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China's arsenal of nuclear warheads has surpassed 400 in a fraction of the time the United States had previously estimated, a major Pentagon report revealed, at a time when Beijing is focused on accelerating its nuclear expansion as it seeks to challenge the North American country as the main world superpower.
In 2020, the United States estimated that China had fewer than 200 nuclear warheads and expected the arsenal to double in a decade.
Just two years later, China has reached that mark and could have some 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035 if it continues to expand its arsenal at the current rate, according to the 2022 China Military Power report released on Tuesday.
"What we've really seen in the last two years is this accelerated expansion," said a senior defense official.
Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-41 ballistic missiles drive past the Great Hall of the People during a parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of communist China in Beijing on October 1, 2019. (Credit: Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
The world's most populous country is using its burgeoning military as one of its tools to create an international system that favors its worldview, posing the "most consequential and systemic challenge to US national security," according to the report. , and increased nuclear capability is a far cry from what China used to call a "lean and efficient" nuclear deterrent.
Beijing's investment in its nuclear triad -- sea, land and air nuclear delivery options -- is a cause for concern in Washington.
"We see, I think, a set of capabilities taking shape and new numbers in terms of what they're looking for, which raises some questions about what their intent is going to be long-term," a top defense official told a briefing. journalists about the latest report.
China also carried out 135 ballistic missile tests in 2021, according to the report, which is more than the rest of the world combined.
(The count excludes ballistic missiles used in the Ukrainian war, the document noted.)
The official also offered new details about China's July 2021 test of a hypersonic missile that flew around the world before hitting its target, an achievement that drew attention to the US's lagging development of hypersonic weapons.
The official said the Chinese system flew 40,000 kilometers and was the longest flight of any Chinese ground-attack weapon to date.
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China's military, formally known as the People's Liberation Army, is also developing space and counterspace weapons, according to the report, viewing this advanced technology as a way to deter outside intervention in a regional military conflict.
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China has a standing army of nearly a million soldiers, the world's largest navy by number of ships and the world's third-largest air force, according to the report.
The National Defense Strategy 2022, released last month, identifies China as the most important challenge to the United States, something often reiterated by Pentagon top brass.
"China is the only country that, from a geopolitical standpoint, has the potential to be a significant challenge to the United States," Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said at a news conference earlier this month. month.
"Based on its population, its technology, its economy and a host of other things, China is the biggest geopolitical challenge to the United States."
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The Taiwan Factor
Tensions between Beijing and Washington frequently revolve around Taiwan, a self-governing, democratic island.
China views the island as a fundamental part of its sovereign territory, including the South China Sea, and defense officials have previously said it aims to have the ability to use military force to seize Taiwan by 2027.
In the latest report, officially dubbed "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China," the United States does not foresee an imminent invasion of Taiwan.
Instead, according to the report, the United States has seen Beijing increase diplomatic, economic, political and military pressure on Taiwan.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's historic visit to the island in August marked a new stage in China's efforts, as Beijing seized the opportunity to try to establish a new normal around Taiwan.
Since the visit, China has crossed the center line of the Taiwan Strait more frequently, the defense official said, a move they had made only infrequently in the past.
In addition, there is more naval activity around Taiwan and a large number of Chinese aircraft flying towards Taiwan's self-declared air defense identification zone.
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"Although we don't see an imminent invasion, it's kind of a heightened level of intimidation and coercive activity around Taiwan," the official said.
The dialogue between China and the United States
Two weeks ago, President Joe Biden met Chinese President Xi Jinping in person for the first time during his presidency at the G20 summit in Indonesia.
Biden described the three-hour meeting as "open and candid," outlining the US approach to one of the world's most important bilateral relations as one of competition, not conflict.
Biden also focused on the need to keep the lines of communication open between Beijing and Washington.
China cut off several contacts and meetings with the United States after Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who met his Chinese counterpart in Cambodia last week, also stressed the need for communication, according to a reading from the meeting.
The report also discussed the relationship between Russia and China.
The two countries issued a joint statement on February 4, expressing their desire to continue collaboration and cooperation.
Beijing and Moscow have "complementary interests" in terms of their national security and a shared approach to international relations.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine just weeks later has complicated the relationship in ways that may not yet be entirely clear.
"Of course it's going to be an area of great interest to us and other observers in Europe and elsewhere," the official said.
"We've seen the PRC continue to support Russia diplomatically and amplify a lot of its propaganda and disinformation. So those are areas of particular concern."