Let’s Put the Pentagon’s China Report in Context

The Pentagon released its annual report on Chinese military power this week, and hawks in Congress and the Pentagon will no doubt use it as evidence that China is on the march militarily, and that the U.S. should therefore continue its buildup in the Pacific and its development of a new generation of nuclear weapons. But a closer look at China’s military aspirations in the context of current U.S. capabilities tells a different story.

The report says that China likely possesses 400 nuclear warheads, and that if production stays on pace, the number could more than triple over the next decade. But the United States has over 5,400 warheads in its stockpile, including over 1,600 deployed on bombers, submarines, and long-range ballistic missiles. Even if the Pentagon’s assessment is correct, deterrence would hold; Beijing would be in no position to launch a nuclear strike on the United States or its allies without suffering a devastating attack in return.

Indeed, the disparity suggests that the Pentagon could forgo a significant portion of its three-decade, up-to-$2 trillion plan to build new nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and missiles, along with new warheads to go with them. Instead of continuing a wasteful and destabilizing arms race, the United States could move towards a “deterrence-only” posture along the lines outlined by the organization Global Zero.

The greatest risk of a U.S.-China nuclear confrontation is escalation in a conventional conflict between the two countries. This suggests that preventing war, particularly over Taiwan, should be a top priority of U.S. policy. Earlier this week a Pentagon official told reporters that although China is building up its military, “I don’t see any kind of imminent indications of an invasion.” 

Read the full piece in DefenseOne.