“What they’re doing now, if you compare it to what they were doing about a decade ago, it really far exceeds that in terms of scale and complexity,” said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under terms set by the Pentagon.
“They’re expanding and investing in their land, sea and air base nuclear delivery platforms, as well as the infrastructure that’s required to support this major expansion of their nuclear forces,” the official said.
Beijing has long maintained that its nuclear weapons program is only a deterrent and that it is committed to a “no first use” doctrine, meaning they have pledged to only use such weapons in response to a nuclear attack.
“China is committed to a defensive nuclear strategy, keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required by national security and does not target any country,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington on Thursday.
“We firmly oppose the U.S. side hyping up various versions of the ‘China threat’ narrative and making groundless allegations,” Liu added.
More broadly, the Pentagon report highlighted that communications between the military leadership of China and the United States had continued to deteriorate into 2023, despite a significant expansion in Chinese military capabilities and a series of highly concerning close calls between U.S. and Chinese military aircraft in the South China Sea.
The report said China’s navy — already the world’s largest by number of vessels — had grown to 370 ships and submarines, up from around 340 a year earlier. Among the new vessels launched in 2022 is the country’s third aircraft carrier, Fujian, which appears to be fitted with advanced aircraft-launching technology, representing a major departure from its older Soviet-style ships.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon shared videos showing what it said were instances when Chinese fighter jets had maneuvered dangerously close to U.S. reconnaissance planes — swooping as close as within 15 feet of the American aircraft.
The Department of Defense said in Thursday’s report that it counted 180 such incidents in the two years since fall 2021, more than in the entire preceding decade. It said the risky maneuvers “increased the risk of a major accident, incident or crisis, including the potential for loss of life.”
The U.S. reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea are lawful under international rules, but China — which claims sovereignty over most of the waterway — considers them an open provocation. Liu said the Chinese measures were in response to U.S. military vessels and aircraft conducting “frequent close-in reconnaissance” on China, including “657 sorties” in the South China Sea last year.
The Pentagon report noted that other parts of China’s military programs had probably expanded in the past year, including the construction of missile silo fields, the development of its bioweapons program, and efforts to establish overseas military bases beyond confirmed locations in Djibouti and Cambodia.
China’s defense spending has risen steadily in recent years, up 7.2 percent in 2023 to around $212 billion, much of which has been earmarked for cutting-edge technology and upgrades to make the country’s fighting force combat ready. Beijing’s leadership has made public commitments to take Taiwan by force if necessary.
But cracks have appeared this year in the country’s senior military leadership. Defense minister Li Shangfu has disappeared from sight and is believed to have been ousted over corruption allegations. It follows the summer removal of high-level officials at one of the country’s top military units — the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force — that hint at a wider crackdown.
Beijing has yet to announce a new defense minister, and the Pentagon report said Chinese military leadership had “refused, canceled and ignored” Washington’s requests to open military communication channels into 2023, despite Beijing’s growing weapons arsenal and the spike in close calls between U.S. and Chinese military aircraft.
“We certainly think it’s been unfortunate when we haven’t been able to have those senior level engagements at the Shangri-La Dialog, for instance” said the senior defense official, referring to the notably brief meeting between Li and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in June. “The handshake was not a substitute for a more in-depth, substantive discussion.”