Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

October 2000 (Vol. XXIV No. 7)

Soviet and American Technological Assistance and the Pace of Chinese Nuclear Tests
By Matin Zuberi *


"A few atomic bombs are enough [for China]. Six are enough."

"The success [of strategic weapons programme] will boost our courage and scare others."

"Build a few [nuclear weapons], keep the number small, make the quality high." 1

An extraordinary Soviet nuclear test was conducted on September 14, 1954. Sheep, dogs, cattle, and other animals as well as weapons and military uniforms were scattered around ground zero. A 20-kiloton bomb was dropped from a height of 8,000 metres and exploded at a height of 350 metres. Within minutes, units of some 44,000 Soviet troops, dug into trenches, were ordered into the blast zone. The Soviet High Command and Defence Ministers from socialist countries, including Chinese Defence Minister Peng Dehuai, watched the spectacle. The explosion's shock wave blew the hats off the senior dignitaries and had to be hurriedly retrieved by soldiers. The Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Air Force later instructed one of his aides to explain to the Chinese Chief of Air Staff that China had no need for the bomb; Soviet nuclear umbrella over China provided sufficient protection. 2 A Chinese decision to produce the bomb, however, was not long delayed.

The decision was taken at a meeting on January 15, 1955, presided over by Mao, with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai at his side. It was an enlarged meeting of the Central Committee of the Party. Some Chinese scientists had brought a sample of uranium and a Geiger counter; politburo members played with them and "smiled jubilantly." A nuclear weapons programme, code-named 02, was launched. Mao closed the meeting with the assertion that China possessed the human and natural resources and that every kind of miracle could be performed. 3

Chinese leaders asserted that the Soviet Union's status as a nuclear superpower should not be made a justification for preventing other socialist countries from increasing their own defensive capabilities. Nuclear weapons of a socialist country, they asserted, could pose no threats because these would only be for defence against nuclear blackmail. The monopoly of nuclear weapons powers was intolerable; they could not be allowed to behave as self-ordained nuclear overlords treating the overwhelming majority of countries as if they were nuclear slaves.

China Seeks Soviet Assistance

As China had launched a crash programme to master the entire spectrum of nuclear and missile technology in the shortest period of time, it desperately needed Soviet assistance. Mao Zedong, who described China as "poor and blank", considered Soviet military and scientific help as a temporary expedient. Soviet knowledge and assistance, if cleverly circumscribed, could accelerate China's developmental process. 4 The nuclear relationship passed through three stages determined by the evolving nature of the broader Sino-Russian alliance–the era of dependency (1955-58), the phase of interdependence (1959-60), and, finally, the period of independence beginning in the summer of 1960 with the departure of Soviet scientists. China became the only nuclear weapons state that turned its thermonuclear apparatus on its former nuclear benefactor. 5

Marshal Nie Rongzhen, veteran of the Long March who later became the overlord of China's scientific development including the nuclear enterprise, suggested to the Central Committee and the Central Military Commission that China should start its own "preparations for research to develop missiles, atomic bombs, new fighter planes and other sophisticated weapons, while striving to continue the negotiations with the Soviet Union, trying everything possible to get help." The Soviet government had agreed to train 50 missile specialists, and China "should make the most of this chance". 6

Guo Moruo, President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, noted that about three-fourth of the Academy fellows could read Russian documents, and a quarter of them could translate them into Chinese. They could, therefore, take full advantage of the Russian friends "disinterested gifts and aid" in the nuclear field. A 30-year Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance signed on February 4, 1950, extended the Soviet nuclear umbrella over China and set the stage for massive military and scientific-technological assistance. Nuclear co-operation began with the establishment of a Sino-Soviet Non-Ferrous and Raw Materials Company; this was the beginning of exploration of uranium mining in Xinjiang. The first Chinese scientific delegation of 26 experts led by physicist Qian Sanqiang, who was Deng Xiaoping's schoolmate and friend, went to the Soviet Union in May 1953 to study Russian experiences in the development of scientific research and to exchange views on extending scientific cooperation between their countries. The Chinese Communist Party had also enjoined all cadres to study important Soviet reports, and works on science and technology. 7

Soviet aid began to flow and in July 1953 about 10,000 metric tonnes of nuclear equipment and material were sent to China. Soviet experts helped in the setting up of a number of laboratories. In 1954 a Joint Institute of Nuclear Research was established in Dubna near Moscow with nuclear experts from 11 countries of the Socialist bloc. China contributed 20 per cent of its budget; its contribution was second only to that of the Soviet Union. 8 About a thousand Chinese scientists received training at this institute.

On July 20, 1957 Moscow invited a Chinese delegation. The Soviet Union tested its first ICBM in late August 1957. The nuclear delegation, including Nie Rongzhen, Chen Geng and Song Reqiong, went in September; on October 4 the USSR launched Sputnik, and on October 15, after 35 days of negotiations, an agreement was signed providing for Soviet assistance to China "in such new technologies as rockets and aviation". 9 Nie Rongzhen was not the only Chinese dignitary in Moscow during the key months of late 1957. Even Mao Zedong was there, attending a November conference of 12 governing communist parties. A military delegation led by Defence Minister Peng Dehuai remained in Moscow after Mao's departure. Guo Moruo led a scientific mission, which held talks from October 18, 1957 to January 19,1958. A Protocol on joint research, specifying 122 scientific and technological items, was signed. 10

