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Fast Thinking November 4, 2021

FAST THINKING: China’s stunning military buildup

By Atlantic Council


The arms race is on. The US Defense Department’s annual report on the Chinese military, released Wednesday, revealed a chilling reality: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could field one thousand nuclear warheads by 2030—and has the ability to deliver them. So what should the United States do to prepare for this fresh challenge from its chief geopolitical rival? Our experts weigh in.


  • Barry Pavel (@BarryPavel): Director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and former US Defense Department and National Security Council official
  • Matthew Kroenig (@MatthewKroenig): Deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and former US Defense Department and intelligence official

Growing fast

  • According to Matt, the report suggests that China is quickly moving to match US nuclear capabilities: “China will quintuple its nuclear arsenal at a faster pace than the Defense Department had estimated in last year’s China report—or even in statements earlier this year.”
  • And it’s not just about nuclear arms. The report states the Pentagon’s concerns about China’s “dual-use” research, which could violate international bans on biological and chemical weapons, and its swift gains in military space capabilities.
  • Barry says the PLA has also shocked US defense officials with other advancements “such as the recently tested fractional orbital bombardment systems [aka hypersonic weapons] that already outpace equivalent US capabilities still under development.” He also reminds us that China already boasts the world’s largest navy.

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Getting real

  • Anyone who thinks the Pentagon might be over-hyping the Chinese threat—or stoking a potentially dangerous arms race—doesn’t appreciate “the decades-long duration, scale, scope, and breadth” with which Beijing has been building and modernizing its military, Barry tells us.
  • Reflecting on the daily intelligence briefings he used to receive during his decade-long stint in senior national-security positions starting in 1999, Barry noted, “Not a single day went by that that briefing book didn’t include specific reports on significant new advances in the PLA’s military capabilities.”
  • Combined with China’s economic gains, that means the United States faces “a new and daunting circumstance,” he adds: “If such trends continue, then the ability of the US military to sustain deterrence in the Indo-Pacific will be significantly weakened.”
  • What does that mean in practice? “This is all about China increasing its capabilities and therefore leverage to forcibly take Taiwan,” Barry says.

Going forward

  • The first step in pushing back against China, Matt argues, is boosting (and modernizing) Washington’s own nuclear arsenal and “maintaining a quantitative and qualitative advantage” over Beijing. In this new report for the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense initiative, he outlines a detailed strategy to deter a potential Chinese strategic assault on the United States or its allies.
  • Matt proposes a congressional commission to study what sort of nuclear force the United States should maintain after its New START nuclear arms-reduction treaty with Russia expires in 2026—since the current limit of 1,550 warheads “seems untenable,” he says, if China continues its buildup.
  • Yet given the danger, he adds, talking is important, too: “It is also increasingly urgent that the United States pursues strategic-stability dialogues with China to better understand the purpose of these new nuclear weapons and to open the door to possible arms-control arrangements.”

Further reading

Related Experts: Barry Pavel and Matthew Kroenig

Image: Chinese People's Liberation Army celebrates the twentieth anniversary of their entrance into Macau in south China's Macao Special Administrative Region, on December 6, 2019. Photo by Zhang Jinjia/Oriental Image via Reuters Connect.