Apr 20, 2023 - Podcasts

China expands its nuclear arsenal

China is on track to become an atomic superpower alongside the United States and Russia. The Pentagon estimates that China will roughly quadruple its nuclear stockpile by 2035. What does that mean for the U.S.?

  • Plus, the Supreme Court delays a decision on the abortion pill.
  • And, what to know now about Lyme Disease.

Guests: Axios' Dave Lawler and Oriana González, and George Washington University's Dr. Leana Wen.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, April 20th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today on the show: the Supreme Court delays a decision on the abortion pill. Plus: what to know now about Lyme Disease. But first, our one big thing: China expands its nuclear arsenal – what that means for the U.S.

China expands its nuclear arsenal

NIALA: China is expanding its nuclear power and is on track to become an atomic superpower alongside the United States and Russia. Right now, China has about 400 nuclear warheads. That's according to the Federation of American Scientists. But, the Pentagon estimates China will roughly quadruple its stockpile by 2035.

Axios’ Dave Lawler is here with what China's nuclear power will mean for the rest of the world. Hey Dave!


NIALA: Dave, Chinese President Xi Jinping seems determined to expand his country's nuclear arsenal. What exactly have they been doing?

DAVE: So this is not just a case of making more warheads, which they are doing. They're also building more advanced nuclear submarines, building new nuclear silos, building more mobile launch vehicles. So basically this is across the board nuclear advancement. China, has up to now been a much smaller nuclear power than the U.S. and Russia. It's had what it called a minimal deterrent so that it would make it more difficult for countries to contemplate war against China. It had not felt the need to get up to this sort of nuclear superpower levels that we saw the U.S. and Russia, uh, reach during the Cold War. Now, basically that whole landscape is changing because China is closing the gap with the U.S. and with Russia.

NIALA: And is Russia helping China do that?

DAVE: They are so, this actually, uh, came up from the New York Times. There's this new nuclear reactor from China that could really help them ramp up their nuclear material. And Russia has helped them get that reactor on the verge of being operational. Russia is not providing nuclear weapons to China. But they seem now more willing to cooperate than they were in the past.

NIALA: Dave, what's Beijing's justification for why they wanna build this nuclear stockpile?

DAVE: So the U.S. has been undertaking quite an expensive and extensive nuclear modernization program of its own. And so Beijing's justification could be that, hey, in order to keep pace with the U.S. we need to expand our own capabilities and the survivability of our nuclear forces. Then there's the question of whether China, you know, will continue to maintain this policy that it has of no first strike. Which they say, look, we only have nuclear weapons as a deterrent. We're not gonna move first. We're not gonna strike anybody else in the nuclear realm. That's still their policy on the books. But there is an open question of if it came to war with the U.S. over Taiwan, say, would China maintain that policy?

NIALA: How is the U.S. preparing or dealing with it?

DAVE: The U.S. up to now has really been focused on keeping in parity, at least with Russia. Now, the U.S. needs to worry about a potential three-way arms race, and so some people in the Pentagon or in U.S. government circles are saying we actually need to have enough capability to take China and Russia at the same time. So some experts fear this kind of unstoppable three-way arms race, in which all of them feel like they need to keep building more warheads to stay ahead of the other. And then that just becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

NIALA: The U.S. had a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. A few months ago, Vladimir Putin suspended Russia's participation. Is there any chance that Beijing, Washington, and Moscow would someday be in an arms reduction treaty?

DAVE: Yeah, so that's a great point Niala. And for now, officially the caps that were part of that treaty, they're still on the books, and so the U.S. and Russia are constrained in terms of the number of warheads that they can build. Vladimir Putin has said he's suspending cooperation. So that treaty could actually basically fall apart sooner rather than the three years when it's expected to expire. The Trump administration tried to start three-way arms control talks with the U.S., China and Moscow. And so that got nowhere.

And so It's very hard to envision a scenario where the U.S., China, and Russia could hammer out an arms control treaty. Obviously when you consider the animosity between those three countries. So, the short term outlook is not particularly bright if you're someone who believes there should be fewer nuclear weapons in the world.

