Image copyright EPA Image caption North Korea’s rapid nuclear programme alarmed the world during 2018
China’s nuclear stockpile is growing at a “accelerating pace”, the Pentagon has said, revealing that it now has 1,000 warheads.
That is an increase from the 700 warheads the Pentagon claimed the country had as of 2017.
A report by the US defence department said the missile inventory had increased by 10 warheads in the year since its last report in September.
But Chinese leaders claim the figure is just 400.
The United States has around 14,000 nuclear warheads, compared with fewer than 7,000 in Russia.
China’s build-up and claims that its nuclear stockpile is small are a matter of dispute.
In a report to Congress, the Pentagon said that China had built nuclear missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads that could carry “a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle” (MIRV) that is a nuclear warhead.
No US missiles, however, have been fired with such warheads since 2011, the BBC’s Tom Rogan has said.
The Pentagon report said: “Although current analyses paint a picture of a somewhat smaller stockpile, there are indications that this general trend is being exacerbated by the acquisition of or significant maintenance of the MIRV capability and mounting efforts to expand and improve non-nuclear capabilities.”
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption China’s nuclear programme has become a source of tension with the US
The report also says China has begun to construct and add to land-based mobile missile launchers used to carry land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“This places China at an advantage over traditional adversaries that would seek to interrupt its nuclear delivery platforms via their own nuclear forces and increased threats posed by state actors, such as North Korea,” the Pentagon report said.
Russia, meanwhile, has lost its ability to reliably launch long-range ballistic missiles because it has been building a newer system, it added.
What are their claims?
The Chinese Foreign Ministry rejected the US report, saying China’s stockpile was “about 400, mostly strategic, weapons and launchers.”
“We call on the relevant nation to refrain from making irresponsible remarks and pretend to be concerned about China,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
The Chinese foreign ministry had previously said China was building small numbers of nuclear warheads, and had successfully tested a land-based MIRV missile.
“China has completed the construction of missile-armed mobile missile launchers, including air-launched missiles, rail and ground missile launchers, other weapon systems,” it said in a written statement to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a US advisory body.
Liu Xianbin, a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, told the BBC in September that China’s stockpile was not growing.
“We are not deploying any new missiles because we have been shooting all our missiles back and forth over the past three years without any major problem,” he said.
“These missiles would only be used for defence.”
Reach too far?
But the Pentagon report may not give a true picture of China’s nuclear arsenal, as the head of the US Missile Defence Agency, Vice Admiral James Syring, said the US was no longer able to assess all the technology in China’s programme because of its secrecy.
“We cannot estimate the full weight of China’s nuclear arsenal, because of its secrecy and lack of transparency,” he told the Reuters news agency.
Iran is also accused of showing an “accelerated capability” to build nuclear missiles – but will have less than 500 warheads by 2029, the Pentagon report says.
The same report notes that North Korea, which tested a nuclear bomb in September and also has missiles that can reach the US, will have developed more nuclear weapons by the end of 2020.
Since then, it has reached a deal with the US to put nuclear warheads on its intercontinental ballistic missiles – although there are concerns over how these will be disguised.