1960-1980: China Independently Develops and Tests Nuclear Weapons and Missile Technology

Only ten years after its conception, the Chinese nuclear weapons complex successfully tested its first uranium-based atomic bomb on October 16, 1964. The test bomb utilized highly-enriched uranium that was produced at the Lanzhou enrichment facility, and was dropped at the Lop Nur Test Site. Then, in record-breaking time, just 32 months later, China tested its first thermonuclear device in June 1967. As a result of the extensive assistance the Chinese received from the Soviet Union in the previous decade, the time between China’s first nuclear test and its first thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) test was considerably shorter than it was for any other nuclear weapons state.

China was the first nuclear weapons state to publicly declare a NFU (no-first use) policy, in 1964. A NFU policy “refers to any authoritative statement by a nuclear weapon state to never be the first to use these weapons in a conflict, reserving them strictly to retaliate in the aftermath of a nuclear attack against its territory or military personnel.” For more information on the NFU policy and the posture of other nuclear weapon states, see the website of the Council on Foreign Relations at https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/no-first-use-and-nuclear-weapons.

Despite its unprecedented declaration of NFU, while other nuclear-weapons states began to negotiate the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) during the 1960s, Beijing criticized the NPT as imbalanced and discriminatory. Even though China was included as a nuclear-weapons state according to the treaty, Beijing did not sign the Treaty in 1968, when the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and the United States did. Throughout the next couple of decades spanning the Cold War, China continued to test various missile technologies and conducted around 45 large-scale nuclear explosive tests.

As part of consecutive Five-Year Economic Plans throughout the 1970s, China constructed various nuclear facilities for the purpose of redundancy and reducing vulnerability to attacks: • Gaseous Diffusion Uranium Enrichment Facility (Heping) • Plutonium Production Reactor and Extraction Facility (Guangyuan) • Nuclear Fuel Component Plant (Yibin) • Nuclear Weapon Design Facility (Mianyang) Additional facilities constructed since the end of the Cold War are depicted on the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s interactive nuclear facilities map, found at https://gmap.nti.org/nuclear_china.html.

Equally important to the development of a competent and deployable nuclear weapons arsenal – but often overlooked – is a nation’s ballistic missile capabilities. While developing its nuclear weapons program throughout the 1960s and 1970s, China simultaneously developed and tested several missile technologies. One of the most significant tests of this age was conducted on October 27, 1966 when China launched a Dong Feng-2 (DF-2) medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) from the Shuangchengzi Missile Test Site. The missile carried a 12-kiloton nuclear warhead, striking its target in the Lop Nur Test Site.

This test is significant as the only time that a country has tested a nuclear warhead mounted on a ballistic missile flying over populated areas. This test also marked the beginning of China’s indigenous development of ballistic missiles – the basic design of which is still in use today.

Following the DF-2 test of 1966, China continued to develop its land-based nuclear-capable missile force through the design and testing of new MRBMs, intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). By 1980, China had completed most of its basic missile designs and began the process of improving upon previously successful designs. For a more detailed history on the deployment of China’s missile technology, see the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s “China” webpage at China delivery Systems