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China Nuclear Arsenal Growing Faster Than Previously Thought, Pentagon Says

FILE - Onlookers wave Chinese flags as military vehicles carrying DF-41 ballistic missiles roll during a parade in Beijing, China, Oct. 1, 2019. China has been expanding its nuclear force much faster than U.S. officials had predicted.

A Pentagon report warns that China’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal is expanding at a much faster pace than estimated just a year ago, while a new Chinese military modernization goal could provide Beijing with “more credible military operations in Taiwan.”

The accelerating speed of China’s nuclear expansion may enable Beijing to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027, with Beijing’s intended goal of obtaining at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030, according to the Pentagon’s annual “China Military Power” report to Congress that was released Wednesday.

The pace vastly exceeds what was estimated in the Pentagon’s 2020 report, which said China’s nuclear arsenal was slightly more than 200 and was expected to double by the end of the decade.

The United States’ nuclear arsenal, with an estimated 3,800 warheads in active status, would still dwarf the Chinese arsenal.

The Pentagon report was based on information about China’s military capabilities that was collected through December 2020. It does not include information about China’s hypersonic weapon tests conducted last summer that the top U.S. military officer recently said “has all of our attention.”

Meanwhile, the report says that China has added a new milestone for modernization in 2027 in order to accelerate the integrated development of its armed forces.

According to a senior defense official, the Chinese military’s 2027 aspirations will allow the force to better network its capabilities in ways that could “deter” or “compel” Taiwan to abandon moves toward independence while also delaying or countering any potential third-party intervention from the U.S. and other Taiwanese allies.

“We're obviously concerned about their efforts to develop their capabilities for 2027 and watching that very closely,” the official said, adding that the future goal does not diminish current concerns the Pentagon has “right now” about China’s pressure campaign on Taiwan since 2016.

During that time Beijing has ramped up its public statements pushing for the reunification with Taiwan, increasing tensions with Taipei’s elected leaders who want to keep the island as a self-governing entity.

China’s modernization and expansion of its nuclear force is part of a broader effort aimed at matching, and in some cases surpassing, the United States military by 2049 as the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific region, according to the report.

Speaking in Washington Wednesday at an event hosted by the Aspen Institute, the top U.S. military officer said China’s military modernization was part of “a fundamental change” in the “character” of modern warfare.

"We're witnessing one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said, warning that the U.S. military must keep pace in robotics, artificial intelligence, precision munitions and a wide variety of other technology.

"If we, the United States military, don't do a fundamental change to ourselves in the coming 10, 15, 20 years, then we're going to be on the wrong side of a conflict," he added.

VOA's Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.