Uncowed by COVID-19, China Is Rapidly Building Its Nuclear Arsenal and Armed Forces, According to the Pentagon

Spectators wave Chinese flags as military vehicles carry DF-41 ballistic missiles
Spectators wave Chinese flags as military vehicles carrying DF-41 ballistic missiles roll during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

The Defense Department's latest report on Chinese military power paints a picture of a country largely unaffected by the biggest issue of 2020 -- the COVID-19 pandemic -- and aggressively building its nuclear stockpile while training up its armed forces.

"Despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing continued its efforts to advance its overall development including steadying its economic growth, strengthening its armed forces, and taking a more assertive role in global affairs," said the almost 200-page report, released Wednesday.

The annual report is mandated by law and has been presented to Congress since 2000.

The pandemic, which showed up first as a cluster of infections in China and brought much of the world to a standstill, also ended up being "a driving force behind [China's] foreign policy efforts," the report said. "Beijing sought to deflect any culpability for the virus and its initial spread, and to capitalize on its narrative of domestic success and foreign assistance."

The DoD found that the Chinese military used the pandemic to deploy overseas and build closer ties to foreign militaries through COVID-19 related aid.

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Meanwhile, the Chinese Army, despite the pandemic and clashes in India, managed to speed up training and fielding gear "from the already fast pace of recent years."

As a result, the Pentagon believes that China's leaders "are increasingly willing to confront the United States," which they see as "as increasingly determined to contain" them.

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The report echoes the concerns of senior leaders in the U.S. military about the pace at which China is developing.

The report says that China aims to improve its armed forces to make them among the best in the world by 2049.

Aside from military projections, the report also sheds more light on how U.S. officials interacted with their Chinese counterparts in 2020. Specifically, it gives more detail on the circumstances behind Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley's calls to his Chinese counterpart in the turbulent, final months of Donald Trump's presidency.

The report explains that two calls occurred "at the direction of then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper" and that, in his call, Milley was addressing "widespread speculation in [Chinese] media that the United States would deliberately instigate a conflict ... in the South China Sea."

Milley's call followed one made 10 days prior by the deputy assistant secretary of defense for China.

Pentagon officials also highlighted the report's findings on China's nuclear arsenal, which is "exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020."

The document says that China could have "up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027" and is shooting for "at least 1,000 warheads by 2030."

Currently, China's nuclear arsenal is estimated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute at 320 warheads, while the United States and Russia have about 6,000 each.

In recent months, private satellite imagery has revealed large additions of missile silos that outside experts have called an "unprecedented nuclear buildup."

The latest DoD report confirms that China "is building hundreds of new ICBM silos, and is on the cusp of a large silo-based ICBM force expansion comparable to those undertaken by other major powers."

Ultimately, the DoD's 21st report on China's military might paints a picture of a rapidly modernizing and growing force that is far from the "sizable but mostly archaic military that was poorly suited to [China's] long-term ambitions" described in the first report to Congress in 2000.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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