Michael Mazza, Henry Sokolski
These steps should assure America’s allies and make real nuclear threat reductions, including useful arms limits, much more likely not just in East Asia, but globally.
Washington’s security gurus like to say that America’s nuclear arsenal soothes its allies while dissuading them from scratching nuclear weapons itches of their own. Critics may contest the maxim, but in East Asia, an opposite contention—that China’s growing nuclear proficiency is dangerous—is gaining ground. In fact, China’s nuclear ambitions not only increasingly threaten the United States, but could push America’s key Asian allies—Japan and South Korea—out of Washington’s security orbit into acquiring nuclear weapons of their own.
How likely is it that China’s stockpile will grow? It is highly likely. The only question is how fast and by how much. Currently, the Defense Intelligence Agency estimates China’s nuclear arsenal to be in the “low couple of hundreds” and projects it will double by 2030.
Compounding this trend are the “peaceful” nuclear programs that China is pursuing. These could allow China to ramp up its nuclear weapons production significantly. First, Beijing has and is building far more uranium enrichment capacity than its civilian nuclear sector needs. Experts project China’s uranium enrichment capacity might soon supply all of its civilian requirements and still fuel one thousand or more nuclear weapons a year. Second, China is ramping up its fast reactor and plutonium recycling programs. In a decade or less it could be producing many hundreds of weapons’ worth of plutonium a year.
China is also diversifying, growing, and enhancing the platforms that might deliver its nuclear arsenal. It is not just developing more precise missiles of various ranges, but also building stealthy, long-range bombers and will soon put to sea more advanced submarines armed with modern submarine-launched ballistic missiles. What’s more, hypersonic, multiple-warheaded, maneuvering, and low-flying missiles capable of besting the United States and allied missile defenses may all contribute to China’s nuclear threat in the coming decade.
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