By Paul D. Shinkman Senior Writer, National Security • Sept. 1, 2020, at 2:53 p.m.
China’s nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 2019. China possesses at least 200 nuclear warheads, according to a new report. GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty ImagesQ.w
U.S. Reveals First Assessment of Chinese Nuclear Weapons Stockpile
A new report from the Pentagon documents the scale of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal at a time the Trump administration is pressuring China to join nuclear talks with Russia.
The Defense Department for the first time Tuesday revealed the number of nuclear warheads it believes China possesses, saying in a new report that Beijing’s arsenal will double over the next decade – while still lagging far behind America’s and Russia’s capacities.
China possesses at least 200 warheads now with plans for a dramatic increase, according to the annual China Military Power Report, released Tuesday. The expansion of its arsenal will also include developing more sophisticated nuclear weapons, as well as modernizing the methods to launch them to include submarines, bombers, road-mobile carriers and new ground-based silos.
The 2020 report studies the Chinese armed forces through the end of 2019 and is prepared for Congress and the public. It had previously documented the potency of Chinese nuclear weapons but had not provided such specifics.
The new information comes at a time the Trump administration is pressuring China to participate in talks to renegotiate the New START treaty with Russia, set to expire in February failing a new agreement. A top official said shortly after the report’s release that the Pentagon made the decision to release the information to better demonstrate the threats China poses and the importance of a U.S. response.
“We should be attentive – certainly we are – and that’s the rationale for why we ensured we included the best number and best understanding we could have in this report,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Chad Sbragia said at an event organized by the American Enterprise Institute think tank to accompany the report’s release.
The U.S. currently has 5,800 nuclear warheads, 3,800 of which are still active with another 2,000 awaiting dismantlement, the Arms Control Center reports. Russia has roughly 6,400 with roughly 4,300 still active. Prior estimates, including from the Arms Control Center, had placed China’s arsenal at significantly higher than the Pentagon’s assessment.
Tuesday’s revelation comes as the U.S. continues to work toward modernizing its own nuclear arsenal, which is far larger than China’s but is also aging, with many components dating back to the Cold War. The Trump administration announced earlier this year it would not participate in talks to renew its last remaining nuclear limitation pact with Russia if China did not also participate.
Some analysts, however, expressed concerns that the report furthers an incomplete argument that U.S. and Russian limits on nuclear weapons development must now be tied to China as well.
“Even if DoD is correct and China doubles its arsenal by 2030 to 400-500 warheads, China’s arsenal will remain far smaller and less capable than that of the U.S. and Russia,” Kingston Reif, director of Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, wrote on Twitter. “The foolishness of throwing away an extension of New START due to concerns about China can’t be overstated.”
A separate section of the report highlighted a key shift in U.S. understanding of the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions for its military – that it’s ambitions to use it are global.
“The CCP does not intend for the PLA to be merely a showpiece of China’s modernity or to keep it focused solely on regional threats,” the report states.
Sbragia said China’s leadership “does have an aspiration for great power status by virtually every measure. … They have to have global convergence at the broadest possible scale.”