A Look at China’s Nuclear History Amid Nuclear-Capable Weapon Test

icy relations between china and the soviet union surrounded chinese nuclear independence

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

China tested its first nuclear weapon in October 1964. It was a factor in Khrushchev’s removal from power and the rivalry between China and the Soviet Union. China recently tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon, worrying other nations.

Nuclear explosion
Although the United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia, have always been at the forefront of the nuclear arms race, nine countries worldwide have nuclear weapons. Photo By curraheeshutter / Shutterstock

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that China has tested a hypersonic weapon by launching it into space, orbiting Earth before returning to China. The hypersonic weapon is nuclear-capable, concerning several nations about China’s growing military and defense presence. Meanwhile, China claims it was working on technology for a peaceful, reusable space vehicle.

Until the 1960s, China had a close relationship with the Soviet Union, which collapsed as China’s nuclear capabilities developed. Before his unfortunate passing, in his video series The Fall and Rise of China, Dr. Richard Baum, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained the international politics surrounding the nation’s first nuclear weapons test.

War of the Words

Among all the domestic and foreign political problems of the 1960s, the deepening conflict between the Soviet Union and China was a considerable one.

“Tensions between the two had grown noticeably worse since the early ’60s,” Dr. Baum said. “In the summer of 1962, for example, China and India fought a brief border war over some disputed territories high up in the Himalayas. In that conflict, the Russians had maintained a steady neutrality, refusing to support their erstwhile Chinese ally—and thereby ostensibly violating the golden rule of fraternal solidarity in Communist bloc relations.”

In return, China publicly criticized Nikita Khrushchev for his failure to stand up to the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As tensions rose, a summit was scheduled for the summer of 1963, which fell apart as officials from each party made accusations of one another.

“It didn’t help the meeting’s chances that even as the summit was in progress, Khrushchev was preparing to sign a comprehensive nuclear test-ban treaty with the American president, John F. Kennedy,” Dr. Baum said. “Thereafter, Beijing accused Moscow of capitulating to U.S. imperialism and all hopes of reconciliation were dashed.”

An Explosive Statement

According to Dr. Baum, in the middle of October 1964, China successfully tested its first atomic bomb, which he called “a low-yield fission device—roughly 25 kilotons—that had been built entirely without Soviet assistance.” This was a major demonstration of Chinese military independence. It was also a key factor in Khrushchev’s removal from power, as were his failures during the Cuban Missile Crisis and his reformist tendencies.

With Khrushchev out and a Chinese nuclear bomb successfully demonstrated, the Russians aimed for reconciliation with China yet again, and they used America’s role in the Vietnam War as an excuse.

“The new Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, held out an olive branch to Beijing,” Dr. Baum said. “He offered to coordinate the flow of weapons with Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam with the Chinese to show their unity in the face of U.S. imperialism. But Mao flatly rejected Brezhnev’s offer, and shortly afterward he angrily denounced the idea of peaceful reconciliation with [the Soviets].”

From Brezhnev’s perspective, the increasingly radicalized Mao looked like an overzealous ideologue or maniac. He seemed to have no respect for the incredible destructive power of nuclear weapons, which put the entire world in danger. At one point, the Russians even proposed partnership with the United States to counterbalance China.

The future of China’s international relations in light of its new nuclear-capable weapons test remains to be seen. More than 55 years since China’s first nuclear test, all nations involved are under different leadership, and the fall of the Soviet Union changed Russia radically as well. For those wondering what the future holds, the past offers few answers.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily