China is on course to possess about 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, when it aims to complete the modernization of its military, the U.S. Defense Department said Tuesday in an annual report on the Asian country's military power.
The Pentagon also warned that Beijing aims to make the People's Liberation Army "a more credible military tool" by 2027 as it pursues unification with Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island that Beijing views as its own.
The latest report, mainly covering military developments involving China last year, reflects U.S. concerns over Beijing's continuing nuclear buildup and pressure on Taiwan, including increased flights in the island's self-declared air defense identification zone, which Washington views as "provocative and destabilizing."
According to the U.S. Defense Department, China "probably accelerated its nuclear expansion" in 2021 and its stockpile of nuclear warheads has surpassed 400, compared with an estimate a year earlier that the number of warheads possessed was in the low 200s.
While noting that the PLA plans to basically complete the modernization of its forces by 2035, the report, titled "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China," said Beijing "will likely field a stockpile of about 1,500 warheads by its 2035 timeline."
A senior U.S. defense official said the latest estimate did not imply a major acceleration in the growth of the nuclear stockpile compared with the report last year, when the Pentagon assessed that China would likely possess at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.
But the official said the overall rapid buildup was "too substantial to keep under wraps."
"It does raise questions about whether they are shifting away from a strategy that was premised on what they referred to as a 'lean and effective deterrent,' where they said they would have the kind of minimum number of nuclear weapons that was required for the PRC's national security," the official added, referring to the acronym for China's official name.
According to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads consisted of 3,750 warheads as of September 2020.
On the security situation surrounding Taiwan, the report said China "intensified diplomatic, economic, political, and military pressure against Taiwan in 2021."
Tensions heightened this year as China was angered by a visit to Taiwan in August by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the third-highest-ranking official in the United States. It was the first trip to the island in 25 years by a holder of the powerful congressional post.
With the PLA believed to be working toward three milestones for its military modernization -- 2027, 2035 and 2049 -- the report said the 2027 goal, if realized, "could give the PLA capabilities to be a more credible military tool" for the Chinese Communist Party to wield against Taiwan.
The report also underscored that China "has never renounced the use of military force" over Taiwan, while noting that "the circumstances under which the PRC has historically indicated it would consider using force remain ambiguous and have evolved over time."
In 2049, the country's centenary, China seeks to achieve "national rejuvenation."
The strategy is a "determined pursuit" to expand China's national power and revise the international order in support of Beijing's system of governance and national interests, and the United States is viewed as presenting "obstacles" through efforts to contain the Asian country's rise, the Pentagon said in the report.