China is building up its nuclear weapons arsenal faster than previous projections, U.S. report says


Military vehicles carrying DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles travel past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People’s Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 01, 2019.

Military vehicles carrying DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles travel past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People’s Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 01, 2019.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

A Pentagon report on China's military power says Beijing is exceeding previous projections of how quickly it is building up its nuclear weapons arsenal and is “almost certainly” learning lessons from Russia's war in Ukraine about what a conflict over Taiwan might look like.

The report released Thursday also warns that China may be pursuing a new intercontinental missile system using conventional arms that, if fielded, would allow Beijing “to threaten conventional strikes against targets in the continental United States, Hawaii and Alaska.”

The China report comes a month before an expected meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden on the sidelines of next month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.

The annual report, required by Congress, is one way the Pentagon measures the growing military capabilities of China, which the U.S. government sees as its key threat in the region and America's primary long-term security challenge.

But after Hamas's Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, the U.S. has been forced again to focus on the Middle East, instead of its widely promoted pivot to the Pacific to counter China's growth. The U.S. is rushing weapons to Israel while continuing to support and deliver munitions to Ukraine in its 20-month struggle to repel Russia's invasion.

Still, the Pentagon’s national defense strategy is shaped around China remaining the greatest security challenge for the U.S., and that the threat from Beijing will determine how the U.S. military is equipped and shaped for the future.

The Pentagon report builds on the military's warning last year that China was expanding its nuclear force much faster than U.S. officials had predicted, highlighting a broad and accelerating buildup of military muscle designed to enable Beijing to match or surpass U.S. global power by midcentury.

Last year’s report warned that Beijing was rapidly modernizing its nuclear force and was on track to nearly quadruple the number of warheads it has to 1,500 by 2035. The United States has 3,750 active nuclear warheads.

The 2023 report finds that Beijing is on pace to field more than 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030, continuing a rapid modernization aimed at meeting Xi’s goal of having a “world class” military by 2049.

After the previous report, China accused the U.S. of ratcheting up tensions and Beijing said it was still committed to a “no first use” policy on nuclear weapons.

The Pentagon has seen no indication that China is moving away from that policy but assesses there may be some circumstances where China might judge that it does not apply, a senior U.S. defense said without providing details. The official briefed reporters Wednesday on condition of anonymity before the report's release.

The U.S. does not adhere to a “no first use” policy and says nuclear weapons would be used only in “extreme circumstances.”

The report said China is intensifying military, diplomatic and economic pressure not only on Taiwan but also toward all its regional neighbors to push back against what its sees as U.S. efforts to contain its rise. The pressure against Taipei includes ballistic missile overflights, increased warplane incursions into its international defense zone and a large-scale military exercise last August that encircled Taiwan.

Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its control, by force if necessary. Xi has given his military until 2027 to develop the military capability to retake the self-ruled island democracy that the Communist Party claims as its own territory.

The U.S. has committed billions of dollars in military weapons to Taiwan to build up its defenses and help it rebuff any potential attack.

But China also has devoted billions to its military. According to its public budget numbers, China’s military spending for 2023 rose 7.2% to 1.58 trillion yuan, or $216 billion in U.S. dollars, outpacing its economic growth. U.S. officials say the actual figure may be much higher. Beijing says it implements a defensive military policy to protect the country’s interests.

The report also noted that China has increased its harassment of U.S. warplanes flying in international airspace in the region and recorded more than 180 instances where Chinese aircraft aggressively intercepted U.S. military flights.

The report focuses on China's activities in 2022, but does look at the U.S. overflight of China's spy balloon and how a lack of communication between the two militaries increased the risk of escalation. It does not include the latest war between Israel and Hamas, but it found that Beijing is using what it learned from the Russia-Ukraine war. China, it said, is working toward industrial and economic self-reliance after seeing the impact of Western sanctions against Moscow.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine “presented a major, unexpected challenge” for China, the report said, forcing it to measure its relationship and material support to Russia against the “reputational or economic costs” it could incur that would impede its overall goal of rising as a national power.

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