China plans to quadruple its nuclear stockpile by 2030, according to a Pentagon assessment that points to a shift in Chinese policy with big implications for the balance of military power.
The US defence department said China could have 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027 and would boost its stockpile — currently estimated in the low 200s — to at least 1,000 warheads by the end of the decade. It marked a dramatic increase from last year’s estimate when the Pentagon said China was on course to double its stockpile.
“If this was an emoji, it would be the ‘eyes popping’ emoji,” said Caitlin Talmadge, an expert on Chinese nuclear weapons at Georgetown University.
The US has 3,800 warheads with 1,800 deployed, according to the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
The Pentagon’s 2020 China military power report, which was released on Wednesday, said Beijing was “expanding the number of land, sea, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces”.
The warning comes weeks after the Financial Times reported China had tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon that General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs, later said was “very close” to a “Sputnik moment”, referring to the USSR launching the first artificial satellite in 1957.
The report comes as tensions remain high between the US and China, including concerns about the possibility of war over Taiwan. Military planners and experts are concerned that China is expanding its nuclear forces to limit American options in the case of conflict.
The Pentagon said the Chinese military was working towards improving certain capabilities by 2027 that would “provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency”. Admiral Philip Davidson, then head of US Indo-Pacific command, in April said China could take military action against Taiwan by 2027, although other experts are more sceptical.
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday, Milley said he did not think China would take military action towards Taiwan in the “near future” — meaning over the next two years — but warned that Beijing was developing the capability.
“The Chinese are clearly and unambiguously building the capability to provide those options,” he said. “But near future? Probably not. But anything can happen.”
Evan Medeiros, a former top White House Asia adviser to President Barack Obama, said the revelations in the Pentagon report signalled a “new and much more challenging type of cold war”.
“This is a historic game-changer for US-China ties, by accelerating competition and accentuating distrust,” said Medeiros. “This development demands that arms control be on the agenda when President Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping hold a virtual summit later this year.”
The Pentagon said China was boosting its capacity to produce and separate plutonium by constructing fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities. Talmadge said that was a “big deal” because this had been viewed as one of the constraints on China accelerating development of nuclear warheads, which require fissile material.
“The US and China are becoming more entrenched in a nuclear stalemate, a state of mutual vulnerability where neither side can protect its homeland from nuclear attack even if it strikes first,” she added.
The Chinese advancements raise new questions about whether China is moving away from its longstanding nuclear “minimum deterrence” policy, which is designed to ensure it has the capability to respond to a first strike.
Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said it was important to maintain some scepticism about the Pentagon’s forecasts.
“I’m cautious about accepting 1,000 warheads at face value, but it seems pretty clear that the Chinese aren’t willing to accept US nuclear primacy anymore,” added Lewis.
The Pentagon said China might already boast a “nascent nuclear triad” after it developed a nuclear capable air-launched ballistic missile along with its land-based and sea-based nuclear arms. The report also confirmed that China was building hundreds of missile silos to house intercontinental ballistic missiles and was “on the cusp of a large silo-based ICBM force expansion comparable to those undertaken by other major powers”.
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