China has rapidly expanded its nuclear and conventional missile forces over the past decade, nearly tripling its ballistic missile production capability and deploying a wide array of nuclear and conventional missile systems, according to an intelligence assessment released by the State Department.
The department also notified Congress on Thursday that it believes Beijing is close to violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by refusing to join the United States in nuclear arms reduction talks underway with Russia.
“As of the writing of this letter, China appears to not be in compliance with its Article VI obligations under the NPT and it will be essential that the next administration continue to apply the full range of diplomatic, economic and defensive measures to bring Communist China to the negotiating table,” said Marshall Billingslea, special presidential envoy for arms control.
The warning, contained in a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted the status of New START arms control talks with Russia.
“In the case of China, we are witnessing the single greatest expansion of a nuclear arsenal since the dawn of the Cold War,” Mr. Billingslea stated in his Jan. 14 letter.
A chart based on intelligence data made public Thursday by the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance concluded that Chinese missile production capacity grew by 180% since 2010. The chart was first presented during a briefing for America’s NATO allies three weeks ago.
Additionally, the intelligence indicates that 80% of Chinese missiles were conventionally armed and just 20% were nuclear-tipped in 2010. By contrast, 40% of China’s current missile force today is nuclear-capable with the remaining 60% armed with conventional explosives. The expansion of missile forces accelerated under President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2012.
Missile production increased by 30% from 2010 to 2015 and accelerated exponentially from 2015 to 2020. The growth rate in 2020 was 180% higher than it was a decade earlier.
“It is important for the American people and the international community to better understand the size and scope of the Chinese missile force, its rapid expansion, and the need to take steps to mitigate the danger to regional and global stability,” said Mr. Billingslea, who is also acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
Chinese officials have long resisted U.S. pressure to join arms control talks. They argued that Beijing’s nuclear arsenal is for self-defense and is dwarfed by the missile stocks of Washington and Moscow.
“Given the huge gap between the nuclear arsenals of China and those of the U.S. and the Russian Federation, it is unfair, unreasonable and infeasible to expect China to join in any trilateral arms control negotiation …,” Geng Shuang, China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, told the U.N. General Assembly in October. “The U.S. intention is to find an excuse to shirk its own special and primary responsibility for nuclear disarmament and seek a pretext to free its hands and gain absolute military supremacy.”
Missiles of concern
The missiles of greatest concern to the United States are China’s “carrier-killer” DF-21 and DF-26 missiles. The unique missiles can be fired from long ranges with enough precision to attack a moving ship at sea.
China has called the DF-26 a “Guam killer” because of its ability to range the major U.S. military hub on the U.S. South Pacific island. The People’s Liberation Army carried out flight tests of four DF-21s and at least one DF-26 during large-scale military exercises in the South China Sea in August.
“The missiles impacted in the South China Sea between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands,” a Pentagon official said at the time.
What also worries American military planners is China’s new hypersonic DF-17 missile, a maneuverable glider that flies between the upper atmosphere and outer space at extremely high speeds.
The DF-17 is designed to penetrate increasingly sophisticated American missile defenses, such the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense that protects the U.S. from limited long-range attack.
The Pentagon stated in its annual report on the Chinese military that long-range missiles under development “will significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces and will require increased nuclear warhead production” for multiwarhead missiles like the DF-41, which is being deployed on road and rail mobile launchers.
In addition to stepped-up production, China last year tested 250 missiles, more than were carried out in 2019, when Beijing was credited with more missile tests than all other nations combined.
Flight tests reached into the hundreds despite the pandemic, which limited the U.S. military’s ability to conduct missile testing.
Additionally, China is ramping up production of ballistic missile submarines that the Pentagon said provide Beijing with a significant capability to strike the American homeland with nuclear missiles.
“We’re seeing a China that is rapidly accelerating its nuclear-tipped missile force, both long-range, submarine-launched and short- and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles,” Mr. Billingslea told The Washington Times. “This comes as we already highlighted the massive increase in China’s nuclear weapons production sites.”
The Chinese missile buildup is being highlighted as the United States works to catch up to China’s large scale deployment of intermediate-range missiles. For decades, China built 18 types of intermediate-range ballistic missiles, those with ranges of 1,864 to 3,418 miles. The United States and Russia were prohibited by treaty from building similar missiles.
China now has an estimated 1,200 midrange missiles that are part of a missile force estimated to be 2,000 total ballistic missiles and hundreds of ground-hugging cruise missiles.
The Trump administration quit the Intermediate-Range Missile Treaty in 2019 after it said Russia had deployed a ground-launched cruise missile that violated the 1987 accord.
The Trump administration has moved to support the Army and the Marine Corps in fielding ground-launched capabilities and is in discussions with Asian and NATO allies on how to best deter Chinese and Russian aggression, Mr. Billingslea told The Washington Times.
In November, the State Department released four previously classified briefing slides revealing a rapid expansion of Chinese plutonium and uranium production plants, highlighting what the department called a secretive crash program to build up its nuclear arsenal.
Earlier details were released on China’s nuclear testing site at Lop Nur in western China. The site recently began round-the-clock operations, an indication that nuclear testing work has been stepped up.
On the question of China’s NPT noncompliance, Mr. Billingslea said, the Senate notification “relates to China’s refusal to negotiate in good faith with the United States.” China signed the treaty in 1992.
Article 6 of the treaty states that signatories must “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
President Trump directed that any extension of the New START treaty with Russia include China, which has been engaged in the large-scale buildup of nuclear forces and missile delivery systems unconstrained by arms control treaties. The New START treaty is set to expire Feb. 5 and will be one of the first national security decisions the Biden administration will face.
Mr. Billingslea, in his letter to the Senate, stated that progress had been made in a short treaty extension. Under the proposed deal, Russian would agree to place a cap on its nuclear warhead arsenal in exchange for a one-year extension of New START.
“Unfortunately, it appears that Russia has concluded that it can get a better deal from the next administration,” Mr. Billingslea said in his letter.
The Pentagon report on the Chinese military stated that China is adding two more missile submarines to its fleet of four Jin-class missile submarines. Additional attack submarines also are being built.
The Navy disclosed Monday on Twitter that the USS Ohio, a nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine, recently sailed into Apra Harbor, Guam.
The disclosure of the Ohio’s deployment is unusual as missile submarine deployments are usually kept secret.
The strategic submarine activity near Guam comes amid heightened tensions with China over Taiwan and the transition of presidential administrations next week.