he famous “Arms Race” from the Cold War era describes the tensest moments of the 20th century, as every major nation was preparing for a potential World War III. As I have mentioned previously in many of my articles and history podcasts, the Cold War is seen as a war of intimidation through the showcasing of military power as well as a nation’s potential to conquer the world or (from a different perspective) to bring the world to an end.
Since the start of the Cold War, China kept very quiet. Many historians argue that they had, in fact, been under the influence of the Soviet Union, and in a way, this can not only be represented by the communist ruling of Mao Zedong who was the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China. The Soviet Union did not only see plenty of resources within the country, but also a large workforce, capable of being transformed into a military power at any given time.
China’s nuclear arms program
China started actually researching the military potential of nuclear power right after the Korean war. Most of the technological knowledge required to weaponize nuclear power came from the Soviet Union. In fact, the Soviet Union gave China not only nuclear physicians but also all the tools and materials required to create nuclear weapons. Most of the research had been done in secret within Bejing at the National Institute of Physics and Atomic Energy.
With the discovery of uranium deposits within China, a new factory was specifically built to improve the quality of the uranium which was to be used in nuclear weapons in Lanzhou, China.
In 1959, the relations between China and the Soviet Union started to fall a little due to Nikita Khrushchev’s decision not supplying China anymore with either the materials or the scientists needed for the production of nuclear weapons. It is believed that this decision was taken by Khrushchev because not only did the Soviet Union require as many resources as possible, but they also wanted to make sure that China would not use this technology against them, making sure that by doing so it would take China at least another three years until they would develop their first nuclear weapon.
It is said that Khrushchev had also argued with Chinese Generals who asked for the prototype of a Soviet nuclear bomb so that they could better understand the weapon and speed up their own developing process. It wasn’t only a bad idea in everyone’s eyes, but it would also be considered as something very un-Soviet to do. In order for the Soviets to stay on top of the leaderboard, they had to cripple even their own allies so they wouldn’t become enemies. However, becoming enemies of the Soviet Union was inevitable for any nation.
China’s first nuclear weapon
For China, 1964 marked a very special year as their strife of almost fourteen years had paid off with their first “prototype” of an atom bomb being successfully developed. By then, all the major nations in the world were ranked not by their economic power or military size, but by the number of atom bombs or nuclear warheads they had in their possession.
The 16th of October marked the launch of the first Chinese atomic bomb. At the time it was a secret operation (for a short period of time) named Operation 59–6. The detonation of the bomb took place in Lop Nur, found in the Gobi desert in the West Chinese province of Xinjiang, quite close to the Silk Road.
The atomic bomb was dropped from a special frame created uniquely for this event. Upon impact, it unleashed an explosion of twenty-two kilotonnes of TNT. To put it into perspective, the atomic bomb dropped by the Americans at Hiroshima only had eighteen kilotonnes of TNT. However, the Soviet Union was in the possession of the most powerful nuclear bomb at the time which went by the name of the “Tsar Bomba” with an explosive force of twenty-seven kilotonnes of TNT (detonated on the 30th of October 1961).
This was the first of the forty-five nuclear bombs China would test at the same location. Also, an interesting fact is that on the 17th of January, 1967, China tested its first hydrogen bomb.
Contemporary research done by Jun Takada suggests that at one point in time, due to all the nuclear tests performed in the exact same area, that specific test sight became more radioactive than the Chornobyl nuclear plant explosion in 1986. There aren’t many reports or documents suggesting that the life of Xinjiang inhabitants was affected by the numerous amounts of nuclear tests, but that may be due to the area being quite rural and secluded from the urban population.
In 1969, due to the Sino-Soviet border conflict, the relationship between the Soviet Union and China worsened. However, the Soviet Union knew that there wasn’t an advantage in starting a war with China. In 1971, the Ping-Pong Diplomacy brought the United States and China closer in an attempt to remove the Soviet Influence on China as well as the Communism that was indirectly implemented by them.
Even to this day, China possesses impressive military power as well as around 260 nuclear weapons, however, there are rumors that these are not the real numbers and that the real numbers may be actually double in value. Russia is still strong, with an impressive, but at the same time a scary total of 6,850 nuclear weapons from which 1,800 are deployable. However, this number may not correspond to reality, as this sort of information is usually kept secret from the public eyes.