Between 1955 and 1958 six accords were signed relating to Soviet assistance in the development of China's science, industry, and weapons programmes. These included joint surveys of Chinese uranium ores, supply of a nuclear reactor and a cyclotron, and aid in building China's nuclear research facilities and industries. The New Defence Technical Accord of October 15, 1957, however, was unusual in the history of the nuclear age; the Soviet Union promised to supply China with blueprints for, and a working prototype of, an atomic bomb and missiles, as well as related data. 11

These agreements should be viewed in the context of evolving Sino-Soviet relations and the ideological turmoil within the world communist movement triggered by Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956. Chinese leaders played a leading role in restoring Soviet influence in Eastern Europe following the uprisings in Poland and Hungary. They used their leverage by extracting substantial nuclear concessions as part repayment for Chinese favours. During 1957 Khrushchev was also engaged in a power struggle within the Kremlin and the extraordinary Chinese demand for a prototype of an atomic bomb was made in the confidence that the beleaguered Khrushchev would have found it prudent to accede to it. 12 He was trying to maintain a façade of harmony and to ensure China's acceptance of Soviet leadership of the communist bloc at the Moscow Conference in November 1957. The Russians also agreed to sell industrial equipment for the processing and enrichment of uranium and to provide enough uranium hexaflouride for the initial operation of China's gaseous diffusion plant. One Chinese demand, data on Soviet nuclear-powered-submarines, however, was rejected. 13

According to Khrushchev, Soviet Minister for Medium Machinery Yefin Pavlovich Slavskii reported to him that the prototype of the bomb was assembled and packed for its journey to Beijing. Anastas Mikoyan spoke against supplying the prototype while Nikolai Bulganin argued in favour. Sino-Soviet relations had considerably deteriorated by 1958 and Khrushchev decided to postpone the transaction. Unaware of this decision, the Chinese continued to build a room suitable for exhibiting the prototype for instructional purposes. Russian scientists in China even forced several modifications in the design of the room. Until the middle of 1959 Chinese workers repeatedly went to the railway station to collect the prototype that never arrived. 14

Partial Test Ban Treaty of August 1963

The extraordinary Chinese demand for a prototype of the bomb with its related data got enmeshed in the arms control policy of the Soviet Union. The nuclear test ban issue continuously gnawed at what both countries regarded as their vital interests; its ramification pushed them to a qualitatively new level of acrimony. Not only did it signal an open rift, but also became a major point of contention around which the adversaries tried to muster support within the world communist movement.

As early as 1956, the Chinese accused Khrushchev of having "divorced the cessation of nuclear tests from the question of disarmament." 15 He gradually came to the conclusion that China was not a reliable partner and might undermine his efforts for a détente with the West. Mao denigrated changes in Soviet policies and showed increasing disdain for Khrushchev's style of leadership. Returning after the tenth anniversary of the Peoples Republic, Khrushchev believed Chinese leaders were "keen on war like a bellicose cock." 16

Meanwhile, tentative discussions had begun between the Soviet Union and the United States exploring the possibility of a nuclear test ban. Despite public Chinese support until 1959 for such a ban, Chinese leaders were naturally anxious about such a ban becoming a reality. Accepting an American proposal in May 1958 for a conference of experts to examine the possibility of detecting violations of a test ban, 17 Khrushchev suggested that "experts from India and possibly from certain other countries" should also be invited to the conference. 18 This was an indirect effort to inhibit the Chinese nuclear weapons effort. The report of the conference proposed eight stations in China to monitor a test ban. 19 The three nuclear weapon powers of the period suspended nuclear testing in the autumn of 1958. Although a brief moratorium, it was an important stage in the tortuous negotiations for a cessation of tests.

A letter dated June 20, 1959 from the Central Committee of the CPSU to its Chinese counterpart stated that because of the nuclear test-ban negotiations in Geneva, the Soviet Union could not supply a prototype of the bomb and its technical data. It added that if the Western powers learnt about sophisticated Soviet technical aid to China, the socialist community's efforts for peace and relaxation of tensions might be seriously jeopardised. 20 The Chinese were furious and dubbed their first device "596", commemorating the year and month in which the Soviet letter was sent to Beijing. 21

The Sino-Soviet dispute reached a new stage when Krushchev decided to stop all assistance to China. The sudden departure of Soviet experts in 1960 stunned Chinese scientists. Wang Jeifu, leader of the gaseous diffusion plant, personally escorted the last group of them to the airport. Before their departure Soviet experts shredded sensitive documents. Chinese scientists assembled and examined the fragments. This became the "number-one secret document" and provided vital information on the technique of implosion thereby facilitating the Chinese bomb design. 22 By August 24, 1960 all Soviet assistance to China's nuclear and missile programmes had stopped and all Russian scientists and engineers had left China.

Soviet leaders informed their Chinese counterparts on August 25, 1962, that they had responded "affirmatively" to an American proposal for a nonproliferation agreement. People's Daily of September 12, 1962 accused the United States of being "anxious to tie China's hands in developing nuclear weapons." It asserted that only a complete ban on nuclear weapons and the unconditional destruction of all existing nuclear weapons could eliminate the threat of a nuclear war. China accused Khrushchev of "adventurism" and then "capitulationism" during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. 23

While China was developing its nuclear weapons technology, the American intelligence community was improving its capabilities to monitor Chinese progress. Chinese pilots from Taiwan were provided U-2 planes to fly over Chinese territory. In December 1961 reconnaissance satellites provided the first images of the Lop Nur test site. 24

