China leading way as nuclear powers expand arsenals, report warns

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STOCKHOLM, Sweden — The nuclear arsenals of several countries, especially China, grew last year and other atomic powers continued to modernize theirs as geopolitical tensions rise, researchers said Monday.

The annual report on the arsenals of the globe’s nine nuclear-armed powers claimed Israel, which does not acknowledge having such weapons, was one of four countries to not expand its stockpile, along with the United States, United Kingdom and France.

“We are approaching, or maybe have already reached, the end of a long period of the number of nuclear weapons worldwide declining,” Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told AFP.

The total amount of nuclear warheads among the nine nuclear powers — Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the US — was down to 12,512 at the outset of 2023, from 12,710 at the start of 2022, according to SIPRI.

Of those, 9,576 were in “military stockpiles for potential use,” 86 more than a year earlier. The number of deployed warheads, 3,844, was also up from the 3,732 warheads SIPRI reported as deployed in a report from a year earlier.

SIPRI distinguishes between countries’ stockpiles available for use and their total inventory — which includes older ones scheduled to be dismantled. It also tallies how many warheads are deployed versus stored for some countries.

In image from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on October 26, 2022, a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired as part of Russia’s nuclear drills from a launch site in Plesetsk, northwestern Russia. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

“The stockpile is the usable nuclear warheads, and those numbers are beginning to tick up,” Smith said, while noting that numbers are still far from the 70,000-plus seen during the 1980s.

The bulk of the increase was from China, which increased its stockpile from 350 to 410 warheads.

India, Pakistan and North Korea also upped their stockpiles and Russia’s grew to a smaller extent, from 4,477 to 4,489, while the remaining nuclear powers maintained the size of their arsenal.

SIPRI estimated that Israel’s nuclear stockpile remained steady at 90 warheads, but cautioned that there was significant uncertainty, given Israel’s opacity regarding its nuclear program.

In this Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, file photo, the long range ballistic Agni-V missile is displayed during Republic Day parade, in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)

Russia and the United States together still have almost 90 percent of all nuclear weapons, the report found.

“The big picture is we’ve had over 30 years of the number of nuclear warheads coming down, and we see that process coming to an end now,” Smith said.

START stop

Researchers at SIPRI also noted that diplomatic efforts on nuclear arms control and disarmament had suffered setbacks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

For instance, the United States suspended its “bilateral strategic stability dialogue” with Russia in the wake of the invasion.

In February, Moscow announced it was suspending participation in the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START).

A TV screen shows a file image of North Korea’s missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. (AP/Ahn Young-joon)

SIPRI noted in a statement that it “was the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty limiting Russian and US strategic nuclear forces.”

But Smith said the Ukraine invasion was too recent to explain the increase in new warheads, which take time to develop, and that the bulk of the increase was among countries not directly affected, such as China.

China has also invested heavily in all parts of its military as its economy and influence have grown.

“What we’re seeing is China stepping up as a world power, that is the reality of our time,” Smith said.

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