on Thursday that Trump told Putin about the US commitment to arms control and that Washington wants Moscow and Beijing to join the effort. "President Trump reaffirmed that the United States is committed to effective arms control that includes not only Russia, but also China, and looks forward to future discussions to avoid a costly arms race," the White House said, Reuters reported.

China set to announce sharp increase in defence spending
Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) march past Tiananmen Gate during the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, in Beijing, China, September 3, 2015 Reuters

Despite the US calls in the past to join an arms control accord, China has resisted the pressure so far, chiefly arguing that its nuclear programme is peaceful in nature. While the New START treaty prevents the US and Russia from deploying more than 1,550 nuclear warheads, China is not bound under any such commitment. China says it's nuclear weapons are for self defence and that it will abide by a no-first-use policy.

How big is Chinese nuclear stockpile?

There is no clarity on the number of Chinese nuclear weapons. China became a nuclear power in October 1964 when it successfully tested a nuclear weapon. It is believed that as of 2011 China had around 200 to 300 nuclear warheads. Though it's certain that has further boosted its nuclear stockpile, nobody has the finger on a certain number. The current estimate is that Beijing has around 300 nuclear weapons, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Early this year too, the US had renewed the call for China to participate in arms control talks. "It shouldn't just be the U.S. and Russia. We think that China is going to need to become involved in any serious arms control negotiation," National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said in February.

Whenever China was pressured to join the three-way arms control talks with the US and Russia, China has wriggled out, pointing out that its stockpile was too small in comparison with those of the US and Russia. The US has some 6,185 total warheads and Russia has 6,490. The number of warheads deployed by the US stands at 1,750, while those of Russia are pegged at 1,600.

China deploys missiles in Paracels
Maps showing the claims of six Asian countries contesting all or parts of the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea.

China aims nuclear parity with US and Russia?

At the same time, international observers think that Beijing is trying to achieve parity with the US and Russia in the number of nuclear warheads. "Beijing's ambitious plans for new enrichment and recycling capacities capable of producing material for nuclear weapons would make it possible for China to achieve parity with the United States and Russia," Foreign Policy wrote in an article in February.

If the article in the influential Communist Party mouthpiece is any indication, Beijing is harbouring tall ambitions over its nuclear strike capability. Hu says that China is facing tougher challenges in the future. "We are a peace-loving nation and have committed to never being the first to use nuclear weapons, but we need a larger nuclear arsenal to curb US strategic ambitions and impulses toward China," he writes.