China’s communist regime is in a “sprint” to nuclear parity with the United States, according to defense and security experts. Such a buildup, they warn, could diminish the United States’ capacity to resist coercion and increase the risk of war.
“China’s unprecedented expansion of nuclear forces should be of significant concern to the U.S.,” said Patty-Jane Geller, a policy analyst focusing on nuclear deterrence and missile defense at Washington-based think tank Heritage Foundation.
“China is building hundreds of nuclear missiles that might exceed the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, and is building novel capabilities like its recently-tested orbital hypersonic vehicle,” Geller added. “These capabilities will give China more opportunities to escalate, subjecting the U.S. to coercion or increasing the risk of major conflict.”
A Rapidly Expanding Arsenal
The rapid expansion of nuclear weapons stockpiles is part of a larger, all-out push to modernize military technologies by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Such weapons would allow the CCP to coerce the international community more effectively, as the United States would likely have difficulty deterring escalations from both China and Russia. Indeed, the United States has never had to simultaneously deter two nuclear peers and it is unclear what strategy it would employ to do so.
“Americans should understand that nuclear threats are not a relic of the Cold War,” Geller said. “As China expands its arms to become a nuclear peer competitor with the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. will have to figure out how to deter two nuclear peers at once, which we’ve never had to do in our history.”
“Addressing this threat will require significant investment now and in future years to ensure the U.S. can maintain the strong nuclear deterrent that Americans have had the luxury of taking for granted,” Geller said.
China has been a nuclear power since 1964 and has used nuclear energy since 1991. The CCP is quickly increasing both its nuclear energy and nuclear weapons capacities, however. It is expected to develop six to eight new nuclear reactors every year until 2025. According to a new Pentagon report, it will likely also have 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.
The United States is attempting to curb that development. To that end, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission banned the export of radioactive materials to China’s largest state-owned nuclear company in September, citing fears that China would use byproducts of its nuclear energy efforts to further its buildup of nuclear arms.
The acceleration in nuclear development is believed by some experts to be linked to CCP leader Xi Jinping’s apparent ambition to have China supplant the United States as the foremost world power.
“In about the middle of 2020 China started to ‘sprint’ to nuclear superiority,” said Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
“Chinese Communist Party goals for global political-economic hegemony also require military hegemony, meaning the CCP has long understood that it has to have the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenal.”
The True Extent of China’s Nuclear Arsenal is Concealed
Fisher also spoke to the difficulty of assessing the precise magnitude by which nuclear energy byproducts would increase the CCP’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons. He warned, however, that increases to capacity were likely much higher than most estimates assume.
“We do not know if six new fissile material plants will double or triple China’s fissile material production, and thus its nuclear-bomb-making capability,” Fisher said.
“But beyond this, there is a high likelihood that many more have already been long concealed in underground facilities,” Fisher added. “China uses underground facilities to both protect and conceal its nuclear capabilities.”
Thus, the concealed nature of the regime’s nuclear missile silos, the secrecy of its nuclear energy program, and its military-civil fusion policy, make it difficult to tell just how many nuclear weapons the CCP has at its disposal.
The United States currently has 3,750 nuclear warheads, though it is bound by the START treaty to only have a maximum of 1,550 of those deployed at any given time. Fisher estimated that China’s hidden stockpiles could conceal vast stores of uncounted warheads and materiel that could challenge those numbers.
“So far, from commercial satellite imagery, one can count about 346 new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos that could in the next two years account for at least 3,460 new warheads pointed at the United States,” Fisher said.
“By the later part of this decade, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, Navy, and Air Force, could be controlling over 4,000 deployed nuclear warheads.”
Though seemingly high estimates, those numbers fit into the CCP’s broader refusal to adhere to conventional norms of minimal deterrence, according to Fisher. Earlier in the year, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) warned that the CCP and PLA were “uninterested” in reaching mere nuclear parity, preferring instead to dominate.
“China has made clear for decades that it rejects all American and Western notions of nuclear arms control of Chinese weapons,” Fisher said.
More Than Mere Competition
That refusal to play by international rules and norms, and the attempt to outpace the nuclear might of the United States and Russia, falls into a broader strategic competition that might be characterized as war by any other name.
“The Chinese are on a war footing when it comes to space and nuclear weapons development,” said Paul Crespo, president of the Center for American Defense Studies.
Crespo noted that PLA development of nuclear capabilities and its focus on technologies capable of exploiting weaknesses in U.S. defense systems, such as hypersonics, were a means of overcoming long-standing disadvantages.
“Even as they work toward tripling their nuclear forces in the next decade,” Crespo said, “China has far fewer ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] than the U.S., so this is an attempt to create a strategic ‘force multiplier’ to help them to get around that limitation and challenge U.S. nuclear dominance faster and more powerfully.”
To that end, Crespo warned that the CCP’s dual use policy, wherein all technologies serve both a civil and military purpose, was explicitly designed to cause uncertainty abroad and allow the continued development of its military capacities.
In this manner, the CCP can develop hypersonic weapons under the guise of improving its space program, or expand its nuclear arsenal by increasing its nuclear energy output.
“That’s the entire point of the CCP and PLA’s dual-use technology,” Crespo said. “It can be both.”
“But when it comes to China, military applications should always be assumed, and are paramount,” he added.
To that end, Crespo agreed with Fisher that the CCP’s ongoing nuclear development had one overarching strategic goal, to dethrone the United States’ and usurp its status as global hegemon.
“All this is part of China’s relentless ambition to supplant the U.S. as the world’s primary superpower,” Crespo said.