China is on track to double the size of its nuclear warhead stockpile while expanding foreign military bases capable of attacking the United States — worrying signs that Beijing is seeking global superpower status, the Pentagon warned in its annual survey of the Chinese military released Tuesday.
The People’s Liberation Army currently has a warhead stockpile in the “low 200s” but will expand it over the coming years for a nuclear triad of land-based missiles, missiles fired from submarines and bombers, according to the report to Congress.
“Over the next decade, China will expand and diversify its nuclear forces, likely at least doubling its nuclear warhead stockpile,” the report states.
Chinese nuclear forces currently include large numbers of silo-based and road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, along with an array of high-tech weapons such as multiple-warhead missiles and ultra-high-speed hypersonic glide vehicles. Other new systems include theater-range precision strike nuclear weapons designed to counter American ballistic missile defenses, advanced intelligence systems and precision-strike weapons.
Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant defense secretary for China, said the report marks the first time that U.S. intelligence has made public the numbers of Chinese warheads.
“We’re certainly concerned about the numbers,” Mr. Sbragia told reporters. Beyond numbers of warheads and weapons, there are also troubling signs regarding “just the trajectory of China’s nuclear developments writ large,” he said.
The nuclear buildup involves “new processes, tools and capacities” to reach more than 400 warheads, he said. “So this is not just the end product itself; it’s about the entire infrastructure to do so.”
Rick Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the report presents an alarming picture of growing Chinese military power and the threat the Chinese Communist Party poses to democracy and freedom.
“For decades, China analysts in Washington have been downplaying or denying the possibility that China could become a global challenge to the United States, which this year’s China Military Report now acknowledges is building in plain sight,” he said.
But retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, said the report omits important details about Chinese weapons systems and developments and understates other aspects of Beijing’s buildup.
“I am totally underwhelmed by this product,” Capt. Fanell said. “How is it that the Trump administration’s third [Defense Department] report on the PLA looks no different than the Obama administration’s reports?”
The Pentagon report says China’s longer-term goal is to develop a vaguely defined world-class military by 2049 that can create a favorable environment for China’s communist system. The report said Chinese Communist Party leaders reject the idea that the ruling party has given up its ideology after introducing market-oriented economic reforms.
China stated in a 2019 defense white paper that the United States was the “principal instigator” of global instability and the cause of international strategic competition.
“Within the context of China’s national strategy … it is likely that China will aim to develop a military by midcentury that is equal to, and in many cases superior to, the United States’ military, or that of any other great power that the Chinese view as a threat,” Mr. Sbragia told reporters.
A stockpile of more than 400 warheads would still be far less than the current U.S. strategic warhead stockpile of 1,550 deployed warheads. However, the report noted that China appears to be shifting its nuclear strategy from one of not being the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict to a “launch-on-warning” strategy: firing nuclear missiles based on indications of an incoming nuclear attack.
Mr. Sbragia said the troubling nuclear buildup highlights the need to include China in the arms limitation talks between the United States and Russia, which the Trump administration has encouraged and Beijing so far has resisted.
“China needs to halt the upward and destabilizing trajectory of its nuclear buildup and work closely to reduce nuclear risks,” Mr. Sbragia said.
On basing, the report said China is expanding its sole overseas military base in Djibouti on the strategic Horn of Africa and is considering further base sites that would be used for power projection around the world. Among the potential locations are Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan.
“A global PLA military logistics network could both interfere with U.S. military operations and support offensive operations against the United States as the PRC’s global military objectives evolve,” the report said. The base network will leverage China’s commercial ports and regional access agreements and will “allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances.”
The latest annual report provides a sharp contrast with previous Pentagon surveys, which argued that China’s military buildup was defensive and limited to developing forces capable of retaking Taiwan.
The report provides new details on China’s large and expanding arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. For example, the report contends that the PLA has rapidly built up the number of 4,000-mile-range DF-26 missiles — one of two “aircraft-carrier-killing” weapons with enough precision to strike ships at sea. The PLA now has 200 DF-26 missiles capable of firing either conventional or nuclear warheads against Navy ships in the Pacific.
China last week conducted flight tests of four ballistic missiles into the disputed South China Sea, including a DF-26 and a DF-21D, the second anti-ship ballistic missile in the arsenal.
Mr. Sbragia said the DF-26 is among several weapons that the PLA regards as providing an asymmetric advantage over the United States and others in the region. “The development and expansion of those have been significant,” he said.
New nuclear doctrine
The report said developments in Chinese nuclear forces last year suggest Beijing is increasing the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces “by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture” with an expanded silo-based force. Mr. Sbragia said China’s no-first-use doctrine remains the policy but cautioned that “there’s an ambiguity over the conditions under which China’s no-first-use policy could apply.”
The annual survey “points out that China’s near complete lack of transparency over its nuclear forces raised legitimate questions over China’s intent as it fields larger and more capable nuclear forces,” he said. “And this includes the near completion of what we consider to be a triad capacity, which would include those land-based kind of capabilities.”
China’s nuclear forces consist of multi- and single-warhead ICBMS, a handful of Jin-class ballistic missile submarines and a growing force of H-6 strategic bombers. China, according to the report, is also planning an air-launched ballistic missile — a weapon that Russia also is developing.
“China is pursuing a nuclear triad with the development of nuclear-capable, air-launched ballistic missiles and last year publicly revealed a modified bomber that would carry this missile,” Mr. Sbragia said.
China has exceeded the U.S. Navy in warships and now boasts the largest navy in the world with 350 warships, including 130 major surface combatants. The U.S. Navy has a battle force of 293 ships.
China’s land-based conventional missile forces include more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles with ranges of 310 to 3,410 miles. The United States has one type of conventional short-range missile and no ground-launched cruise missiles.
• Bill Gertz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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