Hong Kong: On 29 November, the US Pentagon released its annual report dissecting developments within China's military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The report obviously struck a raw nerve, because the Chinese government responded harshly to its publication. Beijing warned that it was "strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed" to the American publication.

Indeed, Chinese Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesperson Senior Colonel Tan Kefei evocatively alleged that the report was "distorting China's national defence policy and military strategy, groundlessly speculating about China's military development, and grossly interfering in China's internal affairs on the Taiwan question".

The newest edition, called 2022 Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China, contained some startling updates since the previous one published 13 months earlier.

The most staggering is China's open-armed embrace of nuclear weapons. Currently it has an estimated 400 nuclear warheads, but the US Department of Defence (DoD) predicted it will have 1,500 warheads by 2035. Along the way, the PLA will triple its nuclear warhead stockpile in the space of just a decade.

To put this in perspective, in its 2020 report the USA assessed that quantities of Chinese nuclear warheads were in the low 200s. By comparison, the USA has 3,750 nuclear warheads. A senior Pentagon official explained: "They're going from what was often characterized as a minimum set of deterrence capabilities to one that's much more sophisticated in scope and also larger in size. So they're now kind of getting into the range of the middle nuclear powers here."

President Joe Biden's administration released its National Security Strategy in October, and it warned that the USA will simultaneously face "two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries", a reference to Russia and China. Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, commented: "The DoD projects the Chinese stockpile could increase to 1,500 warheads in 2035. [The] basis for projection is vague and uncertain, but largely seems to assume last year's increase continues halfway through the next decade."

He added: "The report says China now has about 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), a significant increase compared with the roughly 100 mentioned in last year's report. That seems to indicate that at least some of the new silos might be operational." Kristensen was referring to several missile silo fields deep inside China, where approximately 300 ICBM silos have been under construction. The site at Hami is listed as having 110 silos, Yumen with 119, Yulin possessing 71 and the Jilantai training field with 15 silos.

A new assertion is that these silos are capable of launching both DF-31 and DF-41 ICBMs. Kristensen also pointed out: "Despite rumors about the new DF-41 ICBM carrying ten warheads, the DoD report says the missile 'is likely intended to carry no more than three warheads', which matches our estimate from 2021." It seems that the Pentagon is now counting some, but not all, silos as "deployed launchers". Next year's ICBM total should be up, in the 400-450 range, as more silos get completed.

Decker Eveleth, an American graduate research assistant who discovered the first Chinese ICBM silo field using open-source satellite imagery, concluded this about the ICBM figure in the 2022 report: "This assessment probably depends on an aggressive interpretation of what they're going to do with the silos. Could absolutely be true, could be inflated."

Eveleth continued: "It's true that China has been expanding its capability to assemble nuclear weapons - they've built several shiny new facilities lately - and it's likely that there is a rapid expansion in warheads happening. But I'd caution that we have several historical examples of the number of warheads a state constructs having very little to do with their launchers or military capability, and focusing on warhead estimates tells you very little about a state's actual nuclear capability or posture."

The US military recently claimed that the PLA Navy (PLAN) has already outfitted its six Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile (SSBN) submarines with JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Kristensen commented on the report's findings: "Big news is that China appears to have begun SSBN patrols at sea with warheads onboard. The report is ambivalent: "is conducting continuous at-sea deterrence patrols" or "likely began near-continuous at-sea deterrence patrols..." Still, the claim that SSBNs can target the continental US seems a stretch."

The number of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (i.e. the DF-26) is now 250. The DF-26 is seen as the most likely Chinese missile to carry a lower-yield nuclear weapon for use against campaign and tactical targets, such as aircraft carriers.

Interestingly, numbers in the medium-range ballistic missile category are up too, presumably due to rapid inventory expansion of the DF-17 that carries a hypersonic warhead. The DF-17 seems to be replacing some short-range ballistic missiles even, with the latter group dropping from 250 to 200.

This reduction should not be construed as a drop in capability, however. The PLA Ground Force has accurate rockets like the PHL-16 that can reach hundreds of kilometers and be rapidly fired en masse. Furthermore, retired missiles can probably still be hauled out as reserves in any conflict. The report mentioned the mysterious 27 July 2021 fractional orbital test of a Chinese

ICBM with hypersonic glide vehicle. The warhead reportedly "came close" to hitting its target after flying 40,000km around the globe in 100 or so minutes.

