Beijing is looking to at least double its stockpile of nuclear warheads within the next decade and has already surpassed the U.S. military in several key areas, the Pentagon said in its annual report on the Chinese military released Tuesday.
The congressionally mandated report, which focuses on Chinese military power and the direction of the country’s armed forces, said China currently possesses a stockpile “estimated to be in the low 200s.”
The revelation was the first time that U.S. intelligence estimates on the number of Chinese warheads had been made public, according to Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant defense secretary for China.
“We do believe that over the next decade, that China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history,” Sbragia said according to a transcript of a meeting with a small group of reporters.
“An ability to double the stockpile not only demonstrates a move away from their historical minimum deterrence posture, but places them in a position where they can readily grow their force beyond this number,” he added.
But even with such increases, China’s nuclear arsenal would still be dwarfed by the United States’ stockpile. The U.S. has an estimated 3,800 warheads in active status and others in reserve.
The White House has been prodding Beijing to join the U.S. and Russia in negotiating a three-way agreement to limit strategic nuclear arms, but China has repeatedly refused to join the talks, citing the minimal size of its arsenal. Some critics say that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has been using the lack of Chinese interest as a pretext for bolting from the current U.S.-Russia arms treaty known as New START. That deal is set to expire in February but could be renewed for up to five years if Moscow and Washington agree to an extension.
The highly anticipated report’s release comes amid soaring tensions between Washington and Beijing over a range of issues, including Chinese maritime assertiveness in the East and South China seas and more full-throated U.S. support for Taiwan.
It also comes just over two months ahead of a contentious U.S. presidential election, campaigning for which has seen Trump — and even his rival former Vice President Joe Biden — take increasingly confrontational stances toward Beijing.
In its push to transform the Chinese People’s Liberation Army into a “world-class military,” Beijing is also seeking to bolster its power projection, making it able to operate from anywhere around the globe. One step in that direction is the establishment of “a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure beyond its current base in Djibouti,” Sbragia said.
“China’s very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas bases to support naval, air, and ground force projection,” he said, a move that “could interfere with U.S. military operations and those of our allies, and provide flexibility to support offensive operations against the United States.”
Some locations that they may now be considering include Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan, according to the report.
The report also concluded that, aside from its investments in nuclear capabilities, China has already moved ahead of the United States in certain areas such as shipbuilding and land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, among others.
According to the report, China now has the largest navy in the world, “with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants.” In comparison, it said the U.S. Navy boasted approximately 293 ships as of early this year.
In terms of ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, China now possesses some 1,250 of the weapons. The U.S. currently fields just one type of conventional GLBM with a range of 70 to 300 kilometers and no GLCMs, due to past treaty constraints.
According to experts, these weapons highlight the key role that the People Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), China’s strategic and tactical missile force, is now playing.
“It’s clear that PLARF continues its rise as a key arm of the PLA, and takes on an ever more significant role in A2/AD,” Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, said in reference to its anti-access and area-denial capabilities in the region.
Davis said this was in line with any Chinese move to prepare for a near-term conflict with the U.S. over Taiwan.
“China wants the ability to hold at risk, or deter and deny, U.S. military intervention in a local or regional conflict,” he said.
While most of the numbers of the various missiles in China’s arsenal remained static in comparison to the previous year’s report, intermediate range weapons grew from 80 launchers and 80-160 missiles in 2019 to 200 launchers and 200 missiles this year.
Investment in these weapons, particularly in the DF-26 missile — which has a range of 4,000 km (2,485 miles) and can be used in nuclear or conventional strikes against ground and naval targets — shows that Beijing has confidence in their ability to keep foes at bay, experts say.
This confidence was on display last week, when China launched a series of ballistic missiles, including an apparent “carrier killer” weapon, into the disputed South China Sea as part of integrated military exercises apparently simulating a strike on U.S. warships.
But perhaps more significantly in the long-run, more intermediate range weapons “with increasingly sophisticated capabilities provide China with additional power projection, or ‘reach,’ against U.S. and ally bases throughout the Indo-Pacific,” including those in Japan, said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with the Rand Corp. think tank.
He said Beijing hopes this will compel the U.S. to invest in defensive measures, such as base hardening and base dispersal, to ensure their survivability.
“This is a relatively cheap way to impose costs on U.S. forces in peacetime that may hinder Washington from investing in other offensive capabilities to defeat China’s A2/AD during wartime.”
The Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power Report to Congress, released Monday, identifies some of the United States’ key observations in regards to China’s expanding military forces and global strategy.
Here are some findings from the annual report:
- China continues to pursue revision of the international order and global leadership in support of “national rejuvenation,” with a goal of its military reaching parity with the world’s top militaries by 2049.
- Chinese military modernization now meets or exceeds U.S. capabilities in key areas such as ship-building, land-based missiles and air defense, with its Navy now the world’s largest.
- China’s Rocket Forces have seen a big increase in intermediate range ballistic missiles — with launchers going from 80 last year to 200 this year — a key capability that China tested last week in the South China Sea.
- Over the next decade, China’s nuclear warhead stockpile — currently estimated to be in the low 200s — is projected to at least double in size as it expands and modernizes its nuclear forces.
- The country is pursuing a “nuclear triad,” a nuclear weapons force consisting of land-based, sea-based, and air-based nuclear missiles, with the unveiling of its new H-6N strategic bomber aircraft.
- It now sees its military as a global force and a key part of its foreign policy objectives, seeking new logistics bases in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.
- China continues to patrol the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands with its maritime law enforcement ships and aircraft.
- The Chinese Navy continues to pass between the islands of Okinawa and Miyako to access the Pacific Ocean.