President Kennedy, alarmed by the prospect of Chicom (his short form for the Chinese Communists), wielding nuclear weapons, was convinced that this would be "a great menace" to "humanity, the free world, and freedom on earth." He was willing to accept even some cheating by the Russians on a test ban if the Chinese could be denied the bomb. The CIA had reported in January 1963 that in all matters "short of survival", China and the Soviet Union "will increasingly view each other as hostile rivals and competing powers." Soviet interest in concluding a nuclear test ban agreement was attributed to this momentous development. 25

There were two sets of negotiations taking place in Moscow in July 1963. A Chinese delegation led by Deng Xiaoping was trying to resolve party differences. While this conference had reached a deadlock, American and British delegations arrived in Moscow to negotiate a test ban. Soviet press virtually ignored the party conference but reported that the mood at the tripartite talks was "relaxed and jovial." Kennedy followed the negotiations with a "devouring interest" and ordered that only six top officials outside the White House could read the messages from Moscow and on July 15, 1963 drafted a provocative directive in his longhand. It directed Averell Harriman, leader of the American delegation, "to elicit Khrushchev's view of means of limiting or preventing Chinese nuclear development and his willingness either to take Soviet action or to accept US action aimed in this direction." 26 When Harriman raised the subject of China's acquisition of nuclear weapons, Khrushchev did not respond. A joint military preemptive nuclear strike was discussed within the Kennedy administration. One suggestion was for a Soviet and an American bomber to fly over the Chinese nuclear test site at Lop Nur, with each dropping a bomb, only one of which would have been set to explode; apparently it did not reach the planning stage. 27

On July 20, 1963, it was announced that the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain had tentatively agreed on a Partial Test-Ban Treaty. Deng's delegation left Moscow the same day after an unsuccessful party summit conference. The entire party leadership gave Deng a hero's welcome on his arrival at Beijing airport. Mao Zedong exhorted the people of the world to defy nuclear blackmail. The Chinese government denounced the Partial Test Ban Treaty as a fraud, while the Soviet Communist Party accused its Chinese counterpart of wanting to "build communism on human corpses." 28 The Rubicon was crossed when the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain signed the Treaty on August 5, 1963.

China also sought Soviet assistance in the development of missile technology. Under the New Defence Technical Accord of October 15, 1957, Khruschev sent an Army missile battalion with two R-2 missiles (code-named SS-2 in the West), with a range of 590 kilometres, and their associated launching equipment. The nuclear warhead China was then developing was heavier than R-2's throw-weight limit of 950 kilograms. Blueprints and technical documents in 10,151 volumes and missiles were also sent to China for manufacturing, testing, and launching purposes. Soviet missile engineers arrived in Beijing to help China set up its missile industry. China purchased 12 more R-2s. This marked the beginning of China's ballistic missile programme. The missile was now called 1059.

The Soviet Union refused to supply R-12 (its code name in the West was SS-4) because, as a rule, it did not transfer state-of-the-art weapons to allies before its own deployment of at least two more advanced systems. This did not deter the Chinese from obtaining the technology even if it had to be done in an underhand manner. Chinese students studying at the Aviation Institute, Moscow, had acquired a rudimentary knowledge of the missile. This provided the basis for the dongfeng (East Wind) DF-1 missile.

Those students learned more about R-5 because it was included in their courses and was displayed during the October 1957 parade in the Red Square. They copied restricted data and notes and questioned Soviet experts in order to extract vital information about the missile. It was not on the authorised list of sales to China because the Soviet Rocket Forces had deployed its follow-on model, the R-7 that had launched the Soviet Sputnik on October 4, 1957. 29

Despite worsening Sino-Soviet relations, Khrushchev authorised the sale in December 1959 of R-11 FM as well as the Golf submarine on which it could be deployed. It was the only Soviet missile capable of hitting targets in the United States. This was also the last major Soviet weapons system received by China. 30 In 1963 China decided to build "four types of missiles in eight years." The imaginary targets in the draft plan formulated in 1964 were Japan (DF-2), the Philippines (DF-3), Guam (DF-5), and the continental United States (DF-5). After Sino-Soviet military confrontation over the Ussuri River in September 1969, the range of DF-4 was increased to 4,750 kilometres, bringing Soviet cities within its orbit. 31 A Chinese strategist was later quoted as having asserted that in case of a Soviet attack on his country, Chinese commanders had considered launching strategic missiles against their former ally in "hours, days, weeks, or even years." 32

Approximately 11,000 to 50,000 Russian specialists helped China develop its science and technology. Furthermore, about 38,000 Chinese scientists received training in the Soviet Union. Many of them worked at the Joint Institute of Nuclear Research at Dubna. 33 By the time the Russian scientists and engineers left in 1960, China had a hundred thousand scientists and three hundred thousand engineers. 34 Soviet help saved China several years of effort and incalculable cost and permitted it to advance far beyond its own indigenous capabilities.

