UPDATE 1-Pentagon concerned by China's nuclear ambitions, expects warheads to double

The revelations came as tensions rise between China and the United States and as Washington seeks to have Beijing join a flagship nuclear arms treaty between the United States and Russia. In its annual report to Congress on China’s military, the Pentagon said that China has nuclear warheads in the low 200 s, the first time the U.S. military has disclosed this…

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON, Sept 1 (Reuters) – China is expected to at leastdouble the number of its nuclear warheads over the next decadefrom the low 200s now and is nearing the ability to launchnuclear strikes by land, air and sea, a capacity known as atriad, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

The revelations came as tensions rise between China and theUnited States and as Washington seeks to have Beijing join aflagship nuclear arms treaty between the United States andRussia.

In its annual report to Congress on China’s military, thePentagon said that China has nuclear warheads in the low 200s,the first time the U.S. military has disclosed this number. TheFederation of American Scientists has estimated that China hasabout 320 nuclear warheads.

The Pentagon said the growth projection was based on factorsincluding Beijing having enough material to double its nuclearweapons stockpile without new fissile material production.

The Pentagon’s estimate is in line with an analysis by theDefense Intelligence Agency.

“We’re certainly concerned about the numbers … but alsojust the trajectory of China’s nuclear developments writ large,”Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China,told reporters.

Earlier this year, China’s Communist Party-backed newspaperGlobal Times said Beijing needs to expand the number of itsnuclear warheads to 1,000 in a relatively short time.

China on Wednesday rejected the report’s findings. Speakingin Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunyingsaid on Wednesday the report is full of biases and deliberatelydistorts China’s strategic intentions.

China’s defense ministry said on Wednesday that the reportis “full of the cold war mentality of a zero-sum game,” is asmear on China, and provokes animosity between the mainland andTaiwan.

Sbragia said China was also nearing completion of itsnuclear triad capacity, suggesting the Asian country is furtheralong than previously publicly known. China has only two of thethree legs of triad operational but is developing a nuclear-capable, air-launched ballistic missile.

The report said that in October 2019 China publicly revealedthe H-6N bomber as its first nuclear-capable air-to-airrefueling bomber.

Washington has repeatedly called for China to join intrilateral negotiations to extend New START, a U.S.-Russiannuclear arms treaty that is due to expire in February.

China has said it has no interest in joining thenegotiations, given that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is about 20times the size of China’s.

In July, a senior Chinese diplomat said Beijing would “behappy to” participate in trilateral arms control negotiations,but only if the United States were willing to reduce its nucleararsenal to China’s level.

China’s growing nuclear arsenal should not be used as anexcuse for the United States and Russia not to extend New START,Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reductionpolicy at the Arms Control Association advocacy group, said.

It “further reinforces the importance of extending New STARTand the folly of conditioning extension on China and China’sparticipation in arms control,” Reif added.

China’s nuclear arsenal is a fraction of the United States’,which has 3,800 nuclear warheads stockpiled, and Russia’s, whichhas roughly 4,300, according to the Federation of AmericanScientists.

‘PREVENT TAIWAN INDEPENDENCE’

Tensions have been simmering between China and the UnitedStates for months. Washington has taken issue with China’shandling of the novel coronavirus outbreak and moves to curbfreedoms in Hong Kong. The increasingly aggressive posturecomes as Republican President Donald Trump vies for re-electionon Nov. 3.

Another source of tension has been Taiwan. China has steppedup its military activity around the democratic island, whichBeijing claims as sovereign Chinese territory, sending fighterjets and warships on exercises close to Taiwan.

The Pentagon report, based on 2019 information, said China’smilitary continued to “enhance its readiness” to preventTaiwan’s independence and carry out an invasion if needed.(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Additional reportingby Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Cynthia Osterman andJonathan Oatis)

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