Washington, June 11: China’s nuclear arsenal is a growing threat to US security, less in its absolute size than in the growing risk of a mishap, according to experts. “Have the risks changed? Yes, it’s a more competitive US-China relationship, and the chances of a conflict over Taiwan – while I don’t believe they’re high right now, they certainly have increased,” Phillip Saunders, director of the Centre for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defence University was quoted as saying in the South China Morning Post.
“Something might go wrong,” he said. Earlier, this week, Chinese state media said that China’s urgent goal is to expand its arsenal of long-range nuclear missiles in anticipation of an “intense showdown” with the US. China May Have Conducted Nuclear Tests, Says US State Department Report.
As Moscow and Washington had over decades engaged in a high-stakes nuclear arms race, China traditionally remained on the sidelines. Since its first nuclear weapon test in 1964, it has repeatedly laid out a no first-strike, minimal deterrence policy, viewing its relatively modest arsenal as a way to “deter other countries from using nuclear weapons against China”, SCMP reported citing a 2013 white paper published by Beijing.
China’s growing economic, military and political might, its technology ambitions and the successful lobbying by its navy and air force to have their own nuclear forces have altered the equation.
SCMP reported that a particular concern is that Beijing may edge or be pushed toward a policy – advocated by some in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – of launching weapons at the first sign of a possible attack, increasing the risk of unintended consequences.
According to the witnesses, this will also trouble the broader geopolitical context. This includes growing trans-Pacific suspicion; China’s more aggressive stance under President Xi Jinping; China’s territorial disputes with its neighbours; Beijing’s heavy-handed crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang ; and the end of unofficial term limits that could see an assertive Xi remain the nation’s leader for decades.
Commercial satellites, open-source internet research and even hacked Chinese cellphones are providing much more of a window into China’s nuclear activities, experts testified on Thursday before the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an independent panel that advises Congress.
At the same time, despite its no-first strike policy, Beijing has eschewed transparency, avoided detailing its nuclear ambitions even as its global reputation has eroded, as seen in public opinion surveys, SCMP reported.
It further reported that expert opinions differ on the size and expected growth of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal, which remains a Chinese state secret. Estimates place it from 200 to 350 weapons with plans to double or even triple that figure within the next decade.
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