On July 10, 1963 Mikhail Suslov reminded the Chinese delegation led by Deng Xiaoping, of the 24 defence enterprises built with Soviet technical assistance that laid the foundation for the development of corresponding branches of Chinese industry. Another 33 defence enterprises were being built in 1963. At one time, 60 infantry divisions were equipped with arms and other equipment supplied by the Soviet Union. China also received a large quantity of technological documentation enabling it to produce MIG-17, MIG-19, MIG-21-F, and TU-16 airplanes, MI-4 helicopters, "air-to-air", ground-to-air", air-to-ground", and "ship-to-ground" missiles, naval materiel, submarines, and cutters of various types. The modernisation of the Chinese army was carried out with Soviet help. And the Soviet Union helped China develop the basis for a nuclear industry. Addressing his "forgetful Chinese comrades", Suslov rhetorically enumerated acts of Soviet generosity: "Do not the 198 modern industrial enterprises built with the technical assistance of the Soviet Union, the scientific research institutes which it set up, and the technical cadres trained in the USSR, bear witness to the commitment by the CPSU to fraternal friendship with People's China?" The Soviet Union had given China 21,000 sets of scientific-technical documentation, including more than 1,400 plans of whole enterprises. Unable to challenge Suslov on his facts, Deng Xiaoping simply said: "Perhaps tomorrow we rest for a day?" 35

Without Soviet assistance, it would not have been possible for China to make rapid progress in its nuclear and missile endeavours. Some senior Chinese still alive in 1985 blamed Mao for the collapse of the Sino-Soviet alliance. One military leader even admitted, "We should apologise to Moscow." Marshal Nie Rongzhen acknowledged China's immense debt to the Soviet Union. According to him, the Russians provided China with prototypes of several kinds of guided missiles, aircraft, and other military equipment and relevant technical data. 36

Americans Offer Assistance

More than a decade after the departure of Soviet scientists and engineers, China found a covert channel for import of sophisticated technology. Ever since the opening in the early 1970s of a new chapter in U.S-China relationship, successive American administrations viewed militarily strong China as a welcome counterbalance to the Soviet Union. Even without any Chinese request, senior American officials in the Nixon administration supplied sensitive intelligence data on Soviet military capabilities and deployments. Henry Kissinger facilitated the sale of two large computers in 1976. The Ford administration encouraged major European powers to sell weapons to China and provide access to Western technology. Military ties were deepened during the Carter presidency and China was allowed access to dual-use American technologies. With the beginning of the crusade against the evil empire's Afghan adventure, the Reagan administration decided to accelerate technology transfers to China. Technology controls were relaxed and China imported avionics packages, anti-submarine warfare torpedoes, advanced computers, and sophisticated machine tools. American satellites were launched from Chinese rockets in the full knowledge that Chinese launch vehicles were derived from the family of missiles and that the space-launch programme was directed by the Chinese military personnel. Large-scale technology and arms transfers continued until the Tianamen Square massacre of June 1989. Exports of military equipment were then banned, but sale of dual-use items was allowed to continue. Lasers, computers, test instruments, and similar devices, imported from the United States, helped in the development of advanced military systems. 37

Chinese nuclear weapons designers also opened channels of communication with their counterparts. Scientists from the Los Alamos and Livermore Laboratories visited Chinese nuclear weapons establishments and the Lop Nur test site. The Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics and Computational Mathematics systematically sought contacts and sponsored international seminars. 38 Lab-to-Lab contacts were regularised. The American National Academy of Sciences also sponsored a series of delegations to China. A physics delegation of some of the most prominent theorists and experimentalists, led by Allan Bromley who later became science adviser to President George Bush, reached Beijing in 1979.

Qian Sanqiang and Wang Ganchang, both key figures in the nuclear weapons effort, led the Chinese team to interact with the delegation. Wang Ganchang later proposed to Deng Xiaoping the "863 programme" designed to focus on critical technologies. Military-to-military exchanges between the two countries were established. The exchanges William Perry, a pioneer of "smart" weapons and "stealth" weapons systems and later American Secretary of Defence, had with General Zhang Aiping and General Liu Huaqing in 1980 had a deep and lasting impact on China's military modernisation effort. General Zhang had played a major role in the nuclear weapons programme and later became China's Minister of Defence; General Liu was China's top military officer from 1992-7. 39

Apart from these high-level contacts with the American defence establishment, China succeeded in importing technology through leading American aerospace and telecommunications companies eager to tap the vast China market. The Clinton administration effectively removed all controls over the sale of whole categories of dual-use technologies. American companies could export to China computers seven times more powerful than those sold in the past. China promptly purchased about 100 supercomputers that were ideally suited to perform the vast number of calculations needed to simulate nuclear explosions. 40


The Lop Nur nuclear test site was established in October 1959. Situated in the desert area of Xinjiang province, it encompasses more than 100,000 square kilometres and by 1984 contained more than 2,000 kilometres of highways. It is the largest nuclear test site in the world; the U.S. Nevada Test site covers about 3,500 square kilometres while the Soviet Semiplatinsk Test site located in Kazakhstan is spread over 5,180 square kilometres. More than 1,000 men worked for two years preparing the ground zero for the Chinese tests. Two reporters have described a "fantastic picture" of the landscape of nuclear refuse: "Broken cars on dispersed rocks; piles of scrap iron that had originally been armoured personnel carriers; the wreckage of planes; destroyed cement buildings some of which had a surface of melted glass." Malan, the headquarters of the test site, is not shown on Chinese maps. Lop Nur contains a Research Institute where studies are conducted on hydrodynamics, solid mechanics, optics, physics, radiation chemistry, computing, and data management. A large archive is maintained on nuclear detonations, nuclear weapons design, anti-nuclear warfare, and so on. By 1988 about 1,000 pieces of technical materials concerning the scientific results of previous tests were classified as 'top secret' and preserved in the archives. 41

Early Nuclear Tests and International Response

Khrushchev fell from power on October 14. 1964. China conducted its first nuclear test two days later. The device weighed 1,550 kilograms and had a yield of 22 kilotons. 42 Two months after the test, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai rhetorically asked: "Have we not exploded an atomic bomb? Has not the label, 'Sick Man of the East', fastened to us by Westerners, been flung off?" 43

According to Chinese calculations, the expenditures on their nuclear weapons programme equaled the cost of building a large modern steel facility. The cost of the enterprise, from uranium mining to the finished bomb, was about US$4.1 billion in 1957 prices; this amount was spread over a period of ten years, between 1955 and 1964. China followed a policy of parsimony and succeeded for four reasons. Chinese scientists largely copied what other nuclear weapons powers had achieved. They had cheap skilled labour. They made few costly mistakes. And they decided not to pursue the seductive trail of extremely accurate weapons. 44 What mattered was the ability to destroy some urban centres or soft military targets of an adversary.

