During and after the 1980s, most of China’s missile research was conducted in order to modernize and improve old designs as opposed to developing new ones. After solidifying its nuclear weapons and missile design, China turned to the development of tactical nuclear weapons – short-range nuclear weapons intended for use in battlefield operations, such as artillery shells, bombs, and short-range missiles. Testing during the 1980s and 1990s was also geared towards the development of smaller warheads for solid-fueled ICBMs, and possibly a multiple warhead (MRV) capability.
Prior to 1980, China had maintained a nuclear policy that focused on the use of nuclear weapons primarily for deterrence and national security; its primary motive was to avoid any sort of “nuclear blackmail” akin to what had occurred with the United States during the Korean War. Beijing was not particularly concerned with ensuring nuclear non-proliferation, following International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, or halting the testing of nuclear weapons.
However, China’s position on nuclear proliferation began to change in the 1980s, when China ultimately indicated that it generally accepted the promotion of nuclear non-proliferation and the limitation of nuclear weapons globally.
Following this policy shift, China joined the IAEA in 1984, agreeing to place all of its nuclear exports under international safeguards.
After attending the fourth NPT review conference in 1990, although China still had qualms about the terms of the treaty, Chinese leaders agreed that the treaty had a positive impact in contributing to the maintenance of world peace and stability, then formally signed the NPT in 1992.
Despite this international statement of commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, China was involved in several nuclear proliferation scandals throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
In particular, China sold ring magnet technology to Pakistan in 1995, and at another time during this period, provided Pakistan with the nuclear bomb design used by China in a 1966 nuclear weapons test.
China conducted its final nuclear test on July 29, 1996, then signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on September 24, 1996.
A more detailed history of China’s Nuclear Modernization and road to treating with the international community can be found at the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s website at China Nuclear