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China's nuclear arsenal expanding faster than before, currently at 500 warheads: US Report

The report claimed that China is developing its nuclear stockpile must faster than expected to achieve its goal of 1,000 warheads by 2030. China also completed the construction of three new solid-propellant silo fields containing 300 ICBM silos.

Aveek Banerjee Written By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Published on: October 20, 2023 16:14 IST
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe
Image Source : AP Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden

China has significantly expanded its nuclear arsenal over the past year to more than 500 operational warheads, on track to exceed previous projections, and is working "slightly faster than estimated" to achieve its goal of having 1,000 warheads by 2030, according to a report by the US Department of Defense.

The Pentagon report said that the People's Republic of China (PRC) will continue to rapidly modernise, diversify and expand its nuclear forces. It also affirmed that China's current efforts to expand its nuclear arsenal "dwarf previous attempts in both scale and complexity".

"In 2022, Beijing continued its rapid nuclear expansion, and DoD estimates that the PRC possessed more than 500 operational nuclear warheads as of May 2023—on track to exceed previous projections," the report said.

China's efforts to expand the nuclear stockpile are part of President Xi Jinping's efforts to achieve a "world-class" military by 2049 and ensure that the modernisation of the People's Liberation Army - the Chinese military - is "basically complete" by 2035.

Additionally, China completed the construction of three new solid-propellant silo fields in the last year, consisting of at least 300 Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) silos, in order to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear force. China is fielding the longer-range JL-3 SLBMs whose range extends to the US, claimed the Pentagon.

"The PRC may be exploring the development of conventionally-armed intercontinental-range missile systems. If developed and fielded, such capabilities would allow the PRC to threaten conventional strikes against targets in the continental United States, Hawaii, and Alaska," said the report.

However, the Pentagon report noted that China's nuclear force usage is based on "deterrence" of an enemy first strike and "counterstrike" when deterrence fails, threatening retaliation against an adversary’s military capability, population, and economy.

Military aggression in Indo-Pacific

The Pentagon report also noted China's increasingly dangerous, coercive and provocative actions in the Indo-Pacific region. The US documented over 180 instances of the Chinese military's coercive and risky air intercepts against U.S. aircraft in the region, more in the past two years than the previous decade.

"Examples of the PRC’s coercive and risky operational behavior against U.S. and Allied aircraft have included lasing; reckless maneuvers; close approaches in the air or at sea; high rates of closure; discharging chaff or flares in front of, or in close proximity to, aircraft; and other actions," it said. 

Over the same period, the Chinese military also conducted around 100 instances of coercive and risky operational behavior in the air domain against US allies and partners to prevent "lawful operations" in the region.

India has repeatedly called for an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, the biogeographic region, comprising the Indian Ocean and the western and central Pacific Ocean, including the South China Sea, based on international norms.

China claims nearly all of the disputed South China Sea, though Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam all claim parts of it. Beijing has built artificial islands and military installations in the South China Sea, leading to territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines. The growing Chinese aggression is also a major reason for US-China tensions.

Taiwan and South China Sea

The report highlighted China's increased provocative and destabilising actions in and around the Taiwan Strait throughout 2022, including ballistic missile overflights and increased flights into Taiwan's air defence identification zone.

"The PLA practiced elements of each of its military courses of action against Taiwan during its August 2022 large-scale military exercise aimed at pressuring Taiwan, and again in April 2023 in response to Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen’s transit of the United States," it said.

China also deployed several vessels to maintain a presence in disputed areas, such as near the Scarborough Reef and Thitu Island. It conducted multiple coercive actions against the Philippines in the South China Sea, including "cutting the tow line of a Philippine Navy vessel, executing dangerous maneuvers in close proximity to Philippine vessels; and reportedly reclaiming several unoccupied land features".

China's growing friendship with Russia

The PRC views its "no limits" partnership with Russia as integral to advancing the PRC's development and emergence as a great power. Nevertheless, Beijing has attempted a discreet approach to providing material support to Russia for its war against Ukraine, said the Defence Department's report.

"As Beijing deliberates the scale and scope of material commitments to Russia’s war on Ukraine, it probably will seek to balance its strategic partnership with Russia while avoiding reputational or economic costs that could result from its assistance," said the report, adding that China is learning lessons from the Russian invasion in Ukraine.

It also noted that Beijing has become a "willing buyer" of Russian energy exports to support Russia's sanction-battered economy and has ensured Russia's continued diplomatic participation in multilateral organisations.

This comes as Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Beijing on Wednesday and called for close foreign policy coordination, amid concerns over possible conflicts with the West over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and Beijing’s rising threats against Taiwan.

Putin said he had a lengthy and productive discussion with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on "some issues of a particularly confidential nature" as the two leaders vowed to step up their comprehensive strategic coordination and mutually beneficial cooperation.

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