Skip to main content
Asia and Pacific

The World's Rising Nuclear Power


For over half a century, the United States’ primary nuclear enemy has been Russia, with 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads being possessed between the two countries as a result of their hostility towards one another. However, with changes in the current geopolitical landscape, countries whose capabilities may have been overlooked in the past are now rising to the nuclear stage with enough momentum to prompt US attention – these countries being China, North Korea, and Iran.

Once seen as a secondary nuclear power, China’s improvements in its arsenal provide convincing evidence that it is quickly making its way to becoming a near-equal nuclear power with the US and Russia. According to the Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress, it is clear that China is pursuing an unprecedented surge in its nuclear capabilities. With now over 500 active nuclear warheads, it is projected that if current trends hold, by the year 2035 that number could increase to around 1,500, rivaling the permissible number of active warheads for both the US and Russia as outlined in the New START treaty.

With the increased pressure China is imposing against Taiwan, their nuclear weapons may be seen as a way of dissuading US military assistance in the matter. Although China claims to support a no first use policy (NFU), it would be a mistake to accept this at face value as its behavior in past crisis situations has proven to be unpredictable. Contrary to its alleged NFU support, Chinese military publications and journals have mentioned potential first strikes on the US as a strategy in its Taiwan invasion scenarios.

Not only has China’s domestic arsenal become more advanced, but it has also been enhancing its method of delivery for these nuclear weapons by land, sea, and air. For example, evidence shows China has been developing new submarines capable of launching nuclear missiles which are now harder to track and analyze than previous generations of submarines. There is also speculation that China may be developing non-nuclear intercontinental warheads that could reach parts of the continental United States.

While China’s exact intentions for their rapid increase in the growth of their nuclear arsenal are not fully known, it can be assumed that they are hoping to use their nuclear weapons not only as a means of defense, but also for deterrence, intimidating adversaries and driving them away from potential escalations, thus increasing the firmness of their grip as a world power.

Like China, North Korea has recently tested missiles with the long-range capabilities of reaching the US. One of such being the Hwasong-18 ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), with physical dimensions and flight trajectory nearly identical to that of the Russian Topol-M ICBM (SS-27 Mod 2), showing clear signs of prolonged arms transfers and mutual support between North Korea and Russia.

North Korea currently houses an estimated 35-65 nuclear warheads, a small number compared to Russia and China, however, Kim Jong Un’s offensive approach more than makes up for the difference in numbers. With ongoing missile tests, repeated preemptive nuclear threats, and Kim’s abandonment of the existential goal of peaceful reconciliation with South Korea, there is justifiable concern of North Korea using its weapons to embolden its stance as a world nuclear power. With 2024 being an election year in both the US and South Korea, this increased pressure could be part of Kim’s plan to force its way onto the nuclear pedestal, obtaining security and economic leverage in the process.

Iran is another player in this field which must be carefully monitored. Although Iran denies any intentions to build an atomic weapon, its recent nuclear developments as well as its history of lacking transparency prove its volatility in becoming nuclear. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Iran has been able to advance its nuclear program with little monitoring and few inspections. Under the 2015 Joint Cooperation Plan of Action treaty (JCPOA), Iran agreed to produce no more than 300 kg of uranium enriched to 3.67%, however, this limit in their low-enriched uranium stockpile has been far exceeded. In 2023, Iran increased its stockpile of uranium to 128 kilograms enriched to 60% – a level which experts say serves no civilian purpose and therefore, has no reason to exist. This poses a major threat, given that if at any time Iran so chooses, that stockpile of 60% enriched uranium could quickly be converted into 90% enriched uranium, which is considered weapons-grade level. With the technology already in place, Iran has the capabilities of producing fissile material for a bomb in under two weeks, according to US officials.

Historically, due to the Cold War, Russia has played a large role in the nuclear relations between Iran and the West; however, the war in Ukraine has shifted its priorities. With increased reliance on Iran for military support, Russia seems to be adopting the school of thought that a Pro-Russian Iran is more beneficial than a non-nuclear Iran. This is evident in their lackadaisical attitude towards Iran’s advancements in its nuclear program. Before, Russia expressed concerns when Iran abandoned obligations to comply with JCPOA standards; however, since the invasion in Ukraine, this seems to be of less importance to Russia. In fact, Iran’s emergence onto the nuclear stage may prove to be strategically beneficial for Russia as it diverts Western attention and resources from the war in Ukraine. In the past, Russia has only supported nonproliferation efforts when it sees a geopolitical advantage of doing so, and in this case, there is nothing incentivizing Russia to help. It is clear that Russia’s role in all of this is almost that of a “big brother”, providing these smaller countries with opportunities to advance their capabilities, thus thwarting any nonproliferation efforts.

What does this mean for the US? What should be done in order to prevent proliferation and maintain national security? The US might be able to successfully de-escalate the momentum these countries possess through a new treaty or establishing a political framework. For example, the New START treaty which expires in February 2026, could be renegotiated with Russia to establish higher limits, accommodating the additional forces that the US needs to address China, North Korea, and Iran in the future. The US could also try to re-enter the JCPOA agreement with Iran as was attempted in 2021 by the Biden administration, however this time, they will likely not have Russia’s support in doing so.

While these preventative measures may be advocated by some, others may argue for a more offensive approach, despite its irreversible and potentially volatile implications. In order to more easily deter conflict with these countries, the US could rally to increase the number of its deployed nuclear warheads to more than the 1,550 permitted under the New START Treaty. Regardless of the manner in which the US decides to approach these arising concerns, it must seek to do so in a well-calculated manner.