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Politics & Security

China's Nuclear Weapons: Expanding Faster Bringing More Bad News

The pace of China's military and nuclear weapons buildup has been unprecedented. Japan, Australia and South Korea especially need to stay alert to the risks.

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Single frame photo of missile launch exercise conducted by the Chinese military on August 4, 2022 (© Xinhua via Kyodo)

The United States Department of Defense recently published its annual report on "Military and Security Developments Involving China." This "China Power" report provides a detailed description of the People's Republic of China's military as well as its capabilities and likely objectives. The section on China's rapid nuclear weapons expansion created a particular stir. Especially as it caught many observers by surprise.

A friend asked what this writer made of it all.

Cover of 2023 US Department of Defense Report (Screenshot)

But is there really a Chinese military buildup?

American analysts now mostly agree there is a rapid expansion of China's nuclear arsenal. It reflects the broader, rapid growth of People's Liberation Army (PLA) capabilities over the last 20 years. 

That growth is fairly considered the biggest, fastest military buildup of any country since World War II. Possibly the fastest in human history.  

For many years the expert consensus of China's nuclear warhead inventory was around 300 or even fewer.  Then, in 2021 that estimate changed to over 400 ー all of a sudden. And now it's estimated to be 500 warheads, with that number doubling by 2030. As importantly, the PRC is developing more and increasingly effective and accurate delivery systems for their nuclear weapons.

It's worth noting that "expert consensus" has usually underestimated the rate at which Chinese military capabilities of all sorts develop. In fact, they often miss by a decade or two.  

Take PLA Navy aircraft carriers. The thinking was that the Chinese would need decades to even begin to master carrier operations. Indeed, such was the lack of concern ー if not condescension ー on the US side that the then-PACOM commander, Admiral Timothy Keating, noted in 2009 that he saw nothing wrong with the PLA Navy having aircraft carriers. And that he would do what he could to help them if asked.  

Well, now they have three carriers and are rapidly figuring out how to use them.

AUKUS China
The Chinese Navy Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Liaoning was sighted in the Pacific Ocean east of Okinawa on December 21-22, 2022. The carrier repeatedly landed and departed fighter jets and helicopters a total of about 180 times (© The Ministry of Defense Joint Staff Office)

What does it mean for Chinese nuclear options? 

One fairly asks if something similar has taken place with estimates of Chinese nuclear weapons. At least, one should consider the possibility that US intelligence has slipped up. (It's not exactly unusual.) Acknowledging that the PRC in fact might have far more nuclear warheads than currently estimated would also help.  

However, such questions are unwelcome by the China experts ー and have been for a long time. Around 2011, Dr Phil Karber suggested that China just might have far more than a small, few hundred warhead arsenal. That was based partly on the fact China's 2d Artillery Rocket Force (responsible for nuclear weapons operations) had several thousand miles of underground tunnels in which one might hide nuclear weapons.

For this prudent, commonsensical suggestion Dr Karber was savaged and ridiculed by the "'China hands." And reportedly, senior-most US intelligence officials instructed that Dr Karber be discredited.  

There are still too many "China experts" who seem to be bending over backward to downplay PRC military capabilities. They insist that there is nothing to worry about ー especially when it comes to Taiwan. And they claim that we have plenty of time to prepare before China becomes a real threat.  

Taiwan contingency
Image of a simulated attack on Taiwan from mainland China posted by the Chinese military's Eastern Theater Command on its official WeChat account on April 10, 2023. (©Kyodo)

But how serious is the Chinese nuclear threat in terms of fighting and winning wars?

It's very serious. China will have a huge nuclear arsenal ー if it already doesn't. And it's not just a question of numbers. It's as much a question of "will" and your enemy (the Americans mostly) thinking that you just might use your nukes.  

The more ruthless side has the advantage. 

I expect the Chinese to use their nuclear weapons to intimidate both the United States and US partners and allies. 

Are you listening Japan, Australia, and South Korea?  

Would Beijing actually use nuclear weapons?  I would not care to bet my pension that they would not.  

Don't forget that China's "no limits" partners, the Russians, have a huge nuclear force. And they just might align it with China's. At least for purposes of coercion. North Korean, and eventually Iranian nuclear weapons are similarly best regarded as part of the PRC nuclear toolkit.

These nations are not perfect allies, but their strategic interests versus the free world align.

But don't we have some time since the DOD Report notes that the Chinese Communist Party's goal is to have a 'world-class' military by 2049?

2049? The PLA is already a capable military that has caught up with and surpassed the US military in certain areas. Such as, it has a bigger navy, a massively bigger shipbuilding capacity, and a more capable missile force. That includes hypersonic missiles.

And remember that a military only has to do a certain thing at a certain time and at a certain place. Indeed, if China picks its time and place, it could give the Americans a bloody nose, if not defeat them. This is particularly the case in the South China Sea where the PLA achieved "de facto" control at least five or six years ago.  

Chinese military power projection for an outright war drops off quickly once one gets, say, 1000 miles from Chinese borders. But they are aiming to correct this shortcoming. As well as building up a global port and airfield infrastructure to which they will have access ー and be able to operate globally, just like the US military.  

Just wait five or ten years and see how far they've gotten.  Probably a lot farther than the "China experts" imagine.

China's President Xi Jinping attends the "Senior Chinese Leader Event" held by the National Committee on US-China Relations and the US-China Business Council on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, November 15, 2023. (©REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Pool)

This is not just a shooting war.

But while we're talking about a future war, the Chinese reckon they are already at war with the United States.

Indeed, the PRC has been attacking us on economic, financial, biological (think COVID), chemical (think fentanyl), cyber, political, psychological, and media/ propaganda fronts for a few decades.  

The "kinetic" war will come in due course if it's even necessary. The US elite and political classes by and large refuse to recognize what China is doing and has in store for us. China aims to defeat us and to dominate us.

Even more maddening, Wall Street and the US business class have been funding the Chinese buildup. They have been pressuring successive administrations ー and US politicians ー to not respond. And arguing we should do nothing that the Chinese won't like and that threatens their own gravy trains.

We're at war and we just might lose. 

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Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.

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