The first Chinese test was condemned by Australia, India, Japan, Malaysia, Nationalist China, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, South Vietnam, Thailand, Uganda, the United States and West Germany. The number of states having diplomatic relations with China, however, increased sharply after the first test. Approximately one-sixth of states that had established diplomatic relations between 1949 and 1965 did so after October 1964. Many states stepped up pressure for seating the Peoples Republic in the United Nations. Subsequent to the second test, there was a tie vote in the 1965 session of the U.N. General Assembly; it was till then the largest pro-Beijing vote in the organisation's history. Interestingly, the Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs and the National Council for Peace and Against Nuclear Weapons in Japan strongly supported the Chinese test. 45

Chinese leaders fully considered the pros and cons of the possible effects of the explosion on international opinion, especially in the developing world; they believed that they could persuade world opinion to support China's action. Zhou Enlai, addressing the War Planning Meeting of the Central Military Commission on May 21,1965, explained that it was decided to carry out the second test on May 15, 1965 despite its coincidence with the Afro-Asian Solidarity Conference at Ghana and the possibility of severe condemnation. The impending encounter with delegates at the Conference was viewed as a challenge to Chinese diplomacy.

Zhou added that the Chinese government was aware of the indignation expressed at the First Non-Aligned Summit in Belgrade regarding the Soviet intention to conduct the largest nuclear explosion in history. Delegations of non-aligned leaders were sent to Moscow and Washington to appeal for cessation of testing. Zhou contemptuously referred to India's appeal to China at the Non-Aligned Conference in Cairo to refrain from conducting nuclear tests and the meagre response to this appeal. At the Ghana Conference, Zhou was pleasantly surprised by the mild regret expressed publicly and the private congratulations offered to him. He attributed this contradictory posture to the continuing hold of nationalism and opposition to imperialism and the pressure to subscribe to the Partial Test Ban Treaty. "Wherever we went, we came across such mixed feelings." The United States' reaction was milder than after the first Chinese test. According to Zhou, even "the Japanese people hailed and congratulated us." He claimed that he succeeded in persuading members of two Japanese entertainment groups, which happened to be in China at that time, that "when we possess atomic bombs, it means that the Japanese also possess them!" One of these Japanese visitors said that after hearing Zhou, he came to the conclusion that he should actually "hail" the Chinese test. 46

While the statement announcing the third test on May 9, 1966 repeated many of the justifications for the earlier tests, it had an anti-Soviet slant as well. The purpose of the Chinese weapons effort was "to oppose the United States-Soviet collusion for maintaining a nuclear monopoly and sabotaging the revolutionary struggles of all oppressed peoples and nations." International response was now less sympathetic. Virtually all members of the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Conference in Geneva condemned the test. The three tests, according to the Chinese, provided "one triumphant song after another" of Mao's thought and the "entire testing area was a great school of studying and applying Chairman Mao's works creatively." 47

The fourth test conducted on October 27, 1966 was spectacular. A DF-2 missile armed with a nuclear warhead made of U-235 was launched against a ground zero in Xinjiang 800 kilometres to the west, hitting the target accurately. Marshal Nie Rongzhen knew the extraordinary risks involved in the test. He knew that "if by any chance the nuclear warhead exploded prematurely, fell after it was launched, or went beyond the designated area, the consequences would be too ghastly to contemplate". He flew to the impact zone and found that the DF-2 was "deadly accurate." This was the only occasion when China conducted such a risky test. Mao Zedong exclaimed: "Who holds that we Chinese can't make missile-carried nuclear weapon? Now we have succeeded." 48 China is reported to have given Pakistan the design of the warhead used in this missile test.

The efforts of Chinese scientists were directed to produce a thermonuclear weapon with a megaton range. They experimented with thermonuclear fuel and warhead design. The boosted device used in the third test contained lithium-6. The fifth test also contained thermonuclear material; it confirmed the design principles of a two-stage device and was a step toward the development of an H-bomb. With the sixth test on June 17, 1967 China became a thermonuclear power. 49 The feat was hailed as a "great victory" of Mao's thought. In Beijing, "cheers, gongs, drums and firecrackers resounded throughout the night" and high in the Pamirs "commanders and fighters at frontier posts jumped with joy." 50 Chinese scientists must have collected and analysed radioactive debris from Soviet nuclear tests, a large number of which were conducted at the Semiplatinsk testing ground in neighbouring Kazhakstan. This may explain the swift Chinese transition from fission to thermonuclear weapons.

Table 1. Dates of First Nuclear and Thermonuclear Explosions

Country First Nuclear Test First Thermonuclear Transition Time Test(years)
United States July 16, 1945 November 1, 1952 7.5
Soviet Union August 29, 1949 August 12, 1955 4
Britain October 3, 1952 May 15, 1957 4.5
France February 13, 1960 August 24, 1968 8.5
China October 16, 1964 June 17, 1967 2.5

Source: Charles H Murphy, Mainland China's Evolving Nuclear Deterrent", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 1972, p. 30. Russian scientists, however, claim that they exploded a deliverable thermonuclear device earlier than the United States. Indian scientists set a new record by simultaneously conducting three tests on May 11 1998, including those of a weaponised fission warhead and a two-stage thermonuclear device that had a boosted fusion primary.