NIALA: Dave Lawler is Axios’ Senior World Reporter. Thanks Dave.

DAVE: Thanks, Niala.

The Supreme Court delays a decision on the abortion pill

NIALA: We’ve been following the legal battle on abortion after a judge in Texas ruled a few weeks ago to invalidate the FDA’s approval of mifepristone – a commonly used abortion pill. Last Friday the Supreme Court issued a temporary pause on the restrictions for mifepristone that was set to expire last night. Axios’ Oriana González has the latest.

ORIANA GONZÁLEZ: So the Supreme Court yesterday extended a freeze on lower court rulings that put restrictions on the widely used abortion pill mifepristone. Justice Samuel Alito's order extended last week's stay until 11:59 PM on Friday to give the justices, uh, more time to review the case. That means Niala, that until at least Friday access to mifepristone remains unchanged and the restrictions which you know includes prohibiting the use of telemedicine to get mifepristone will not take effect for at least two more days, just like last week's order. I just want to make it very clear that this is not a final decision from the court and it's very, very likely that another ruling or order will be issued by Friday on what happens next.

NIALA: Axios’ Oriana González.

In a moment, it’s tick season – the latest on Lyme Disease.


What to know now about Lyme Disease

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Spring means tick season, which thanks to global warming is happening earlier and earlier. And that means everyone needs to be on the lookout for Lyme disease. Last week, Moderna announced it's developing a vaccine against the illness. Other companies like Pfizer are also working on a Lyme disease vaccine.

Here for an update is Emergency Physician and Professor of Health Policy and Management at George Washington University, Leana Wen.

Hi Dr. Wen. Welcome back to Axios Today.

DR. LEANA WEN: Thank you so much. Great to join you again.

NIALA: First of all, how serious is Lyme disease?

DR. WEN: Untreated Lyme disease can be very serious. In the initial phase, someone could have fever, headache, a rash. That's not so much of an issue. These are common viral symptoms. The problem is, long-term consequences in the weeks to months or even years following someone getting Lyme disease. And some individuals develop debilitating symptoms that really impact their lives of dizziness, shortness of breath, nerve pain, fatigue. And so it's those types of long-term symptoms that we are the most concerned about when it comes to trying to prevent Lyme.

NIALA: Why are we seeing cases rising?

DR. WEN: It's a very good question. There was, um, a study from Fair Health that found that between 2007 and 2021, Lyme diagnoses rose 357% in rural regions and 65% even in urban areas. And it's thought that it's probably a combination of two things. One is climate change, which is making areas that are cold more hospitable to ticks, which are the vector that transmits Lyme. And the other reason is the increasing encroachment of human development that's near forested animal habitats because the other animal involved in this is the deer. And so as you have humans and animals live closer together, that could also result in an increase in these vector-borne diseases.

NIALA: I mentioned that Moderna and Pfizer are working on a vaccine. How soon could we see something like a vaccine?

DR. WEN: Back in 1998, so decades ago, there was actually a Lyme vaccine that was approved back then. But the issue was that the uptake was low. So now there have been drug companies that are aiming to develop more effective vaccines, And while we still need to keep on emphasizing early treatment and prevention of tick bites, having a vaccine available as an additional tool will also really help individuals, especially those at higher risk for Lyme disease.

NIALA: Let's talk about prevention. How can people protect themselves? What do people need to know this time of year?

DR. WEN: Generally it's helpful to wear long pants instead of shorts or long sleeved shirts and closed shoes when you're in tick infested areas. Better to stay in the middle of trails when hiking in the woods and avoid tall grass and bushy areas as much as possible. When you come back indoors make sure to examine yourself. You should remove that tick as soon as possible because, actually ticks have to feed for a number of hours, something like 24 to 36 hours before transmission occurs. Also if you start developing symptoms, um, those early symptoms that we talked about, a fever, rash, headache, et cetera, speak with your physician. Antibiotic therapy is very effective, but only when started early on in the course of Lyme disease.

NIALA: Dr. Leana Wen is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University. Thanks so much Dr. Wen.

DR. WEN: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: That’s it for us today!

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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