WASHINGTON — China’s nuclear arsenal is growing faster than expected, according to the latest unclassified Pentagon assessment, with a senior U.S. defense official warning the Chinese military is “on track to exceed previous projections.”
The U.S. Defense Department’s annual China Military Power Report, released Thursday, estimates the Chinese military had more than 500 operational nuclear warheads in its arsenal as of May and will have more than 1,000 warheads by 2030.
Last year’s report, issued in late November, estimated China had more than 400 warheads and was likely to have about 1,500 warheads in its nuclear stockpile by 2035.
U.S. officials said the new estimates are in line with their previous assessments while adding it is concerning that Beijing appears to have quickened the development of its nuclear arsenal.
“They’re expanding and investing in their land-, sea- and air-based nuclear delivery platforms, as well as the infrastructure that’s required to support this major expansion of their nuclear forces,” said a senior U.S. defense official who briefed reporters on the contents of the report on the condition of anonymity, under ground rules set by the Pentagon.
“We’re not trying to suggest a very large departure from where they looked to be headed in last year’s report, but we are suggesting that they’re on track to exceed those previous projections,” the official said.
“Certainly, it raises questions about what is their long-term intent here, and I think it reinforces the importance of pursuing some practical measures to try to reduce nuclear risks,” the official said.
US vs China’s nuclear infrastructure
The United States, by treaty, maintains 1,550 active warheads, but it is an aging arsenal with an aging infrastructure. Some of the U.S. warheads are 50 years old.
To keep up, the Pentagon plans to spend $750 billion over the next decade to update and replace almost every component of the U.S. arsenal.
The report warns new hypersonic weapons could soon replace some of Beijing’s older, short-range ballistic missiles, with their sights set on foreign military bases and fleets in the Western Pacific.
Unlike ballistic missiles, which fly at hypersonic speeds but travel along a set trajectory, hypersonic weapons are highly maneuverable despite flying at Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.
China’s military is also developing its missile forces overall, according to the Pentagon’s report, and “may be exploring development of conventionally armed intercontinental range missiles systems.”
“Such capabilities would allow the PRC [Peoples’ Republic of China] to threaten conventional strikes against targets in the continental United States, Hawaii and Alaska,” the report said.
Beijing’s naval and aerial capabilities are also growing.
The China Military Power Report estimates Beijing’s navy now includes more than 370 ships and submarines, maintaining its position as the largest navy in the world. China’s aviation force is likewise thought to be the largest in the world and “is rapidly catching up to Western air forces” in terms of capability.
But it is not just China’s growing military that has U.S. officials worried. Beijing’s expanding arsenals and platforms have been accompanied by a more aggressive, and a sometimes coercive, military posture.
U.S. defense officials earlier warned of a sharp increase in risky Chinese military behavior, noting more than 180 incidents targeting U.S. assets in the Indo-Pacific since 2021, a number that jumps to 300 when U.S. allies and partners are included.
Making matter more tenuous, according to U.S. officials, is the Chinese military’s continued refusal to talk.
“We continue to believe that it’s extremely important for us to maintain open lines of military-to-military communications between the U.S. and the PRC across multiple levels, including the senior levels,” said the senior U.S. defense official.
“It’s been unfortunate when we haven’t been able to have those senior level engagements at the Shangri-La Dialogue, for instance, this year. The handshake was not a substitute for a more in-depth, substantive discussion,” the official said, noting the refusal of the Chinese defense chief, Gen. Li Shangfu, to talk with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at this year’s dialogue.
China countered, however, that Washington bears some responsibility for the strained relations, pointing to U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan and frequent U.S. “freedom of navigation” operations for stoking tensions.
“The U.S. side needs to show sincerity and take concrete actions to meet China halfway, so as to create conditions for the relations between the two militaries to return to the right track,” the Chinese Embassy’s Liu told VOA.
Despite China’s growing military might, the latest Pentagon report does assess that Beijing itself believes it still faces some deficits as it tries to field a force capable of fighting and winning wars with other capable military powers, such as the U.S.
“They have made pretty considerable amount of progress,” the senior U.S. defense official told reporters. “At the same time, I think they still have a long way to go in terms of having the level of military capability that we judge that they think that they need to advance their global security and economic interests.”
Part of that comes from the fact that China’s military has not been tested in real combat in more than 40 years, since China’s 1979 conflict with Vietnam, nor has it been in a position to test whether it can deploy all aspects of its military might in a coordinated manner.
The senior defense official called the lack of combat experience, in particular, “one of the shortcomings that the PRC highlights in a lot of their own self assessments.”
“They try to address that, I think, by attempting to make their training and their exercises more realistic to more closely approximate what they refer to as a sort of real war or actual combat type conditions,” the official said, in response to a question from VOA. “And I think they try to address that, as well, by learning whatever lessons they can from other countries’ involvement and military conflicts.”
“They’re watching very closely how Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine is unfolding,” the official said.
The Pentagon report also highlights China’s increased military pressure against Taiwan.
U.S. military and intelligence agencies have publicly warned that China is readying its forces to be able to take Taiwan by force by as soon as 2025.
The report notes China’s military has “practiced elements of each of its military courses of action against Taiwan” during large-scale exercises in August 2022 an