Table 2. Major Chinese Nuclear Tests

No.DateYieldTypeBrief ParticularsRange

1 October 16, 196422 KtAtmospheric/The U-235 device, named "596", tower,102mweighed 1550 kg. It was an implosion device that is more advanced than a 'gun assembly' design and consumes less nuclear material. Twenty-six military and nonmilitary units and more than 5,000 technical and security staff participated in the test. Arrange-ments were made for twenty-six effect experiments to be conducted simultaneously. Aircraft, tanks, self-propelled artillery, communications equipment, animals, medicines and foodstuffs were exposed to the blast.

2May 15, 196535 KtAtmospheric/airThis weaponised version of the drop (H-6), 500mfirst fission device served as the first aerial drop with an H-5 bomber.

3 May 9, 1966250 KtAtmospheric/air A U-235 fission device. It drop (H-6)was China's first attempt to burn thermonuclear fuel. Lithium-5 was present, demonstrating that the test was part of the programme to develop a thermonuclear weapon. It was the first test of China's new theoretical design for fission weapons. Fallout resulted over Japan.

4 October 27, 196612 Kt Atmospheric/Second Artillery Corps soldiersDF-2 missilelaunched a Dong Feng-2 missile with a U-35 fission warhead (weighing 1290 kg) 894 kilometres west toward the Lop Nur test site in Xinjiang. The device exploded 569 metres above the ground.

5 December 28, 122 KtAtmospheric/This was the test of the principle 1966tower, 102 mof a two-stage hydrogen bomb. It used reduced amounts of fission materials and thermonuclear materials (lithium-deuteride), due to low height of tower. It proved the two-stage principle at a low yield. It was the second and final test of the theoretical fusion bomb design. The ground surface within a range of 230 metres around the tower was reinforced with cement and stone blocks.

6 June 17, 19673.3 MtAtmospheric/The first full-yield, two-stage air drop (H-6)thermonuclear device dropped by an H-6 bomber. The device used U-235, U-238, lithium-6, and deute-rium. It was detonated 2960 metres above the test site. China's thermo-nuclear detonation occurred 32 months after its first fission test.

7 December 24, 15-25KtAtmospheric/In this unsuccessful test of a two-1967(H-6)stage thermonuclear device, U-238 and lithium-6 were present. It was the first test not announced by the Chinese government.

8 December 27, 3 MtAtmospheric/Thermonuclear warhead tested. It 1968air drop (H-5)was also the first Chinese nuclear device to use plutonium. The Chinese called it a "new thermo-nuclear test."

9 September 23, 25 KtUnderground This was the first Chinese under-1969(5.2m)ground test. The Chinese govern-ment announced the test on October 4, 1969.

21 November 17, about Atmospheric/air Test of what the Chinese called a 19764Mtdrop (H-6)"new hydrogen bomb." Fallout reached the United States. A Chinese pilot flew through the mushroom cloud to collect data.

27 October 16, 1980200Kt-Atmospheric The last atmospheric test conducted 1Mtby any nuclear weapons power.

34September 29, 1-20KtUndergroundThe device tested was reported to 1988be an enhanced radiation ("Neutron") bomb.

Source:Adapted from Appendix 3 "Known Chinese Nuclear Tests, 1964-1993" in Robert S. Norris, Andrew S. Burrows, Richard W. Fieldhouse, Nuclear Weapons Databook, Vol. V, British, French, and Chinese Nuclear Weapons (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994), pp. 420-21 and pp. 330-36.

The test sequence suggests that Chinese scientists had been "deliberate, frugal, and at times daring", said an official of the U.S Atomic Energy Commission. They made rapid progress in reducing the weight-to-yield ratios of their fission warheads. The nuclear devices for the first and fourth tests weighed 20,000 and 2,000 pounds respectively. 51

China has conducted a total of 45 nuclear tests; 23 were atmospheric and 22 underground tests, of which 13 were shaft explosions. The first such explosion occurred on October 14, 1978. Seven underground tests were tunnel tests. Shaft tests are normally higher in yield. The test on May 21, 1992, when then President Venkataraman was on a state visit to China, had a yield of 600 kilotons. Most of the tunnel tests had yields in the 1 to 3-kiloton ranges. China's stockpile includes tactical nuclear weapons. The last series of tests were designed to provide warheads with improved yield-to-weight ratios for the next generation of ballistic missiles. The total yield of all tests is estimated to be 23.4 megatons. 52

Negotiations for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

The CTBT negotiations between January 1994 and August 1996 were conducted in the context of growing international opprobrium directed at nuclear testing. Russia had not tested since the Soviet test of October 1990; the last British and American tests were conducted in November 1991 and September 1992 respectively. France had observed a moratorium from 1991 until late 1995, when it resumed its final series of six tests from September 1995 to January 1996. International pressure, therefore, came to focus on France and China. After the last French test in January 1996, China stood alone as the only country testing when the final draft of the test ban treaty was being finalised.

