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Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

China nearing a milestone in nuclear weapons buildup: Pentagon report

China’s rapid military buildup means the country is closer to joining the US and Russia as the top nations capable of deploying nuclear weapons on land, in the air and at sea, the Pentagon warned in a new report

China’s rapid military buildup means the country is closer to joining the US and Russia as the top nations capable of deploying nuclear weapons on land, in the air and at sea, the Pentagon warned in a new report.

China’s progress in upgrading its strategic bombers to carry nuclear payloads puts it on the cusp of achieving a “triad" of delivery systems, punctuating a two-decade investment that coincided with the country’s economic rise, according to an annual Defense Department report to Congress published on Tuesday.

“Over the next decade, China will expand and diversify its nuclear forces, likely at least doubling its nuclear warhead stockpile," according to the 200-page report. “China’s nuclear forces appear to be on a trajectory to exceed the size of a ‘minimum deterrent’ as described in the PLA’s own writings," it added, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.

The development of a nuclear triad raises the long-term stakes in the complex relationship between Beijing and Washington. Although the two sides have limited their responses to current tensions to measures such as economic sanctions, tariffs and harsh rhetoric, China’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons will provide an added rationale for U.S. officials who want to accelerate the modernization of America’s nuclear forces.

China’s defense ministry denounced the report as a document created with a “zero-sum-game mindset and Cold War mentality," saying that the US had “misinterpreted" the country’s nuclear policy and stirred up confrontation with Taiwan. “It’s extremely wrong and China firmly rejects it," the ministry said in a statement Wednesday.

The report arrives during one of the most tense periods in US-China ties in decades. President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused China of not doing enough to stop the Covid-19 pandemic that has now killed about 184,000 Americans. The two nations are also at loggerheads over Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong, the use of technology such as 5G and apps including TikTok which are tied to China and disputed claims in the South China Sea.

‘Alarmist View’

Analysts questioned what Amy Woolf, the top nuclear weapons analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, called the report’s “alarmist view." The US “has long believed" that, at least for the US and Russia, “a triad is stabilizing because it reduces the vulnerability of the retaliatory force, reduces the risk of crisis instability and strengthens deterrence," Woolf said.

Kingston Reif, a director with the Arms Control Association, said the Defense Department’s estimate of the size of China’s warhead stockpile is “even less than open-source estimates." He said it “can’t be overstated" that Russia’s arsenal is “much larger and more dangerous."

The Trump administration has been pressing to bring China into its nuclear arms control talks with Russia.

As part of President Xi Jinping’s efforts to build a “world class" military by 2049, the Defense Department report said the People’s Liberation Army has already achieved parity with or exceeded the US in at least three key areas: shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles and integrated air defense systems.

China’s government “has marshaled the resources, technology and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect," according to the report. Increasingly, it says, Xi’s government sees the armed forces as having a key role to play in supporting China’s foreign policy efforts.

While the country has one overseas military base, in the East African nation of Djibouti, China’s government “is very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air and ground forces," the report said.

“There is no area that I know of that’s off the table," Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Chad Sbragia said in a briefing to reporters before the report was released.

China-Taiwan balance

Of keen congressional interest in the report is the Pentagon’s assessment of the military balance between China and Taiwan.

China’s official military budget last year was 15 times that of the island democracy “with much of it focused on developing the capability to unify Taiwan by force," the report said. China “appears willing to defer the use of military force as long as it considers that unification" with the island “could be negotiated over the long term and the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits," the report said.

China’s current nuclear arsenal includes 100 silo or road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, as many as six Jin-class nuclear missile submarines capable of carrying 12 missiles each and a new air-refuelable H-6N long-range bomber. The bomber is an upgrade on a previous model and comes with a modified fuselage “that allows it to carry either a drone or an air-launched ballistic missile that may be nuclear-capable," according to the report.

Even if by 2030 China more than doubles a stockpile that’s now “estimated to be in the low 200s," as the Pentagon projects, it will be much smaller than the US’s 3,800 warheads and Russia’s 4,300, based on data from the Federation of American Scientists.

The Pentagon also flagged US concerns about China’s nuclear doctrine. As its capabilities improve, the report said, Beijing is believed to be putting more of its nuclear forces on a “launch on warning" posture, which would let it respond more quickly to threats.

China for decades has maintained a “No First Use" nuclear weapons policy “although there is ambiguity over the conditions under which China would act outside" of that policy, the US military said.

The report also said that “major gaps and shortcomings" remain in China’s military capabilities that could require decades to fix. Yet, the Pentagon warned, the country has a “strategic end state that it is working towards, which if achieved and its accompanying military modernization is left unaddressed, will have serious implications for US national interests and the security of the international rules-based order."

US ‘Unpredictability’

China views global instability and unpredictability in the US as key threats it faces, according to the Defense Department. It said Chinese leaders believe there is a greater political will in the US to “confront Beijing on matters where US and PRC interests are inimical."

The heavy emphasis on China’s nuclear improvements will probably be used by the Pentagon to press lawmakers and the public to support the massive reinvestment already underway in modernized nuclear weapons. This includes the B-21 bomber, an $85 billion Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM program and the $128 billion Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine.

China has an operational ground-based antisatellite missile intended to target low-Earth Orbit satellites, according to the Pentagon, and “China probably intends to pursue additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geosynchronous Earth orbit," or 22,236 miles (35,785 kilometers.)

The report also discloses that last year:

China launched more ballistic missiles for testing and training “than the rest of the world combined."

The PLA attempted to obtain random access memory chips and aviation and antisubmarine warfare technologies both through theft and by leveraging legitimate joint ventures.

China deployed limited numbers of its first J-20 stealth fighter. It plans upgrades that will increase the number of air-to-air missiles carried in stealth mode and will add super-cruise capability by installing the indigenous WS-15 engine.

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