This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The United States predicts that China will have over 1,000 operational nuclear warheads in seven years, developing militarily at a pace that surpasses the Pentagon’s projections, according to its annual assessment report of Chinese military prowess in 2022.
The Congress-mandated 2023 China Military Power Report said that last year, China’s capability building exceeded previous U.S. projections in some areas.
The Department of Defense (DoD) “estimates that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] possessed more than 500 operational nuclear warheads as of May 2023,” up from 400 last year and more than was predicted by U.S. military planners.
“DoD estimates that the PRC will probably have over 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030,” the 200-page report said.
The pace is striking even if China’s nuclear stockpile is still much smaller than those of Russia or the United States.
Moreover, the PRC “may be exploring development of conventionally armed intercontinental range missile systems that would allow the PRC to threaten conventional strikes against targets in the continental United States.”
“What we would highlight about that is it would give them a conventional capability to strike the U.S. for the first time … to threaten targets in the continental U.S. and Hawaii and Alaska,” said a senior U.S. defense official speaking on background, hence remaining anonymous.
American strategists already identified China as their number one challenge.
The 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy named Beijing as “the only competitor with the intent and increasingly the capability to reshape the international order.” The Pentagon also identified the PRC “as the department’s top pacing challenge.”
Coercion in the Indo-Pacific
“In 2022, the PRC turned to the PLA as an increasingly capable instrument of statecraft, adopting more coercive actions in the Indo-Pacific region against the United States and U.S. allies and partners,” the report said.
“PLA coercive and risky operational activities targeting foreign aircraft and maritime vessels throughout 2022 included: lasing; reckless maneuvers; close approaches in the air or at sea; high rates of closure; discharging chaff or flares in close proximity to aircraft; and ballistic missile overflights of Taiwan,” it added.
One day before the launch of the report, the DoD also released photos and video clips documenting 15 of more than 180 cases of what it calls China’s “coercive and risky operational behavior” against U.S. aircraft in the East China and South China seas in the last two years.
Beijing is believed to aim “to restrict the U.S. from having a presence in China’s immediate periphery and limit U.S. access in the broader Indo-Pacific region.”
Throughout 2022, the PRC conducted large-scale joint military exercises focused on training to deter further U.S. and allied operations in the region.
It also amplified diplomatic, political, and military pressure against Taiwan, the report said, adding that the PLA is continuing to prepare for “a contingency to unify Taiwan with the PRC.”
The findings of the report were accurate, said a Taiwanese senior analyst, but should be seen in the context of China’s domestic politics.
“In 2022 the Communist Party of China held its 20th Congress in which Xi Jinping needed to reassert his power and ensure a third term as China’s paramount leader,” said Shen Ming-Shih, acting deputy chief executive officer at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), a government think-tank.
“I expect the PLA’s approach for 2023 will be less vocal but more realistic in terms of military maneuvers around Taiwan,” he added.
China already has numerically the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of over 370 ships and submarines, compared to the U.S.’s 293 ships and submarines. It also has the largest coast guard fleet in the world, besides a powerful maritime militia.
The report was compiled over the last year, before the latest Israel-Hamas war.
Analysts say ongoing developments in Ukraine and the Middle East may embolden China’s actions in the Indo-Pacific region.
“I think they are watching to see what the U.S. is doing in both Ukraine and now the Middle East, and from Beijing’s perspective, they are hoping that the U.S. support for both Israel and Ukraine will leave them weakened and unable to support allies in the Indo-Pacific,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
“So I’d see Beijing continue to employ provocations, and potentially ramp those up if the U.S. becomes more and more committed to supporting a fast developing war in the Middle East, which could become quite large in geographic scope – well beyond the Gaza strip – quite quickly,” he said.
“I suspect that Beijing will be disappointed though, as the U.S. is very cognizant of its responsibilities and the risks posed by Chinese actions, so I don’t see the U.S. de-prioritizing Indo-Pacific issues in favor of Europe and Middle East challenges,” the analyst said.
At a press briefing this week, the Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Navy Adm. John Aquilino said, despite the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, “as it applies to the Indo-Pacific and my responsibilities … I haven’t had one piece of equipment or force structure depart.”
“The United States is a global power. That means we can deliver effects and execute our deterrence responsibilities across the globe,” he said.
The Indo-Pacific Command has two aircraft carriers at sea at the moment – the forward-deployed USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Carl Vinson which left for a deployment last week.
They are, “along with a large portion of the Joint Force, executing deterrence missions in my theater,” said Adm. Aquilino.
The admiral also said that his requests to speak with Chinese counterparts in the last two and a half years have been refused.
There are unconfirmed reports that Chinese leader Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden may meet on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco next month.