China’s nuclear arsenal is growing at a rapid pace, potentially reaching 100 warheads by 2020 and more than 1,000 by 2030, a dramatic shift from the 590-plus warheads it had when President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
“This very substantial rise in China’s stockpile of nuclear weapons poses a significant security risk to the United States and the international community,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters in a conference call Tuesday. “You know we, in this call, are talking about real deterrence here, but it has to be real.”
While Carter didn’t give an exact figure, the report projected the total number of Chinese warheads will have surpassed 800 by 2024. If accurate, that would be a far cry from the 3,200 warheads maintained by the United States and Russia, both heavy users of nuclear weapons, as well as India, which is seen as the chief nuclear weapons challenger to China, with perhaps 300 to 400 warheads.
A key challenge for U.S. nuclear diplomacy with China, Carter said, is determining what the Chinese value the capability to acquire and what the U.S. could afford, since Beijing’s arsenal is growing far faster than its economy. Carter called for China to transition to a “full-spectrum deterrent” of at least 200 warheads, though he didn’t address how that might be done.
“It is hard to argue that the world’s second-largest economy, one with no nuclear capabilities, is vulnerable to unconventional or cyber attacks,” he said.
Last year, Chinese officials announced China has completed a test of a new class of intercontinental ballistic missiles it calls the CSS-5 missile and that five of the missiles have been fielded. The CSS-5 is based on technology acquired from Russia and allows the Chinese to threaten intercontinental threats from the U.S. mainland at any time using multiple layers of explosive power, including a warhead and a warhead separated from the missile to detonate during flight.
Earlier this year, China tested a powerful new long-range intercontinental ballistic missile known as the Dongfeng-3. The weapons’ modernization has given China the ability to strike areas as far as 4,000 miles from its shores.
The new report cites Chinese military advancements that include launching long-range ballistic missiles armed with simulated nuclear warheads and developing a ground-based midcourse air defense system capable of shooting down long-range ballistic missiles.
“The momentum for China’s nuclear weapons program is accelerating,” the Pentagon report states.
Carter warned that Chinese moves to transition to a more sophisticated, modern nuclear arsenal “raise serious questions about the durability and quality of China’s nuclear deterrent, whether China will remain bound by a ‘full spectrum’ deterrent commitment to U.S. interests,” and “could alter the international balance of power.”
Some of the concerns come from China’s increasing might in the world economy and the fact that at least some of its medium-range missiles have inaccurate guidance systems and can’t be discerned against the changing radars of enemy forces.
The report warns of potential future conflicts between the United States and China over trade or the South China Sea, where Beijing is jockeying for power with several neighbors, including the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan.
“A sustained shift in China’s strategic calculus toward a more threatening behavior, could incite a dangerous response from the United States and result in conflict, which, if protracted, could easily escalate into a nuclear exchange,” the report states.