The Chinese military is pressing to double its 200-plus nuclear warheads within a decade with the ability to launch them aboard ballistic missiles by land, sea and air, the Pentagon said in a report Tuesday.
Aside from aiming for technological parity with the United States, the People’s Liberation Army is also focused on conducting joint operations, to be able to deter or defeat any US effort to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf, the report said.
It said that PLA has already matched or surpassed the US military in several areas, including shipbuilding, land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, and air defence systems.
And in its first public estimate of China’s nuclear capacity, the annual report said the country has warheads numbering “in the low 200s” in its nuclear stockpile, fewer than the 300 or more estimated by independent analysts.
The report says that number is expected to double over 10 years. China can already launch nuclear weapons by ballistic missile from land and sea, and is developing the capacity to do develop an air-launched ballistic missile as well, the report said.
“It is likely that Beijing will seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to – or in some cases superior to – the US military, or that of any other great power that the PRC views as a threat,” the report said.
If China achieves that goal and the United States fails to address it, the report said, it “will have serious implications for US national interests and the security of the international rules-based order”.
A Pentagon official said that although China remains far behind the United States in terms of nuclear warheads, the acceleration shows Beijing moving from its traditional “minimum deterrence posture” to full-fledged competition.
“Combined with a near-complete lack of transparency regarding their strategic intent and the perceived need for a much larger, more diverse nuclear force, these developments pose a significant concern for the United States,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Chad Sbragia.
He said the military expansion is part of China’s overall strategy for a sweeping modernisation and to establish itself as a leading global power by 2049.
China has made clear it sees the United States as seeking to maintain military supremacy globally, and says Washington, with military bases on the western Pacific rim and a potent naval presence throughout the region, is the source of tensions in Asia.
The report noted that China already has the world’s largest navy, with 350 ships and submarines, compared to 293 for the US Navy.
The Pentagon has highlighted that deficit as it seeks to expand its fleet to 355 vessels.
The report also highlights China’s advantage, unrestricted by arms agreements that the US and Russia have, in ground-launched ballistic missiles.
However, the United States leads in submarine-launched and air-launched ballistic missiles – China is still working to develop the latter.
The report described China as determined to project its power eastwards into the Pacific beyond Taiwan, and to pressure the United States out of the region.
The report said that as China seeks to bring Washington-ally Taiwan under its control, Beijing is seeking the ability to win a possible war with the US over the island.