Gearing up for a possible military showdown with the US under Donald Trump’s presidency, China has tested a new version of a missile capable of carrying up to 10 warheads, indicating a dramatic shift in Beijing's nuclear capability.
The flight test of the DF-5C missile was carried out last month using 10 multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs, the Washington Free Beacon reported.
The test of the inert warheads was monitored closely by US intelligence agencies, said two officials familiar with reports of the missile test.
The Dongfeng-5C missile, carrying 10 dummy warheads, was launched from the Taiyuan Space Launch Centre in Shanxi province, and flew to a desert in western China, the report said.
The missile is a new variant of the DF-5, an intercontinental ballistic missile that first went into service in the early 1980's.
“The [Defence Department] routinely monitors Chinese military developments and accounts for PLA capabilities in our defence plans," Pentagon spokesman Commander Gary Ross was quoted as saying by the report.
For decades, the US has put the estimated number of warheads in China's nuclear arsenal at about 250.
But the report suggested that the latest test with 10 warheads meant the actual number could be larger.
China also began adding warheads to older DF-5 missiles in February last year, according to US intelligence agencies.
US defence officials have previously warned that China's rapid development of long-range ballistic missiles, coupled with a lack of transparency about its nuclear capabilities, could bring uncertainty to stability in the region.
The timing of the test coincided with the election of Donald Trump as US President who signalled a tougher stance against China over a range of issues, from the trade deficit to Beijing's military build-up in the disputed South China Sea.
Chinese military expert from an institute affiliated with the People's Liberation Army, (PLA) said a new test would not have been aimed at Trump.
“The test of a nuclear missile requires permission from the highest level - the Central Military Commission. It takes at least one year for the military to get the approval and to prepare for it,” the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post quoted unnamed expert as saying.
“It is not a random decision to be made just because Trump is now in office," the expert said.
Although China had made steady progress in nuclear arms development in recent years, the government had no plans to drastically adjust its nuclear policy, the expert said.
Also recent commentaries in the official media here said China is stepping up preparedness for a possible military conflict with US after Trump election.
A commentary in the official website of People's Liberation Army's (PLA) said on January 20 the day Trump assumed Presidency that the chances of war have become "more real" amid a more complex security situation in Asia Pacific.
The commentary written by an official at the national defence mobilisation department in the Central Military Commission, China's overall military high command said the call for a US rebalancing of its strategy in Asia, military deployments in the East and South China Seas and the installation of a missile defence system in South Korea were hot spots getting closer to ignition.
"A war within the President's term or war breaking out tonight are not just slogans, they are becoming a practical reality," the commentary said.
Recent images purporting to show China's Dongfeng-41 missile have surfaced on Chinese websites with reports suggesting that Beijing has deployed them in Heilongjiang province, which borders Russia.
The missile, with a range of 14,000 km and a payload of 10-12 nuclear warheads, is considered one of the military's most powerful.
Global Times, a state-run tabloid in a recent commentary said the deployment of the DF-41 was a "strategic deterrence tool" and Beijing would "ready itself for pressures imposed by the new US government".
(With inputs from PTI)