New Delhi: China is increasing its nuclear weapon stockpile and delivery systems rapidly with the goal to get strategically on a par with the US and Russia, veteran diplomat Jayant Prasad said Wednesday.

Prasad, who has served as a member of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters as well as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria and Nepal, was speaking at a virtual event hosted by the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS).

“China is augmenting its nuclear weapon and delivery systems very rapidly… It is trying to become a strategic co-equal of the US and of Russia,” he said.

Prasad expressed concern over the possibility of China sharing nuclear material and technologies with Pakistan, and the fact that Beijing is building facilities on the Makran coast in Pakistan and the country’s naval bases, while also having a base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa.

China has the third largest nuclear weapons stockpile after the US and Russia. It officially operates about 20 silos for the DF-5 missile, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), but the discovery of a second missile field last July indicated it was making space for 230 new silos.

“This effectively raises Chinese ICBM capacity — if all the silos are filled with ICBMs — more than 11-fold,” said Prasad.

Last November, a US Defence Department report said China has plans to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the department projected in 2020.

Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at US-based think tank Federation of American Scientists, was another speaker at the event.

‘India Needs To Effectively Use Andaman & Nicobar’

On the issue of submarine warfare, the former diplomat said there are regional anti-submarine warfare assets in place, including those of India, that track Chinese nuclear submarines.

“They’re easily trackable when they come through the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean. China started sending in their nuclear submarines into the Indian Ocean in 2014 and we have kept track of them,” said Prasad.

He added that, as counter-measures, India must first improve nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) and ISR systems — the early warning intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capacity.

“We must augment our interdiction capacity by using the Andaman and Nicobar Islands more effectively,” he said.

‘Strategy Moving Towards Launch On Warning’

China became the first nation to propose and pledge a no-first use (NFU) policy when it first gained nuclear capabilities in 1964, and other countries such as India follow this policy too.

However, experts at the virtual event said China’s rapid drive to expand its nuclear arsenal shows a pivot towards a ‘launch on warning’ strategy — launching a retaliatory nuclear-weapon strike against an opponent as soon as an incoming enemy missile is detected.

Asked what’s driving this perceived change in China’s nuclear strategy, Kristensen said, “It’s a deep sense of vulnerability… and the other reason is clearly linked to President Xi’s declared ambition to make China a world-class military power.”