China’s nuclear-weapons program is in high gear. America’s ability to deter it is waning. The latest Pentagon report on Chinese military power says it likely will have 1,000 nuclear warheads of various types in the coming decade. It lends credibility to a call by the Chinese Communist Party publication the Global Times last year that argued for a 1,000-nuclear-warhead arsenal, saying “we just need to accelerate the steps that make it happen.” Recent Chinese nuclear saber-rattling against Japan and Australia suggests that China intends to use its nuclear arsenal to bully its neighbors.
“The accelerating pace of the PRC’s nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027. The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020,” the Pentagon report said.
China’s nuclear buildup was absent from his video conference with Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week. Biden discussed climate change and Taiwan with Xi, but China’s runaway nuclear program was not specifically mentioned.
General John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted the Pentagon’s unease, warning that China could soon have the ability to launch a nuclear first strike against the U.S. Hyten’s remarks came in an interview with CBS News on Tuesday, the same day as Biden’s video conference with Xi.“They look like a first-use weapon,” Hyten said, discussing China’s orbital hypersonic missile test last summer. “That’s what those weapons look like to me.”
National security adviser Jake Sullivan hinted on Tuesday that nuclear talks between the U.S. and China may be held in the future. “There’s less maturity to that in the U.S.–China relationship but the two leaders did discuss these issues. And it is now incumbent on us to think about the most productive way to carry it forward,” Sullivan said. Nuclear modernization and the expansion of the Middle Kingdom’s nuclear capabilities became a top priority starting in 2016, after Xi addressed the CCP’s Central Committee. Xi called it “the strategic support of my country’s status as a major power.”
Chinese propaganda claims the nation is the only nuclear power that has a “No First Use” standard for nuclear weapons, meaning that it will not strike first. However, American leaders such as Admiral Charles Richard, who leads the U.S. Strategic Command, are skeptical. He suggested China’s nuclear buildup is all about coercing the U.S.
“I like to think of this as the final brick in the wall of a military designed to confront a peer nuclear-capable opponent, in other words, us, the United States, and be able to coerce them,” Richard said in September, “and coercion is something that nuclear forces have been used for throughout history.”
The People’s Liberation Army is well on its way to having a complete nuclear triad of missiles, submarines, and bombers akin to that possessed by the U.S. and Russia. China has two types of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) under development. It has several sites where it is believed to be building hundreds of nuclear-missile silos. In 2020, China’s DF-17 nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle became operational. Its stockpile of DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) also grew in the past year.
The Pentagon estimates that China has 150 ICBMs, 300 IRBMs, 600 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), and 300 ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs). The ICBMs can carry multiple warheads, which makes knowing exactly how many warheads China has a challenge.
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