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China accelerates nuclear weapons expansion, seeks 1,000 warheads or more, Pentagon says

Chinese policemen and military officers gather at a ceremony to mark Martyr's Day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Sept. 30. (Andy Wong/AP)

China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal, with likely intentions of possessing at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, according to a new Pentagon report prepared for Congress.

The Defense Department’s annual China military power report states that the “accelerating pace” of Beijing’s nuclear expansion may enable the communist nation to have “up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027,” with aspirations for at least 1,000 by 2030. The finding exceeds the Defense Department’s projections in the same report a year ago, when the Pentagon said that China’s stockpile was “in the low-200s” and likely to “at least double in size.”

“They appear to have decided to go in kind of a different direction in terms of expanding their nuclear force in terms of size,” said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview the report under terms set by the Pentagon. “Whereas before I would have said that they were gradually increasing the size … now they seem to be trying to take that up to a different level.”

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The official said that the increase alone will leave China short of parity with the United States, which has about 3,750 nuclear warheads. Coupled with other Chinese actions, however, it is still a cause for concern, he added.

The report was released Wednesday after a tense year in which China continued to modernize and expand the People’s Liberation Army while Chinese and U.S. officials held unusual conversations aimed at avoiding bloodshed. The document is required by Congress and meant to serve as a baseline assessment of China’s advancements.

Among the details captured in the report are conversations that senior defense officials, including the Pentagon’s top general, had with Chinese officials in 2020, as Beijing became increasingly anxious that the Trump administration might launch an attack. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, twice called his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, and assured him that President Donald Trump had no intentions of doing so.

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Milley’s calls were first reported in September in the book “Peril,” by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, sparking criticism among Republicans that Milley was undermining Trump. Milley later told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the calls were coordinated with Trump’s defense secretary, Mark T. Esper, and other senior U.S. officials.

The new China power report corroborates Milley’s account and says that Trump’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, Chad Sbragia, also made calls to China at the direction of Esper. Sbragia’s involvement was previously reported by CNN.

“These events highlighted the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation, and underscored the importance of effective and timely communication,” the report said.

The rapid modernization of the Chinese military is seen in Beijing as “an indispensable element” of the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy, and is unlikely to be a “momentary endeavor that may fade over time in importance,” Pentagon officials wrote.

China continues to strengthen its ability to fight and win wars against a “strong enemy,” the report said, adding that the term is “likely a euphemism for the United States.” Beijing is building at least three missile fields, which cumulatively will house hundreds of new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Pentagon added.

China already has established a military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. To support its goals, it wants to build more facilities overseas and is considering more than a dozen countries that include Cambodia, Pakistan and Angola, the Pentagon said. Such a network could interfere with U.S. military operations and support offensive operations against the United States, defense officials wrote.

In Taiwan war game, few good options for U.S. to deter China

The report also highlights China’s continued pressure on Taiwan, which considers itself an independent nation while Beijing claims it as part of Chinese territory. China’s continued military modernization “would provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency,” Pentagon officials wrote.

Milley said on Wednesday that it is “not likely” that China will attempt to invade Taiwan within the next two years. But China is clearly building military capability for a future operation, the general said.

“We’re witnessing one of the largest shifts in global, geostrategic power that the world has witnessed,” Milley said, speaking during anational security conference in D.C.

The United States has sought to counter China’s military expansion in part by building a more extensive network of partners and allies in the region. The efforts include deeper engagement with India and Australia, the latter of which the Biden administration recently agreed to share its nuclear submarine technology. The United States had previously shared such information only with Britain.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified where Gen. Mark A. Milley made his remarks about China’s military power. He spoke Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

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