The Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military capabilities, released in November 2021 under the title “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” has sparked controversy in the US. The report forecasts a growth in China’s nuclear capabilities over the next decade. This comes amid the Biden Administration’s efforts to review US nuclear strategy and global concerns about China’s military modernization, especially after the Chinese Armed Forces announced that they have developed a hypersonic missile that can fly at five times the speed of sound and can be controlled remotely. In response to China’s growing military capabilities and its progress in developing fast-moving missiles as well as nuclear warheads, Mark Milley US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “We’re witnessing, in my view, we’re witnessing one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has witnessed,” describing this test as “very concerning” and “very close to the Sputnik Moment” which ignited the space race between the US and the USSR during the cold war.
The Pentagon’s report is based on statements by Chinese officials in state-run media outlets and satellite images showing a large number of nuclear weapons in storage. It indicates a growth in China’s nuclear arsenal, as follows:
1- Multiplied Steady Growth of China’s Nuclear Capabilities: The Pentagon mentioned in its forecast of Chinese weapons that the country is upscaling its nuclear capabilities at an accelerated pace. It added that the People’s Liberation Army likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030. The Department of Defense (DOD) forecast in September 2020, which was presented to Congress, indicated that the PLA will have around 200 warheads and that this number will double over the next 10 years. The latest DoD report said that the accelerating pace of China’s nuclear expansion may enable it to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027.
2- Significant Enhancement of China’s Nuclear Infrastructure: The DoD said that China is investing in several land, air, and sea nuclear platforms and is striving to expand them. It is also constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this force expansion. Beijing is also supporting this expansion by increasing its capacity to produce plutonium by constructing fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities.
3- Moving to the “Launch on Warning” posture: The DoD report said that Beijing has already launched a nuclear triad after the PLA publicly revealed the H-6N as its first nuclear-capable air-to-air refuelable bomber as well as improved land-based and sea-based nuclear capabilities. The report added that the new developments indicate that China aims to increase its peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.
China denounced the report and the Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin said, “The DoD, as with previous reports, is full of prejudice with a disregard of the facts,” and that the US is using the report to “hype up talk of the China nuclear threat … and countries are aware of that.”
Given the growing nuclear capabilities of China amid intensified Sino-American competition as well as Washington’s view of Beijing as a major influence on the global world order, there are several ideas on how to handle China’s heightened nuclear threat, such as:
1- Sustained Excellence of the US Nuclear Capabilities: The US is still ahead of China in terms of number of nuclear warheads, with China currently holding 1,000 warheads. This is in spite of a decline in the US’s nuclear arsenal. Latest estimates indicated that Washington possessed 3,750 warheads in September 2020, an 88% decrease compared to 1967, and 83% less than the number recorded at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989.
2- Modernizing the US Nuclear Infrastructure and Capabilities: The DoD’s report will likely urge the US to revise its nuclear strategy soon in order to increase its nuclear capabilities, reversing a trend that saw the role of nuclear weapons in the US defense strategy decrease. The revision of this trend aims to deter the growing and developing Chinese and Russian nuclear arsenals.
3- Possibility of Conducting Sino-American Nuclear Talks: Chinese officials constantly reject the idea of holding talks over disarmament, especially when the US and Russia are stockpiling five times more nuclear warheads than Beijing. However, several US officials said that Biden and his senior aides are slowly planning to have bilateral nuclear talks with China, while focusing mainly on avoiding conflict and the nuclear strategy of each country.
Meanwhile, other US officials said that official negotiations over nuclear disarmament are not realistic, because Beijing will not accept restrictions for its nuclear arsenal as long as it lags behind the arsenals of Moscow and Washington. Beijing repeatedly rejected former US President Donald Trump’s attempts to enter trilateral talks over nuclear disarmament with Russia. President Biden reportedly discussed the possibility of having a strategic stability dialogue with China to include discussing nuclear capabilities in a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on 15 November 2021.
4- Improving Nuclear Hotlines with Beijing: As China continues to reject talks on nuclear disarmament, some suggest building trust between both countries to enhance communication and transparency, such as nuclear hotlines with the US and Chinese armies. As lack of transparency dominates Chinese political culture, it could be convinced by a weapon inspection system that reduces US concerns that China could secretly mobilize nuclear weapons for offensive purposes.
The New Cold War
In conclusion, China’s nuclear capabilities will enhance its growth as a great power, which enables it to challenge a world order that has been US-led since the end of the Cold War. General Milley said that China’s rise would end the post-World War II era, especially as it builds more military bases outside its borders. Secret US intelligence reports revealed that China aims to establish a military installation in Equatorial Guinea, which will grant Beijing its first permanent naval presence in the Atlantic Ocean. This is in addition to US satellite images that show China creating new intercontinental nuclear missile silos, which is driving many Western analysts to use the term “the new cold war” to describe the competition between the US and China.