AMAC Exclusive – by Aaron Kliegman
As the eyes of the world continue to remain locked on the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan, China continues to prepare for war at an alarming rate.
This month, the U.S. Army released a report detailing how China has enhanced the range and accuracy of its ballistic missiles. The range of the DF-11, the most widely deployed short-range ballistic missile of the Chinese military’s Rocket Force, has more than doubled, and its precision has improved significantly. The newer DF-15/16 missile, meanwhile, has also undergone similar improvements.
Crucially, both missiles can employ conventional and nuclear warheads. This is especially troubling given the rapid modernization of China’s nuclear weapons. Indeed, China is making its nuclear arsenal larger, deadlier, and more accurate. The increasingly sophisticated missiles to carry these warheads have also made the People’s Liberation Army all the more capable — and threatening.
Beyond simply increasing the effectiveness of their weaponry, evidence has emerged over the last two months that China is expanding its arsenal of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on a scale far beyond what experts and government officials expected.
In late June, researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California obtained commercial satellite images showing Chinese construction of what appears to be 120 new silos for ICBMs in the desert near the northwestern city of Yumen.
A few weeks later, nuclear experts at the Federation of American Scientists discovered through satellite imagery that China is building what appears to be a second field of silos for launching nuclear missiles. This field, which is in a much earlier stage of development, may eventually include about 110 silos and is located in the desert near the city of Hami in eastern Xinjiang — the same region where China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs.
And just two weeks ago, the Washington Times revealed that US intelligence has identified a third Chinese missile silo field under construction.
Adm. Charles Richard, the commander of US Strategic Command, said earlier this month that the construction amounts to an “explosive” expansion of China’s nuclear capabilities. “We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China,” he also said at a conference on missile defense. “The explosive growth in their nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I described as breathtaking … frankly, that word ‘breathtaking’ may not be enough.”
Even more concerning, Richard told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April that he ordered all briefs on China’s nuclear weapons to contain no intelligence vetted more than one month earlier “because it’s probably out of date” that quickly. “I can’t get through a week right now without finding out something we didn’t know about China,” he said.
The admiral explained that China is capable of accurately deploying nuclear weapons anywhere within its region and “will soon be able to do so at intercontinental range.” Plus, he added, there are indications that the Chinese military has moved some of its nuclear forces from a peace-time status to a “launch-on-warning” and “high-alert” status, meaning weapons are armed for launch as soon as Beijing detects an incoming enemy missile.
Richard’s testimony came days after the American intelligence community wrote in its annual threat assessment that China “will continue the most rapid expansion and platform diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history, intending to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile during the next decade and to field a nuclear triad.” A nuclear triad refers to a country’s capability to field nuclear missiles that can be launched from land, submarines, or aircraft.
Even the diplomats are worried. A State Department press release recently said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken “also noted deep concern with the rapid growth of [China’s] nuclear arsenal,” and that the buildup “highlights how Beijing has sharply deviated from its decades-old nuclear strategy based on minimum deterrence.”
Indeed, we don’t actually know how many nuclear weapons China has. Recent assessments put the figure anywhere from the low 200s to about 350, while the U.S. has an estimated 3,800 warheads (less than half of which are deployed while the rest remain in storage). But the common estimates for China appear implausible considering the Defense Intelligence Agency reported in 1984 that China had between 150 and 160 nuclear warheads. It seems unlikely that China has expanded its arsenal so little over the past 37 years as they have become exponentially richer, more powerful, and more militarily aggressive.
Moreover, Russian and Taiwanese estimates put the Chinese nuclear arsenal at anywhere from 450 to 1,800 weapons — along with enough fissile material for potentially thousands more.
Regardless of size, however, Beijing is building a “larger and increasingly capable nuclear missile force that is more survivable, more diverse, and on higher alert than in the past,” to quote the intelligence community’s threat assessment. Not to mention the fact that their missiles will be more accurate and more deadly than ever before.
Moreover, the Chinese military is developing a greater ability to survive a massive nuclear attack and respond with a massive nuclear attack of its own. This means China would effectively achieve a form of nuclear parity with the U.S., even with far fewer warheads, in a situation reminiscent of the arms race with the Soviet Union in the 20th Century.
Ultimately, however, what makes China’s nuclear modernization so dangerous is that they consistently refuse even to entertain any discussions about arms control. To quote the intelligence community’s threat assessment once again, “Beijing is not interested in arms control agreements that restrict its modernization plans and will not agree to substantive negotiations that lock in US or Russian nuclear advantages.” This attitude dates back decades, to the days of the Cold War.
Combine aggression with opacity and a refusal to engage in constructive dialogue, and the result is a toxic brew that should alarm American officials.
Of course, undergirding all this nuclear activity is China’s not-so-secret intention to displace America as the world’s most powerful country. China is building up its nuclear forces and other military capabilities to deter and prepare for war against the U.S. and American allies.
In response, the U.S. has no choice but to address the Chinese nuclear threat by following through on modernizing its own nuclear forces. To protect American interests at home and abroad, Washington must ensure the United States’ nuclear posture toward Beijing is clear and forceful.
The Chinese are no longer trying to hide their belligerence or their global ambitions. They think this is their century and they are on the march. Much like the Cold War, the U.S.-China rivalry will determine the fate of the free world, and nuclear weapons will play an important role, casting an ominous shadow across the entire geopolitical chessboard.
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