Image copyright Getty Images Image caption China has nearly 200 nuclear warheads and says it has also been developing a missile that could deliver two warheads each
China’s nuclear arsenal continues to grow at an accelerating pace as it develops a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile that could reach US targets, the Pentagon has said.
China’s arsenal of 1,000 warheads will remain large in 2030, the US Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) has claimed.
It is the most detailed public account of China’s nuclear arsenal to date.
But US concern was also expressed about China’s dealings with North Korea.
US defence Secretary James Mattis said last week that there was an increased risk of North Korea launching a nuclear-tipped missile towards US territory.
China – estimated to have had 145 nuclear warheads as of July 2018 – has maintained that it has stopped new nuclear weapons development.
But US officials have warned that China could still be developing a new submarine-launched missile – a system they fear could be used to threaten America’s homeland.
China also appeared to be testing a nuclear-armed missile that can be launched from land or sea.
China already has a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can target the US mainland, with some US officials predicting that it could be deployed within the next decade.
The QDR does not directly refer to the development of the new missile, dubbed the DF-ZF, but says that new warheads, delivery platforms and long-range missiles have all contributed to China’s growing nuclear stockpile.
The US defence review warns that China has “expanded its arsenal and likely retains the capability to build additional nuclear weapons, a development that raises additional risks to the US”.
China’s growing nuclear arsenal continues to be “a source of significant concern” to the US, US Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Wednesday.
But he added that an “accelerating approach” by China and North Korea posed a new nuclear security challenge, with potential consequences for regional stability and international security.
Mr Mattis also acknowledged that while China had publicly claimed not to be developing nuclear weapons, the US military would also use its “intelligence assets, techniques and procedures to identify and assess its nuclear posture”.
The US Defense Department believes China’s nuclear weapons programme was originally focused on developing missiles to defend the country’s territory, US officials told the BBC’s Kevin Connolly last year.
But, as Beijing becomes increasingly prosperous, it has been developing weapons designed to strike other countries, which might be seen as threats to China’s national security, say the officials.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Russia and China have been on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict
Andrew Salmon, BBC China Correspondent
While North Korea is constantly in the headlines, this report is big news for China’s relationship with the US, and the rest of the world.
China’s nuclear arsenal has increased significantly in the past decade or so. A report by the non-profit Pentagon research organisation, the Rand Corporation, in 2012, noted that the first few years of China’s nuclear weapons programme had been focused on developing the kind of missiles needed to defend the country’s land-based nuclear arsenal.
China has been slow to develop an ICBM, but has quietly been working towards it.
Much of the Chinese build-up is laid out in the report, which says the stockpile of nuclear weapons could rise by a third over the next decade, until 2030.
China’s growing relationship with the US has given it the opportunity to establish itself as the most powerful power in the region.
Until that happens, the US will continue to find itself suspicious of China’s intentions, and it may well seek to control the flow of information and information technology to prevent this.