There was pressure from China's neighbours to stop further tests. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, located not far from the Lop Nur test site, had been critical of Chinese testing since 1994. They lodged formal diplomatic protests and demonstrators converged on Chinese embassies in the capitals of these republics. Japan froze a portion of its economic assistance to China. 53

China was a reluctant participant in the CTBT negotiations at Geneva. Some members of the Peoples Liberation Army and of the nuclear weapons research establishment maintained that compared to the United States' confidence in the safety, security and reliability of its nuclear stockpile, China was "not technically ready" to sign the treaty. According to Xiangli Sun, a physicist working for the Arms Control Research Division of the Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics within the Chinese strategic weapons R&D complex, China had to conduct more tests. 54 These critics of the CTBT also referred to the extensive financial support for the U.S Stockpile Stewardship Programme and the possible deployment of effective missile defences further widening the technological gap between the American and Chinese strategic arsenals. Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in favour of signing the CTBT.

The Chinese insistence at Geneva to include a provision for "peaceful nuclear explosions" in the text of the proposed treaty was a delaying tactic to enable it to complete its test series. 55 China continued testing during the negotiation in Geneva in the face of considerable international condemnation; and the pace of testing was one of the most ambitious in its history. It conducted 6 tests between June 1994 and July 1996. This was the only occasion when China tested twice a year for three successive years and in either July or August. Out of a total of 45 tests, 32 were conducted in either May-June or September-October. 56

During the CTBT negotiations, the United States offered China simulation technology. The Report by the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the Peoples Republic of China (commonly known as the Cox Report) released in 1999 alleges that China stole classified information related to American nuclear weapons designs, notably the most advanced W-88 nuclear warhead. 57 In response, China's State Council issued a detailed rebuttal rejecting the insinuation that China needed to steal any nuclear secrets. Interestingly, it for the first time disclosed details about the progress of China's own nuclear weapons modernisation programme. Minister of Information Zhao Qizheng, releasing a report on July 15 1999, claimed that in the 1970s and 1980s China had "master[ed] in succession the neutron bomb design technology and the nuclear weapon miniaturisation technology." 58 Those were the years in which China was importing American supercomputers and other dual-use technologies.

China's nuclear weapons endeavour was initially directed against the United States. It was only with Soviet aid that China could build the necessary industrial infrastructure for its nuclear and missile programmes. The Sino-Soviet rift of early 1960s necessitated reliance on indigenous resources; the nuclear-tipped missiles were then turned towards the Soviet Union. This provided an opening for American technology transfers and scientific advice. China is the only country to have succeeded in obtaining massive technological assistance from its ally-turned adversary as well as from an adversary-turned supporter in order to become a major military power.


Note *: Member, National Security Council Advisory BoardBack.

Note 1: Mao Zedong's aphorisms quoted by Litai Xue, "Evolution of China's Nuclear Strategy" in John C. Hopkins and Weixing Hue (Eds.), Strategic Views from the Second Tier: The Nuclear Weapons Policies of France, Britain, and China (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1995), p. 171. Back.

Note 2: David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), pp.326-7, 354. Back.

Note 3: John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 37-9. Back.

Note 4: Ibid., p.42. Back.

Note 5: For a comparison of Sino-Russian and Anglo-American nuclear relationships, see Matin Zuberi, "Building the Bomb: Collaboration for Self-Reliance and the Counter Example of India", USI Journal, vol. CXXIX, no. 535, January-March, 1999, pp. 40-1. Back.

Note 6: Excerpts from Marshal Nie Rongzhen's memoirs, titled "How China Develops Its Nuclear Weapons", in Beijing Review, April 29, 1985, pp. 15-18. Back.

Note 7: Lewis and Litai, op. cit., pp. 42-3, 45. Back.

Note 8: Morton H. Halperin, China and the Bomb (New York: Praeger, 1966), p.79. On Soviet nuclear assistance, see pp. 51, 71, 74, 75, 77, 78-82, 102-4, 130, and 160. Back.

Note 9: Nie Rongzhen, op. cit., p.16. Back.

Note 10: Morton H Halperin, "Sino-Soviet Nuclear Relations, 1957-1960", in Morton H Halperin (Ed.), Sino-Soviet Relations and Arms Control (New Delhi: The English Book Store, 1968), p. 125; Alice Langley Hsieh, Communist China's Strategy in the Nuclear Era (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: 1962), pp. 101-102. Back.

Note 11: Lewis and Litai, op. cit., p. 41. Back.

Note 12: Morton Halperin, "Sino-Soviet Nuclear Relations, 1957-1960", op. cit. pp.122-3. Back.

Note 13: Lewis and Litai, op. cit., p.62. Back.

Note 14: Ibid., pp. 60-1. Back.

Note 15: William E. Griffith, The Sino-Soviet Rift (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1964), p. 354. The Chinese themselves adopted the same policy during negotiations culminating in the CTBT. Back.

Note 16: Lewis and Litai, op. cit., p. 72. Back.

Note 17: Robert Gilpin, American Scientists and Nuclear Weapons Policy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962), p. 185. Back.

Note 18: Morton H. Halperin, "Sino-Soviet Nuclear Relations, 1957-1960", op. cit., p. 137. Italics added Back.

Note 19: Ibid., p. 138. Back.

Note 20: Lewis and Litai, op. cit. pp. 63-4. Back.

Note 21: Ibid., p. 150. Back.

Note 22: Ibid., pp. 160-61. Back.

Note 23: Walter C. Clemens, Jr., "The Nuclear Test Ban and Sino-Soviet Relations" in Morton H. Halperin (Ed.), Sino-Soviet Relations and Arms Control, op. cit., pp.147-56. Back.

Note 24: William Burr and Jeffrey T. Richelson, "A Chinese Puzzle" Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1997, pp.42-7. Back.

