Chinese defence chiefs have issued a scathing response to a US report alleging a major build-up in Beijing’s nuclear capabilities, insisting that China strictly adheres to its policy of no first use of nuclear weapons “at any time and under any circumstances”.
The Pentagon released its annual China security report last week, warning that Beijing would likely have 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, and that it has provided no clarity on how it plans to use them.
Defence ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei said that report “distorts China’s national defence policy and military strategy, makes groundless speculation about China’s military development and grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs on the issue of Taiwan”.
Mr Tan accused the US of being the “biggest troublemaker and destroyer of world peace and stability”, and repeated that Beijing has never used force to conquer self-governing Taiwan, a US ally that China considers part of its territory.
He did not directly address the report’s allegations about a Chinese nuclear build-up, but blamed the US for raising nuclear tensions, particularly with its plan to help Australia build a fleet of submarines powered by US nuclear technology, which the French President has described as a “confrontation with China”.
Australia has said it will not seek to arm the submarines with nuclear weapons.
Mr Tan also accused the US of having the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, although that title is actually held by Russia, a close Chinese military, economic and diplomatic partner.
As of 2022, Russia possesses a total of 5,977 nuclear warheads compared to 5,428 in the US inventory, according to the Federation of American Scientists. China currently has 350 nuclear warheads, according to the federation.
China has long adhered to what it calls a purely defensive national security strategy, including a claim that it will never be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.
That stance has frequently been challenged at home and abroad, particularly if it comes to a confrontation over Taiwan.
“What needs to be emphasised is that China firmly pursues the nuclear strategy of self-defence and defence, always adheres to the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and maintains its nuclear force at the minimum level required for national security,” Mr Tan said in the statement posted on the ministry’s website.
His remarks came days after US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said his country is at a pivotal point with China and will need military strength to ensure that “American values”, not Beijing’s, set global norms in the 21st century.
Mr Austin’s speech on Saturday at the Reagan National Defence Forum capped a week in which the Pentagon was squarely focused on China’s rise and what that might mean for America’s position in the world.
China “is the only country with both the will and, increasingly, the power to reshape its region and the international order to suit its authoritarian preferences,” Mr Austin said. “So let me be clear: We will not let that happen”.
Mr Austin was on hand on Friday for a dramatic night-time rollout of the US military’s newest nuclear stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, which is being designed to beat the quickly growing cyber, space and nuclear capabilities of Beijing.
The bomber is part of a major China-centric nuclear overhaul under way that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated will cost 1.2 trillion dollars (£978 billion) through until 2046.
Already-tense relations between Washington and Beijing soured even more in August when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan.
China responded by firing missiles over the island and holding wargames in what was seen as a rehearsal for a possible blockade of the island.
While the US and Taiwan have no formal diplomatic relations in deference to Beijing, America maintains informal relations and defence ties with Taiwan, along with a policy of “strategic ambiguity” over whether the US would respond militarily if the island were attacked.
Despite some moves to improve relations, China has shown an increasingly hard line on military affairs.
Following a rare meeting last month between Mr Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, the Chinese side issued a statement saying: “The responsibility for the current situation facing China-US relations is on the US side, not on the Chinese side.”
In his remarks on Taiwan, Mr Tan warned: “The Chinese military has the confidence and capability to thwart any external interference and separatist plots for ‘Taiwan independence’ and realise the complete reunification of the motherland.”