China is challenging the U.S. for regional dominance.
And in the latest move toward this goal, the Pentagon said China's nuclear weapons cache is set to become five times larger by 2030 during the agency's annual report on Beijing's military capabilities, according to an initial report from Nikkei Asia.
For reference, this means China will have at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by the end of the decade.
China's expanding nuclear arsenal
Delivered during 2021's "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China", the Pentagon report also emphasized the hastening pace at which China is moving into space and advancing its cybernetic capacities in a broad effort to modernize the People's Liberation Army. "The PLA has fielded, and is further developing, capabilities to provide options for the PRC to attempt to dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention during a large-scale, theater campaign such as a Taiwan contingency," said the 2020 edition of the report. But last year's report anticipated that China would only double its nuclear forces by 2030, which would bring its nuclear stockpile to 400 warheads, from 200. But during the Tuesday briefing, a senior defense official said Beijing was accelerating the development of its missiles and delivery systems, which called for a revision of the estimate.
The U.S. possessed 3,750 warheads in Sept. 2020, according to the Department of Defense. But the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia put a limit on the number of nuclear warheads Washington can deploy, at 1,550. China wasn't part of this Russo-U.S. deal, and now it seems the Washington and Beijing will be closer to neck-and-neck in the number of warheads either can deploy at one time. This latest report affirms China's ambitions to invest, build, and scale nuclear weapons delivery platforms, including submarines and bombers, the former of which it has many, many more than the U.S. This means China's weapons architecture might be able to evade western missile defense systems, potentially dissuading Washington from intervening, should conflict erupt in the Taiwan Strait, or the South China Sea.
The United States' nuclear umbrella could become obsolete
The Pentagon's report also said that China may have created a "nascent 'nuclear triad,'" adding submarine- and air-launched ballistic missiles to its already operational intercontinental ballistic missile system, which makes it more resilient in the hypothetical case of a foreign attack on its nuclear weapons architecture. This has been one of the United States' strengths for decades, but China's expanded nuclear arsenal combined with its recently-tested hypersonic weapons highlights the nation's ambition to build and maintain an ability to strike U.S. targets with proven reliability.
The hypersonic weapon can fly at speeds exceeding that of sound five-fold while navigating an irregular trajectory, substantially reducing the United States' missile defense system's ability to reliably intercept incoming attacks. And now with China's continuing nuclear expansion, the world may wonder whether the nuclear umbrella of the U.S., which has served as an invisible deterrent for several allies in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, can remain effective. In China's eyes, the threat of retaliatory attacks becomes less concerning if Washington hesitates before responding to aggressive moves, from a worry of retaliatory attacks from Beijing.