China’s rapid military build-up means the country is closer to joining the US and Russia as the top nations capable of deploying nuclear weapons on land, in the air and at sea, the Pentagon warned in a new report.

China’s progress in upgrading its strategic bombers to carry nuclear payloads puts it on the cusp of achieving a triad of delivery systems, punctuating a two-decade investment that coincided with the country’s economic rise, according to an annual Defense Department report to the Congress published on Tuesday.

Over the next decade, China will expand and diversify its nuclear forces, likely at least doubling its nuclear warhead stockpile, according to the 200-page report. “China’s nuclear forces appear to be on a trajectory to exceed the size of a minimum deterrent as described in the PLA’s own writings,” it added, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.

The development of a nuclear triad raises the long-term stakes in the complex relationship between Beijing and Washington. Although the two sides have limited their responses to current tensions to measures such as economic sanctions, tariffs and harsh rhetoric, China’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons will provide an added rationale for US officials who want to accelerate the modernisation of Americas nuclear forces.

The report arrives during one of the most tense periods in US-China ties in decades. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused China of not doing enough to stop the Covid-19 pandemic that has now killed about 184,000 Americans. The two nations are also at loggerheads over Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong, the use of technology such as 5G and apps including TikTok which are tied to China and disputed claims in the South China Sea.

Alarmist view

Analysts questioned what Amy Woolf, the top nuclear weapons analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, called the report’s alarmist view.

“The US has long believed that, at least for the US and Russia, a triad is stabilising because it reduces the vulnerability of the retaliatory force, reduces the risk of crisis instability and strengthens deterrence,” Woolf said.

Kingston Reif, a director with the Arms Control Association, said the Defense Department’s estimate of the size of China’s warhead stockpile is even less than open-source estimates. He said it can’t be overstated that Russia’s arsenal is much larger and more dangerous.

The Trump administration has been pressing to bring China into its nuclear arms control talks with Russia.

As part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to build a world class military by 2049, the Defense Department report said, the PLA has already achieved parity with or exceeded the US in at least three key areas: shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles and integrated air defence systems.

China’s government has marshalled the resources, technology and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernise the PLA in nearly every respect, according to the report. Increasingly, it says, Xi’s government sees the armed forces as having a key role to play in supporting China’s foreign policy efforts.

No First Use

The Pentagon also flagged US concerns about China’s nuclear doctrine. As its capabilities improve, the report said, Beijing is believed to be putting more of its nuclear forces on a launch on warning posture, which would let it respond more quickly to threats.

China for decades has maintained a No First Use nuclear weapons policy although there is ambiguity over the conditions under which China would act outside of that policy, the US military said.

The report also said that major gaps and shortcomings remain in China’s military capabilities that could require decades to fix. Yet, the Pentagon warned, the country has a strategic end state that it is working towards, which if achieved and its accompanying military modernisation is left unaddressed, will have serious implications for US national interests and the security of the international rules-based order.