China’s stockpile of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles are expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years © REUTERS

China’s military is set to double its arsenal of nuclear warheads over the next decade, as it races to become a “world-class” force, according to a Pentagon report released on Tuesday.

The unclassified, 200-page version of the Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress charts “staggering” amounts of new military hardware as Beijing looks to expand its overseas military footprint in an attempt to rival the US.

“China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas,” said the report.

In its first annual report, in 2000, the Pentagon described China’s military as “mostly archaic”, lacking in capabilities, organisation and training and with technology that was “well behind the curve”.

But last year, “the PRC recognised that its armed forces should take a more active role in advancing its foreign policy, highlighting the increasingly global character that Beijing ascribes to its military power”, the report said.

China’s stockpile of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles — which are capable of threatening the US — is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years. China is also set to launch its second domestic-built aircraft carrier by 2023, in addition to the first it commissioned last year, alongside its first large-deck amphibious warship.

The US also expects China to at least double its stockpile of nuclear warheads from the “low-200s” to more than 400 in the next decade. 

Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defence for China, said the US was concerned about “the trajectory of China’s nuclear developments writ large”, adding Beijing was poised to undertake “the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history”.

Beijing has nearly doubled its defence spending over the past decade, surpassing $100bn for the first time in 2012 and reaching $174bn last year. The US believes China may have spent more than $200bn last year.

China has the largest standing army and navy in the world, with 350 vessels and 2m personnel in its regular forces. However, its spending is still far less than that of the US military, which was $686bn last year.

The Asian country is seeking to “basically complete” military modernisation by 2035, the report said, before fully completing its transformation by 2049.

China may fall short of some ambitious early targets, said the report, noting it was unlikely to meet its goal set by party leadership on technological advancements this year. The Pentagon assessed any attempt to invade Taiwan would also “likely strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention”.

China’s People’s Liberation Army nevertheless continued to build capabilities that would “contribute to a full-scale invasion” of Taiwan, according to the report. The report found that the PLA completed construction of its first helicopter dock amphibious assault ship last year and also conducted joint amphibious assault exercises near Taiwan.

A defence white paper from China in 2019, its first in four years, also emphasised fighting “Taiwan independence” and suppressing those seeking independence for Tibet or Xinjiang, highlighting the internal role of its military too.

Jacqueline Deal, president of Long Term Strategy Group, a defence consultancy that analyses China, said Beijing’s increasing use of military and paramilitary forces closer to home — in Xinjiang and Hong Kong — risked being a “preview of coming attractions for what will happen eventually far farther afield, such as Taiwan”.

“It's clear that their ambitions are global,” she said.

The report said the PLA’s army had also expanded participation in bilateral and multilateral military exercises as part of efforts to build closer ties to foreign militaries.

The US defence report said China was “very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities”, citing Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan. It established its first and only overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017.

“A global PLA military logistics network could interfere with US military operations and provide flexibility to support offensive operations against the United States,” said the report.

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