In its response to the Pentagon's 2022 report, Beijing complained that the USA is guilty of nuclear proliferation thanks to the AUKUS alliance. However, while Australia hopes to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, these are definitely not armed with nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, China continues to toss around the erroneous canard that future Australian submarines will "carry enough highly enriched uranium to make 60-80 nuclear warheads, which essentially constitutes an act of nuclear proliferation". This is quite preposterous, and is simply China trying to deflect attention away from its own nuclear program. China's nuclear policy comes directly from paramount leader Xi Jinping, and he has stamped his authority upon the country's nuclear weapons force structure. As Professor Andrew Erickson, Professor of Strategy and Research Director at the US Naval War College, commented: "Despite having over 400 nuclear warheads already, and expanding at a rate that would reach 1,500 by 2035, Beijing refuses to acknowledge its build-up, let alone engage in arms control discussions. We are seeing the dangerous results of Xi's decade-and-counting in command: demanding unconditional deference at home and, increasingly, abroad."

Another important area of modernization highlighted in the DoD report is the PLA's targeting and long-range precision strike capabilities. This can be witnesses in a single data point - in 2021, China launched more ballistic missiles (outside of conflict zones) than the rest of the world combined. Indeed, it fired some 135 missiles in either tests or demonstrations of capability.

Another indicator is that China, since 2018, has nearly doubled its in-orbit intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites to more than 260, up 60 on the year before. Only the USA has more such satellites in orbit.

The MND spokesman noted that Beijing's "military development aims to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests, and will never seek hegemony or expansion no matter how far it develops". Yet, expansion is very much on the PLA's wish list. The Pentagon assessed: "The PRC has likely considered Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan, among other places, as locations for PLA military logistics facilities."

Erickson added: "Around the world, the report documents widespread efforts to develop overseas access and basing for the PLA. Notably, it assesses that Beijing has established its first Indo-Pacific overseas base in Ream, Cambodia; and has courted Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, in addition to Namibia (where China's Strategic Support Force already operates a tracking, telemetry and command ground station to support space missions)." Furthermore, the PLA is most interested in military access along sea lines of communication from China to the Strait of Hormuz, Africa and the Pacific Islands.

Taiwan, as always, is a sore point with Beijing. Last year, and even more pointedly this year, there was an increase in activity in the Taiwan Strait and intrusions into Taiwan's air defense identification zone (ADIZ), as well as island seizure exercises. Erickson elaborated: "Facing the Taiwan Strait, the report describes a worrisome panoply of mounting capabilities and increasingly focused training. Last year, the PLA conducted frequent amphibious training, with more than 120 instances in a three-month period."

Tan of China's MND insisted that his country "is committed to a path of peaceful development and a national defense policy that is defensive in nature, and remains a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development and a defender of international order".

Furthermore, he continued, "Taiwan is China's Taiwan. Resolving the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese, a matter that must be resolved by the Chinese ... We are committed to maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary." Of course, this is a direct contradiction to Tan's claim that China's policy is "defensive in nature, and remains a builder of world peace".

Tan also boasted that the PLA has "the confidence and capability to defeat any external interference and separatist attempts for 'Taiwan independence' and achieve the complete reunification of the motherland". China's declared defense budget is already 17 times larger than Taiwan's.

After the report's release, a Pentagon official assured: "I don't see any kind of imminent indications of an invasion. We're definitely very focused on this level of more intimidating and coercive behavior, and watching closely to see how things unfold." Another snippet from the report is that the number of vessels in the PLAN dropped by 15 to 340, primarily because 22 Type 056 corvettes were transferred to the China Coast Guard. This transfer has also affected future estimates of vessel numbers, now at 400 by 2025 and 440 by 2030. There seems to be a temporary pause in building additional large amphibious assault ships like Type 071s and Type 075s. This is being alleviated by making wider use of civilian roll-on/roll-off ferries, however.

Incidentally, the 2022 report said just 23% of China's natural gas imports transited the South China Sea, a marked drop from 61% in the preceding report. No explanation was given, but it suggests far greater overland gas deliveries to China are occurring. One opinion piece on the MND's website alleged that the USA "cooked up this lie-strewn report based on hearsay and wild imagination without mentioning where the data came from".

This is a typical mud-slinging approach by China. Nonetheless, the well-researched 2022 Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China is a timely reminder that the PLA is growing in might and, unfortunately, in bellicosity. The Pentagon thus called out the PLA for "a sharp increase in unsafe and unprofessional behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region". These actions in the air and on the sea target the US and its allies, and the Pentagon warned that China is "risking a major incident or accident in the region".