‘Major expansion’: China now has more than 500 nukes, Pentagon says

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China has blown past previous projections for the size of its nuclear arsenal and is now producing even more weapons while expanding its navy, the Pentagon is warning in a new report released Thursday.

The Defense Department specifically believes China had more than 500 nuclear warheads in its arsenal as of May, roughly 100 more than last year, according to its annual China Military Power Report.

DOD also estimates China will likely double that to more than 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030, and the number is expected to grow, the report says.

The report comes as the Biden administration is preparing for a potential face-to-face meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California next month. But tensions between the countries are still high: The Pentagon this week declassified a number of videos and images showing an uptick in Chinese fighter jets harassing U.S. military aircraft in the South and East China Sea this year and last.

A senior DOD official said the latest estimates of China’s nuclear arsenal are “on track to exceed previous projections,” but declined to provide more specific numbers. Last year, the Pentagon estimated China would have 1,000 warheads by 2030 and 1,500 by 2035.

“What they’re doing now, if you compare it to what they were doing about a decade ago, it really far exceeds that in terms of scale and complexity,” said the official, who was granted anonymity to speak ahead of the report’s release. “They’re expanding and investing in their land, sea and air-based nuclear delivery platforms, as well as the infrastructure that’s required to support this quite major expansion of their nuclear forces.”

China will probably use its new “fast breeder” reactors and reprocessing facilities to produce plutonium for its growing nuclear weapons program, according to the report, despite Chinese officials publicly maintaining those facilities are intended for “peaceful purposes.”

In addition, China likely completed the construction of its three new fields for solid-fueled missile silos in 2022, including at least 300 new intercontinental ballistic missile silos, and has loaded “at least some” ICBMs into the silos, according to the report.

Beijing’s nuclear stockpile is still much smaller than either Russia’s or the United States’. As of January, Russia had 5,889 nuclear warheads; the United States had 5,244, according to the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. However, China has refused to engage in arms talks with the U.S. and Russia, arguing that the other two nations’ arsenals are much larger than its own.

Russia in February announced it would suspend participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the United States, which limits the two countries’ nuclear forces.

China’s military expansion is not limited to its nuclear arsenal. As in previous years, Beijing has continued expanding its navy, growing from 340 ships and submarines in service last year to more than 370 this year, according to the official.

China’s annual defense budget was to increase by 7.1 percent, the military has announced.

The report also discussed China’s “deepening” ties with Russia, noting that Beijing has “attempted a discrete approach to providing material support to Russia for its war against Ukraine.” This presumably refers to the appearance of Chinese-made components for body armor and other equipment on the battlefield in Ukraine.

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