It was already a dangerous race: China versus the United States, each pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into missiles, submarines, warplanes and ships, vying to dominate the Indo-Pacific. This race could now be nuclear.
A Pentagon report released this month estimated that China may have 700 nuclear warheads by 2027 and 1,000 by 2030 — a dramatic increase from last year’s assessment that China’s 200 or so warheads would only double over the next decade. The Pentagon pointed out that China may have a nuclear delivery platform and supporting infrastructure, which could allow it to launch missiles from air, ground, and sea. This is a dramatic increase on last year’s assessment that China’s It suggested that China could be moving towards a “launch on-warning” position. This would mean it would have ready to fire missiles in the event of an immediate threat similar to the “high-alert” positions Russia and the U.S. have maintained since the Cold War. The sudden increase in nuclear force may indicate a shift in China’s strategy away from its “minimum defense” approach to preparing for war. This shift is occurring as tensions rise between Washington and Beijing over China’s recent hypersonic missile test and more aggressive actions toward Taiwan and South China Sea. President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met in a three-hour summit this week hoping to ease the acrimony and suspicion between their nations.
A move away from minimum deterrence would be “totally contrary to everything I have ever read or talked about with the Chinese about how they think about nuclear weapons,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “The U.S. intelligence and its intelligence are always concerned when we make mistakes. And we clearly got this nuclear piece wrong.”
Beijing’s buildup is adding to a dangerous arms race across the Indo-Pacific. Experts say it is a setback in nuclear nonproliferation. It was already slowing down this decade and increases the risk of conflict. The big picture is that many more nuclear weapons will be on high alert and ready to launch at any moment,” stated Hans Kristensen (director of the Nuclear Information Project, Federation of American Scientists).
Kristensen is one of several independent experts who discovered through satellite imagery earlier this year that China is building at least three new nuclear missile silos in the deserts of Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia. Kristensen stated in an analysis that this silo construction is “the largest expansion of the Chinese nuclear weaponry ever.” It is not known how China will operate these new silos, or how many warheads each missile can carry. Despite its advances, China remains far behind the United States and Russia, which each have around 4,000 warheads and together hold 91% of all nuclear warheads, according to the FAS.
Still, the surprise growth of China’s nuclear arsenal is worrisome, experts said.
“People are nervous because they don’t really understand what Xi Jinping’s endgame is, what his strategy is, and how we can put in place some understanding or risk reduction measures to avoid conflict,” Glaser said. “And we have a history of knowing that when there’s a crisis, the Chinese don’t answer the phone.”
Analysts say China may have designed its expanding nuclear capabilities to defend itself as the U.S. strengthens its security alliances around the world. Beijing may still view its expansion as necessary to meet perceived American threats.
“There is a growing sense of urgency at the top leadership level,” said Zhao Tong, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. It is possible that Chinese leaders are concerned that the U.S. has launched a massive campaign to destabilize China. In order to counter this perceived political hostility, China needs a stronger deterrent.”
The nuclear buildup may be an extension of Xi’s “strong military” vision — in short, that a great power should have a great military. Since taking charge in 2012, he has restructured China’s armed forces and set deadlines of 2035 and 2049 for the People’s Liberation Army to become a modernized and then “world class” military. China has about 975,000 active-duty personnel, according to the Pentagon report; its navy has 355 ships and submarines, the largest — if not most potent — fleet in the world.
China’s expanded nuclear capabilities would be viewed as a deterrent to the U.S. and its allies from intervening if China invades Taiwan, the island democracy that Beijing considers a breakaway province. Taiwan’s defense minister said last month that its military tensions with China were at their “worst in 40 years.”
Beijing flew 150 military aircraft over Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone within five days in October, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry. These incursions have escalated as Taiwan builds stronger relations with other countries, welcoming delegations of European and American lawmakers to the island and acknowledging that the U.S. military is training Taiwanese soldiers.
Adm. Philip Davidson, the head of the U.S. Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command warned that China could attack Taiwan in the coming six years, based on its rapid military growth.
Xi told Biden at their summit on Tuesday that China prefers “peaceful unification” and does not seek conflict with the United States — but warned that “Taiwan independence separatist forces” and Americans who helped them were “playing with fire.” If they crossed a red line, China would take “decisive measures,” he said. Some analysts suggest that China might play a “shell-game” with its nuclear silos. It builds many, but only one or two of them are armed. Kristensen stated that this seemed unlikely given the number of facilities under construction. “When countries build these large numbers of facilities, they tend to fill them.”
China’s military modernization was highlighted again this year when it reportedly tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, which is launched into orbit on a rocket before detaching to glide toward its target, traveling five times faster than the speed of sound. Hypersonic missiles move on a lower trajectory than traditional ballistic missiles and can evade radar missile detection systems.
Gen. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley called the hypersonic missile testing “very concerning” as well as “very close to a Sputnik moment.” Although the Pentagon has not disclosed whether China is working on hypersonic weapons technology, the U.S. has said that it is developing them.
China’s Foreign Ministry denied testing a hypersonic missile. The ministry has not denied or confirmed the reports about the nation’s nuclear expansion.
China is ahead of the United States in long-range missiles, in part because of a Cold War-era agreement called the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, which restricted the U.S. and Russia from having missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, or about 300 to 3,400 miles. In recent years, China has used thousands of these missiles to defend itself against an American attack by sea.
Last week, satellite company Maxar Technologies released images showing that China has built models of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and destroyer in the deserts of Xinjiang. U.S. The U.S. Naval Institute stated that these models were likely being used by the People’s Liberation Army for target practice.
The U.S. pulled out of the INF under the Trump administration in 2019 and is now spending heavily on missile development to catch up specifically with China, which U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has called the United States’ “No. 1 pacing challenge.”
These technologies will take years to build. These technologies will take years to build. The Biden administration sought to restore U.S. allies as a means of countering China’s growing military might. The “Quad” alliance of Japan, the United States, India and Australia has committed to preserving a “free, open Indo-Pacific.” Meanwhile, the AUKUS security agreement between the U.S. and U.K. promises to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
” The idea is to show China that peace and stability are the interests of the international community. Glaser, from the German Marshall Fund, stated that they won’t be satisfied if you use force. “The world is going to turn against your. You’re going to pay too high a price.”‘
Biden’s efforts have also sparked anxiety in Beijing.
” The recent AUKUS agreement is alarming. Zhao stated that it may cause Beijing to worry that China is not always in control of the situation. China may lose its military advantage. So if it fears that window is closing, Beijing may think it is forced to do something…. The risk of a military conflict is very serious.”
The Biden-Xi summit aimed to ease diplomatic tensions and prevent accidental conflict. Unlike the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were largely isolated from each other, China and the United States are connected through their economies and global interests like addressing climate change. Military confrontation is not in the interests of either side. Initial reports after the summit showed no changes in the views of either side and no intention to ease arms buildup. On Tuesday, Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national safety advisor, stated to an audience at Brookings Institution in Washington
that Biden had reached agreement with Xi to have “strategic stabilization” discussions about the nuclear issue. The format or timeline for the talks was not specified by Sullivan.
Zhao stated that it is unlikely that Washington and Beijing can establish trust when their ideological friction is so strong. “If they cannot have an honest and candid discussion about issues like the existence of basic universal values, I don’t see how they can mitigate their ideological confrontation and defuse tension.”
Some analysts dismiss the notion that China and the U.S. are sliding into a cold war. But Kristensen sees parallels. He said that one side reacts to the other and accelerates. “There doesn’t seem to be a single political plan. That is very much where we are now again.”