Note 25: Gordon H. Chang, "JFK, China, and the Bomb", The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 4, March 1988, pp. 1393-4. Back.

Note 26: Ibid., pp. 1299-1300. Italics added. Glenn T. Seaborg, Kennedy, Krushchev and the Test Ban (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 239. Back.

Note 27: Gordon H. Chang, op. cit., pp. 1304-5. Back.

Note 28: Ibid., p. 1304. For the bitter polemics, see Alice Langley Hsieh, "The Sino-Soviet Dialogue: 1963" in Raymond L. Garthoff, Sino-Soviet Military Relations, (New York: Praeger, 1966), pp. 150-70. Back.

Note 29: John Wilson Lewis and Hua Di, "China's Ballistic Missiles: Technologies, Strategies, Goals", International Security, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 13-4. Hua Di is one of the top-ranking Chinese missile scientists. With the blessings of the Chinese government, Hua began in the 1980s a long association with the Centre for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. He left for a short visit to China on December 31,1997 and was arrested shortly after arrival in Beijing. Accused of revealing Chinese secrets, Hua was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison. Mike Moore, "The Kafkaesque case of Hua Di", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December 1999, pp. 12-14 and Mike Moore "Hua Di convicted", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2000, p.17. Back.

Note 30: John Wilson Lewis and Hua Di, op. cit., pp. 31-2. Back.

Note 31: Lewis and Xue, op. cit., pp. 211-13. Back.

Note 32: Banning N. Garrett and Bonnie S. Glaser, War and Peace: The View from Moscow and Beijing, (Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1984), p.129. Back.

Note 33: Leo Yueh-yun Liu, China as a Nuclear Power in World Politics (London, Macmillan, 1972), pp.39-40. Back.

Note 34: William L. Ryan and Sam Summerlin, The China Cloud, (London: Hutchinson, 1968), p.188. Back.

Note 35: "Stenogram: Meeting of the Delegations of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party, Moscow, 5-20 July 1963", Cold War International History Project, Issue 10, pp. 179-80. Back.

Note 36: Lewis and Litai, op. cit., pp. 63-4. Back.

Note 37: Jonathan D. Pollack, "The Cox Report's Dirty Little Secret", Arms Control Today, April/May 1999, pp. 26-7, 34; Aaron L. Friedberg, "Arming China Against Ourselves", Commentary, July-August 1999, pp. 28-9. Back.

Note 38: Bruce D. Larkin, Nuclear Designs: Great Britain, France and China in the Global Governance of Nuclear Arms (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1996), p. 151. Back.

Note 39: Evan A. Feigenbaum, "Who's Behind China's High-Technology 'Revolution'?", International Security, vol. 24, no. 1, Summer 1999, pp. 97-104. Back.

Note 40: Ming Zhang, "What threat?', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 1999, p.53; Aaron L. Friedberg, op. cit., pp. 29-30. Back.

Note 41: Lewis and Litai, op. cit., pp. 177-80; Robert S. Norris, Andrew S. Burrows and Richard W. Fieldhouse, Nuclear Weapons Databook, vol. V. British, French and Chinese Nuclear Forces, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994), p. 350. Back.

Note 42: John Wilson Lewis and Hua Di, op. cit., p.15. Back.

Note 43: Chong-Pin Lin, "From Panda to Dragon: China's Nuclear Strategy", The National Interest, no. 15, Spring 1989, p. 56. Back.

Note 44: Lewis and Litai, op. cit., pp.107-8. Back.

Note 45: Walter C. Clemens, Jr., "China's Nuclear Tests: Trends and Portents", The China Quarterly, October- December 1967, pp. 117-19. Back.

Note 46: Zhou Enlai Explains China's Decision to Explode the Second Atomic Bomb", Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 10, March 1998, pp.227-228. Back.

Note 47: Walter C. Clemens, Jr., "Chinese Nuclear Tests: Trends and Portents", op. cit., pp. 121-3. Back.

Note 48: Lewis and Litai, op.cit., 202-3, 209. Back.

Note 49: Robert S. Norris, " French and Chinese Nuclear Weapons Tests" Security Dialogue, vol. 27, no. 1, (1996), pp.49. Back.

Note 50: Walter C. Clemens, Jr., "Chinese Nuclear Tests: Trends and Portends", op. cit., p. 126. Back.

Note 51: Charles H. Murphy, "Mainland China's Evolving Nuclear Deterrent", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 1972, p. 29. Back.

Note 52: Robert S. Norris, op. cit., p. 48; Robert S. Norris and William M. Arkin, "British, French, and Chinese Nuclear Forces", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December 1996, pp. 66-7; Robert S. Norris and William M Arkin, "Known Nuclear Tests Worldwide, 1945-98", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December 1998, p.67. Back.

Note 53: Bates Gill and Evan S. Medeiros, " Foreign and Domestic Influences on China's Arms Control and Nonproliferation Policies", The China Quarterly, no. 161, March 2000, pp. 69-70. Back.

Note 54: Ibid., p. 87, footnote no. 52. Back.

Note 55: Ibid., p. 87, footnote no. 52. Back.

Note 56: Bates Gill and Evan S. Medeiros, op. cit., pp. 88-9. Back.

Note 57: Stephen I. Schwartz, "A very convenient scandal", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 199, pp. 34-39; Jonathan D. Pollack, op. cit., pp. 26-7, 34. Back.

Note 58: Bates Gill and Evan S. Medeiros, op. cit., p. 89. Italics added. Back.