China’s Nuclear Arms Buildup: Lack of Transparency Raises Regional Tension

China’s nontransparent military expansion, including its nuclear weapons buildup, poses a serious threat to Japan and other neighboring countries. Beijing should be aware that China itself is raising tension in the region.

According to an annual U.S. Defense Department report on China’s military and security developments, the number of operational nuclear warheads China possesses is estimated to have surpassed 500, and this figure is highly likely to exceed 1,000 by 2030.

The number of warheads held by China as of 2020 was estimated to be in the lower 200 range. This means there has been an increase of about 300 over the past three years. The Pentagon has expressed strong concern that China is building up its nuclear capabilities at a rate exceeding previous U.S. projections.

Although China has stated a basic nuclear policy of no first use of nuclear weapons and having minimum nuclear capabilities, it has not disclosed the number of nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles, among other weapons, that it possesses. Its claims thus lack persuasiveness.

While expressing opposition to the U.S. report this time, China’s Foreign Ministry did not mention whether China has increased its number of nuclear warheads, which is a crucial issue.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), a nuclear disarmament framework between the United States and Russia, sets an upper limit of 1,550 for the deployment of strategic nuclear warheads. China’s number of nuclear warheads is steadily approaching that level. It is obvious that China aims to become a major nuclear power on par with the United States and Russia.

China has not responded to the U.S. call for nuclear disarmament negotiations. Beijing argues that the first priority should be a reduction in U.S. nuclear warheads, which greatly outnumber those of China. But this is likely just a way to buy time to build up its nuclear capabilities.

The uncertainty surrounding China’s national defense is not limited to its nuclear capabilities. Defense Minister and State Councilor Li Shangfu was dismissed after having been out of public view for almost two months. Although speculation has been rife about corruption involving weapons procurement and other possible reasons, China has not revealed why he was dismissed.

His successor has not been announced, and the unusual situation of China having no defense minister continues. Under these circumstances, there is no hope for dialogue among military authorities to avoid unforeseen clashes.

The latest U.S. report also revealed that China is rapidly increasing its number of intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can reach Japan, South Korea and the U.S. territory of Guam, where U.S. military bases are located.

As China has not joined the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and Russia, which expired in 2019, Beijing has increased its intermediate-range missile capabilities to the point of overwhelming the United States. China’s tacit approval of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs is another pending concern shared by Japan, the United States and South Korea.

Japan needs to work with the United States and South Korea to hasten the possession of counterattack capabilities to be able to destroy an enemy’s missile launch sites.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 27, 2023)