A Pentagon report warns that China now has more than 400 nuclear warheads, approximately doubling its nuclear arsenal in just two years, while its military has increased “unsafe” and “unprofessional” military behavior toward the United States and its allies in the region, especially Taiwan.
The pace of China’s accelerating nuclear expansion may enable Beijing to field a stockpile of about 1,500 warheads by 2035, according to the Pentagon’s annual “China Military Power” report to Congress that was released Tuesday.
The United States’ nuclear arsenal, with an estimated 3,800 warheads in active status, would still dwarf China’s.
The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) launched approximately 135 ballistic missiles for testing and training in 2021, “more than the rest of the world combined, excluding ballistic missile employment in conflict zones,” according to the report. It also continued to construct three intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silo fields, which will contain at least 300 new ICBM silos.
The Pentagon report was based on information about China’s military capabilities that was collected through December 2021, but it also accounted for some major events in 2022, including Russia’s war in Ukraine and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, according to a senior defense official.
Bradley Bowman, a veteran and senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the “quantity and quality” of Chinese missiles is “particularly concerning.”
“If one looks at the capability and capacity of China's missile arsenal, it's breathtaking,” Bowman said, adding that China’s military modernization has “methodically and deliberately gone after capabilities specifically designed to defeat the United States.”
South China Sea
China also has increased the number of “unsafe and unprofessional” encounters with the U.S. military and its allies and partners in the region, including Australia.
“We've seen more coercive and aggressive actions in the Indo-Pacific region, including some of which we would highlight as being dangerous,” the senior defense official said, citing aircraft aerobatics, lasing and discharging objects as examples.
On Tuesday, China said it had “tracked and dispelled” a U.S. warship from waters near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Beijing considers much of the resource-rich sea its territory — despite the territorial claims of other nations — and has created hundreds of hectares of artificial islands to bolster its claims.
The U.S. Navy confirmed to VOA the USS Chancellorsville guided-missile cruiser conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the Spratly Islands Tuesday but described China’s statement about the mission as “false.”
“USS Chancellorsville (CG 62) conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in waters where high seas freedoms apply,” the Navy said in a statement.
“The United States is defending every nation's right to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Chancellorsville did here. Nothing the PRC says otherwise will deter us,” the Navy added, describing China’s claims to the Spratly Islands as “excessive” and “illegitimate.”
The U.S. frequently conducts these operations in the South China Sea to challenge the territorial claims of China and others and to promote free passage through international waters that carry half the world's merchant fleet tonnage, worth trillions of dollars each year.
An international court ruling in The Hague held that China had no historic title over the South China Sea, but Beijing has ignored the decision.
‘New normal’ around Taiwan
China has stated it wants to have the ability to control Taiwan, by force if necessary, by 2027, and officials have seen an “elevated level of new, intimidating and coercive activity” around the island. China considers Taiwan a wayward province.
“I don't see an imminent invasion. I think what we do see is sort of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) establishing kind of a new normal in terms of the level of military activity around Taiwan following the speaker's visit,” a senior defense official told reporters at the Pentagon.
China executed a high number of missile launches and military demonstrations around the Taiwan Strait during and immediately after Pelosi’s trip, which the speaker said was made to “stand by” the democratic island and honor the U.S. commitment made to Taiwan under a 1979 law.
Since then, China has lowered the number of aggressive actions around Taiwan but has not reduced its aggressive behavior to the level it was prior to her visit.
“Strait centerline crossings have become increasingly, you know, sort of routinized. In contrast, those used to be something that the PRC reserved for relatively rare occasions where they wanted to send sort of more of a political signal,” the senior defense official said.
Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe told U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Cambodia last week that Beijing considers Taiwan to be a “red line,” according to a statement provided by the Chinese Ministry of Defense.
“Taiwan is China’s. Taiwan and the resolution of the Taiwan issue is China’s own affair in which no outside force has the right to intervene,” Wei said, according to the statement.
Russia and beyond
China has continued its military cooperation with Russia. In 2021, a large-scale joint exercise with Russia’s army was conducted on Chinese soil for the first time. The drills were known as Zapad/Interaction.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, a senior defense official said Beijing has not provided direct military assistance to Moscow but has supported Russia by amplifying Russian disinformation and propaganda.
“Russia’s value as a partner to the PRC remains high,” the official said.
China has the world’s largest navy in terms of ship numbers, with a battle force of about 340 ships and submarines. China’s army, according to the report, has 975,000 active duty members, and Beijing’s aviation force is the largest in the region and third-largest in the world, with more than 2,800 aircraft.
The report added that in addition to China’s base in the small African nation of Djibouti, Beijing has considered several other nations for future Chinese military facilities ranging from Cambodia to Tajikistan to Kenya.
Cyber-enabled espionage by China also remains a “sophisticated, persistent threat,” according to the report. The Pentagon accuses China’s military of attempting to take radiation hardened integrated circuits, gyroscopes, syntactic foam trade secrets, military communication jamming equipment, aviation technologies, anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and other technologies.
Responding to VOA at the Pentagon earlier in November, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “China is the one country out there that geopolitically has the power potential to be a significant challenge to the United States.”
He added that China wants to have the top military in the world by 2049 and has made gains in cyber, space, land, sea and air, but stressed that the United States’ military will not let the Chinese military surpass it.
“And as long as we remain No. 1, then we will deter the war that people worry about, a great power war between China and the United States,” Milley said.