The pace of China’s military and nuclear weapons buildup has been unprecedented. Japan, Australia and South Korea especially need to stay alert to the risks.
The United States Department of Defense recently published its annual report on “Military and Security Developments Involving China.” This “China Power” report provides a detailed description of the People’s Republic of China’s military as well as its capabilities and likely objectives. The section on China’s rapid nuclear weapons expansion created a particular stir. Especially as it caught many observers by surprise.
American analysts now mostly agree there is a rapid expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal. It reflects the broader, rapid growth of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) capabilities over the last 20 years.
That growth is fairly considered the biggest, fastest military buildup of any country since World War II. Possibly the fastest in human history.
For many years the expert consensus of China’s nuclear warhead inventory was around 300 or even fewer. Then, in 2021 that estimate changed to over 400 ー all of a sudden. And now it’s estimated to be 500 warheads, with that number doubling by 2030. As importantly, the PRC is developing more and increasingly effective and accurate delivery systems for their nuclear weapons.
It’s worth noting that “expert consensus” has usually underestimated the rate at which Chinese military capabilities of all sorts develop. In fact, they often miss by a decade or two.
Take PLA Navy aircraft carriers. The thinking was that the Chinese would need decades to even begin to master carrier operations. Indeed, such was the lack of concern ー if not condescension ー on the US side that the then-PACOM commander, Admiral Timothy Keating, noted in 2009 that he saw nothing wrong with the PLA Navy having aircraft carriers. And that he would do what he could to help them if asked.
Well, now they have three carriers and are rapidly figuring out how to use them.
What does it mean for Chinese nuclear options?
One fairly asks if something similar has taken place with estimates of Chinese nuclear weapons. At least, one should consider the possibility that US intelligence has slipped up. (It’s not exactly unusual.) Acknowledging that the PRC in fact might have far more nuclear warheads than currently estimated would also help.
However, such questions are unwelcome by the China experts ー and have been for a long time. Around 2011, Dr Phil Karber suggested that China just might have far more than a small, few hundred warhead arsenal. That was based partly on the fact China’s 2d Artillery Rocket Force (responsible for nuclear weapons operations) had several thousand miles of underground tunnels in which one might hide nuclear weapons.
For this prudent, commonsensical suggestion Dr Karber was savaged and ridiculed by the “‘China hands.” And reportedly, senior-most US intelligence officials instructed that Dr Karber be discredited.