The US has reported “concern” as China is narrowing the gap with the number of nuclear warheads held by each nation. The uptick has taken the Pentagon by surprise, the annual report to Congress on Chinese military development from the US Department of Defense shows.
According to the report, China could have 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027 and could top 1,000 by 2030.
These figures are two-and-a-half times the size of what the Pentagon predicted only a year ago when China had about 200 warheads and was expected to double that by 2030.
The numbers are based on the rapid modernisation of China’s nuclear strike options and its construction of missile silos.
The report said China was building a “nuclear triad”, with capabilities to deliver nuclear weapons from land-based ballistic missiles, from missiles launched from the air, and from submarines, it said.
In comparison, the US has about 3,750 nuclear weapons and has no plans to increase, in fact, the number has decreased from about 10,000 since 2003.
The report said China is likely not seeking a capability to launch an unprovoked nuclear strike, but wanted to deter attacks from others by maintaining a credible threat of nuclear retaliation.
However, officials have still expressed concern over the Chinese intention.
One US defence official said: “The nuclear expansion that the [People’s Republic of China] is undertaking is certainly very concerning to us.”
They went on: “It’s one thing to observe what they’re doing, but they haven’t really explained why they’re doing it.
“They’re moving in a direction that substantially exceeds where they’ve been before in terms of numbers and capabilities.”
The official said it “raises questions about their intentions”.
The United States’s most senior general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley issued a stark warning about China’s military progress.
He said it amounts to “one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has witnessed.”
The Pentagon has declared China its principal security concern for the future, as Beijing aims to turn the People’s Liberation Army into “world-class forces” by 2049, according to its official plan.
China is expanding its air, space and sea forces, bringing capabilities in line with that of major powers such as the US and Russia.
The rivalry has increased concerns about a possible clash between the US and China, especially over Taiwan, which China claims as its territory but which is closely supported by the US.
The new US report also said China’s swift military modernisation aims to have the capability by 2027 to overcome any pushback to an effort to reclaim Taiwan, by pressure or military force.
By 2027, the report says, China aims to have “the capabilities to counter the US military in the Indo-Pacific region, and compel Taiwan’s leadership to the negotiation table on Beijing’s terms”.
If China meets its 2027 goal, the report said, it could hold a “range of different options” on Taiwan, from a blockade of the island to a potential amphibious invasion of either Taiwan itself or one of the smaller outlying islands.
The report showed China was aiming to defer foreign intervention in what it views as a domestic issue over Taiwan.