Pentagon frets over China’s nuclear program
China is rapidly building up its nuclear weapons capabilities and is on pace to nearly quadruple the number of warheads in its arsenal by 2035, narrowing its firepower gap with the US, the Pentagon has warned.
“Over the next decade, the PRC (People’s Republic of China) aims to modernize, diversify and expand its nuclear forces,” the Pentagon said on Tuesday in its annual report on China’s military strength. The buildup is far larger and more complex than a nuclear modernization initiative that China undertook a decade ago, the report added.
Beijing currently has about 400 nuclear warheads, the Pentagon said, up from a previous estimate of 350. At the current pace of development, the stockpile will increase to about 1,000 warheads by the end of this decade and to 1,500 by 2035. By comparison, the US has 3,750 active warheads and a total stockpile of more than 5,000.
The Chinese expansion will likely “outpace potential developments by the nuclear forces of any adversary that could plausibly threaten the PRC ability to retaliate against a first strike,” the Pentagon said, adding that China’s military aims to possess the capability for “mutually assured destruction,” discouraging any would-be attackers.
America’s generals have repeatedly pointed to China as the top threat to US national security, saying Beijing is “the only competitor out there with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the power to do so.” Chinese officials have pushed back against such warnings, saying Washington has an “outdated Cold War mentality and zero-sum mindset.”
US officials have expressed concern that as China’s nuclear prowess grows, the country’s leaders may rethink their policy against launching a nuclear first strike. “What we’re looking at here, it raises some questions, I think, about their intent,” a senior defense official said in a press briefing before Tuesday’s report was released. For its part, Washington has refused to rule out its own first-strike option or the possibility of using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear threat.
The Chinese Communist Party aims to achieve a “great rejuvenation” of the nation by 2049, the 100-year anniversary of the PRC’s founding. That overarching effort will include fielding a “world-class” military.