China's program to expand and modernize its conventional armed forces is well-documented and closely watched by nearby Asia-Pacific states, as well as the United States and other more distant countries with interests in the region. However, China's arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery systems (missiles and aircraft) is shrouded in secrecy — and controversy.

Japan and other Asian countries worry that the Obama administration, anxious to reduce the $80 billion cost of maintaining and refurbishing America's aging nuclear arms infrastructure, may be overlooking evidence that China's atomic arsenal is much bigger than officially estimated.

They also worry that Beijing may be seeking nuclear parity and eventual superiority over both the U.S. and Russia, a development that could undermine U.S. pledges of extended deterrence to protect its nonnuclear Asian allies, including Japan and South Korea, from nuclear attack or blackmail. The upshot would be increased pressure on vulnerable Asian nations to develop their own nuclear weapons.