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Global nuclear arsenals rise as concerns grow over China and North Korea

“There are clear indications that the reductions that have characterized global nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War are over,” the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said on Monday.

The report comes amid growing concern in the West about efforts by China and North Korea to expand their nuclear capabilities. The United States suspects North Korea is preparing to carry out its seventh nuclear test imminently, while Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said at the Shangri-La Dialogue summit this weekend that his country had made “impressive progress” in developing new nuclear weapons.

However, while SIPRI reports that China is “in the midst of a substantial expansion of its arsenal of nuclear weapons”, it points out that China and North Korea are not the only culprits.

According to SIPRI estimates, the United States and Russia remain by far the largest nuclear powers in the world, with 3,708 and 4,477 nuclear weapons respectively, while China has 350, France 290 and Britain 180. But the number of Chinese warheads has increased in recent years, from 145 warheads. in 2006 according to the institute. The Pentagon predicts the Chinese stock will “at least double in size” over the next decade.

While US and Russian stockpiles have shrunk in 2021, SIPRI believes an “alarming” longer-term trend will see both countries increase stockpiles and develop more powerful weapons.

North Korea’s secrecy means it is difficult to assess its nuclear capabilities. Some estimates put its current stockpile at around 20 nuclear warheads, although the United States and other countries believe it is working to increase that number and its ability to deliver them.

Pyongyang has carried out a record number of ballistic missile launches this year and on Saturday appointed chief nuclear negotiator Choe Son Hui as its first female foreign minister.

“North Korea continues to prioritize its military nuclear program as a central part of its national security strategy,” SIPRI said, adding that “the country’s fissile material inventory is expected to increase in 2021.” .

The think tank, which included figures for the country in its annual report for the first time this year, said it believed North Korea now had enough fissile material to produce up to 55 warheads.

But its ability to deliver these weapons remains unknown. In May, North Korea tested what appeared to be an intercontinental ballistic missile – although the weapon’s range or ability to launch a nuclear warhead was unclear.

“There is no publicly available evidence that North Korea has produced an operational nuclear warhead for delivery by an intercontinental-range ballistic missile, but it may have a small number of warheads for medium-range ballistic missiles. “, SIPRI said.

SIPRI also said India and Pakistan were making efforts to expand their nuclear arsenals. He said Israel – which does not publicly admit to possessing nuclear weapons – was trying to modernize its arsenal. Stockpile estimates for India and Pakistan were 160 and 165, and for Israel 90.

As recently as January, the world’s five largest nuclear powers – also known as the P5, as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – pledged to work together for “a world without weapons nuclear” in a rare statement of unity.

However, Russia’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine raised fears that nuclear weapons could be used outside of a test situation for the first time since the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Since the start of the war, Russia has repeatedly reminded the world of its nuclear power in oblique references apparently aimed at deterring Western countries from greater intervention. CIA Director William Burns also warned that Russia could use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Today, many countries – even those without nuclear weapons – are rethinking their calculations. Japan, the United States and South Korea recently pledged to strengthen their joint nuclear deterrence strategy.

During the Shangri-La dialogue, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi made unusually strong comments against North Korea and China.

“The world has become even more uncertain,” Kishi said at the inaugural Asian Defense Summit. “Japan is surrounded by actors who possess or develop nuclear weapons and openly ignore the rules.”

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He criticized neighboring North Korea’s missile tests and called China a “nation of concern”, citing its recent military operations with Russia in waters near Japan and Taiwan, the first since. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Ukraine (today) may be East Asia tomorrow,” he said.

Speaking at the same summit, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said his country would “significantly strengthen” its defensive capabilities amid heightened concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program .
Various experts have pointed out that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrated the power of nuclear deterrence. Ukraine is one of the few countries to have voluntarily renounced a nuclear arsenal. It did so after the fall of the Soviet Union, sending many of its weapons to Russia – the same country it is now being invaded by.

“Countries that feel threatened may look at Ukraine and think that getting rid of [their] nuclear weapons are not the way to go and that could tempt them to move towards a nuclear-free deal, which will become a daunting task,” said regional security expert Ian Chong, also an associate professor of political science. at the National University of Singapore.

Chong said there had been “a high level of concern about nuclear weapons” at Shangri-La. “We are seeing a spike in tensions which very much reflects the concerns in Northeast Asia [at the moment] in the event of a nuclear attack.

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Eyes on Beijing

The SIPRI report is also likely to refocus attention on China’s nuclear ambitions, following reports last year that Beijing was building a sprawling network of intercontinental ballistic missile silos in its western desert.

“Several additional nuclear warheads would have been assigned to operational forces in 2021 following the delivery of new mobile launchers and a submarine,” writes SIPRI.

During the Shangri-La dialogue, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe defended his country’s nuclear stance.

“China has always followed a proper path to develop nuclear capabilities for the protection of our country,” he said in response to questions about the new nuclear missile silos. Wei said nuclear weapons would be used “in self-defense” and to prevent nuclear war.

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“We have developed nuclear capabilities to protect the hard work of the Chinese people and protect our people from the scourge of nuclear war,” he said.

Wei’s comments came after remarks by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who said at the same conference that China was engaged in coercive, aggressive and dangerous actions that threatened to “undermine security, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific”.


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