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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Anniversary of the Chinese bomb: the road to the nuclear club

RIA Novosti

14:53 20/10/2009 MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Ilya Kramnik) - On October 16, 1964, China conducted its first nuclear weapons test, codenamed "Experiment 596." From 1964 to 1996, the Chinese held 47 nuclear weapons tests, including 23 atmospheric (until 1980) and 24 underground tests (1976-1996).

Accordingly, China was the last country to join the "big nuclear club," which now consists of the five great powers that were victorious in World War II and simultaneously became members of the UN Security Council.

This was not a coincidence. A nuclear weapons programme is a luxury that only leading nations could afford. It was also no coincidence that the U.S., the richest and most prosperous country at the time, was the first to test a nuclear weapon. The bomb was subsequently built in the Soviet Union (1949), U.K. (1952) and France (1960). China rounded out this group.

Many doubted China's great power status immediately after World War II. Though it lost power in Mainland China after the end of World War II, the Kuomintang government was recognized as the legitimate government of China, enjoying the status of a member of the UN and an official ally of the Soviet Union, the U.S., and other countries. The People's Republic of China was not recognized in the West for a long time, and the Republic of China, which grew out of the Kuomintang and controlled only Taiwan and some other nearby small islands, held China's UN Security Council seat until 1971.

Mainland China had been involved in war since the early 1930s - longer than any other country in World War II - and it was in pitiful economic shape. The lack of industry and accompanying lack of scientific prowess all but ruled out such a project.

The Soviet Union played a considerable role in making China a nuclear power by extending substantial aid to it to build up scientific capabilities (including in physics) and develop industry capable of something as difficult as making a nuclear weapon.

There were various rumours about the Soviet Union's direct involvement in developing Chinese nuclear weapons, which ranged from "no participation" to "full provision of information and equipment." As often happens to be the case, the truth was somewhere in the middle.

China was working on its own nuclear weapon even before the official declaration of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949. In the spring of 1949, Chinese physicist Tsien San-Tsiang travelled to France with the goal of obtaining materials and equipment for establishing a nuclear laboratory and institute of physics. He was eventually successful with the support of Frederic Joliot-Curie. The French scientist thought that China should have nuclear weapons and supported the plans of Mao Zedong, who had called nuclear weapons a "paper tiger," but nevertheless was not about to give up on acquiring them.

In the spring of 1953, China turned to the Soviet Union for help with its nuclear weapons programme; however, upon the recommendation of the leadership of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, China was given only some general scientific papers that lacked in-depth research into the subject. Furthermore, Nikita Khrushchev recommended that China abandon its nuclear weapons programme on account of the country's weak industrial and scientific base. Nevertheless, he offered assistance in peaceful nuclear research.

But the situation changed in 1957. Khrushchev needed political support due to a power struggle with the "Anti-Party Group," as well as events in Poland and Hungary. He had no choice but to cooperate with China. Beijing gained access to Soviet nuclear weapons technology.

In 1958, China developed its first nuclear reactor and cyclotron. It seemed that China would produce its first nuclear bomb within months; however, politics changed the course of events - the first disputes between the Soviet Union and China on a number of fundamental political issues ensued. In 1959, the transfer of materials was sharply reduced, and in 1960 Soviet nuclear experts were recalled from China.

China had to go the rest of the way on its own. By this time, Beijing already had at its disposal certain theoretical knowledge that it had gained from the Soviet Union. In addition, due to established contacts in Europe, where there were quite a few scientists of the calibre of Joliot-Curie who sympathized with the Chinese, China was able to obtain sufficient information from France and other countries.

It is hard to say which information played a major role, but one way or another, the first Chinese nuclear weapon was detonated on October 15, 1964 at the Lop Nur test site. As with the first Soviet nuclear weapons test in 1949, the bomb was housed in a test tower. The second test was conducted in 1965, when the bomb was dropped from a Tupolev Tu-4 plane. Accordingly, China joined the world's nuclear powers.

Nevertheless, one nuclear weapons test was not enough for nuclear status. The delivery vehicles were no less of a problem - these were primarily missiles and bomber aircraft. China already had short-range missile technology from the Soviet Union as well as Tupolev Tu-4 piston-engined bombers and reactive Ilyushin Il-28s and Tupolev Tu-16s, but these resources were insufficient.

In the last 30 years, China has followed in the footsteps of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, creating its own nuclear triad, which includes land- and sea-based missiles and long-range bombers. According to various estimates, China has the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, with around 150 strategic and 600-700 tactical warheads. Russia currently has approximately 3,000 strategic warheads at its disposal, while the U.S. has more than 4,500 nuclear weapons. In addition, both Russia and the U.S. have formidable tactical nuclear weapons arsenals.

China was the last member of the "big nuclear club" to acquire nuclear weapons before July 12, 1968, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was opened for signature. The treaty was nevertheless unable to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

Other countries that currently have nuclear weapons are Israel (which does not officially confirm or deny nuclear status), India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Moreover, South Africa, which is thought to have developed nuclear weapons jointly with Israel, used to have a nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, the South African nuclear weapons program was scrapped by the early 1990s and the weapons were dismantled. There are also a number of countries, such as Argentina, Brazil and Iran, that do not have nuclear weapons but have worked or are working on developing them. Still other countries have the capability to acquire nuclear weapons quickly given enough political will. These include Germany, Japan and a number of other industrially developed nations.

Nuclear weapons have been used only twice - as part of the most terrible war in human history. One can only guess when they will be used again.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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