China is now re-working many of its long-range ballistic missiles to carry multiple warheads — a move federal officials and experts say may be aimed at back-stopping the United States as it moves to send stronger missile defense systems into the Pacific, according to a recent Pentagon report to Congress.
Though the Chinese have had the capability for years, President President Xi Jinping has reversed the course of many predecessors and has initiated efforts to utilize technology that would miniaturize warheads and put three or more on a single missile, according to a report by The New York Times on the Pentagon document.
"This is obviously part of an effort to prepare for long-term competition with the United States," Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Times. He served as a senior national security official in the George W. Bush administration. "The Chinese are always fearful of American nuclear advantage."
The Pentagon document was released on May 8, the Times reports. Beijing’s stepped-up nuclear efforts were detailed deep in the document — catching many American officials by surprise, according to the report.
In addition, the disclosure came as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Beijing on Saturday for discussions on a wide variety of issues, though the Times reports that it was not clear whether this weapons development was on his agenda.
"The United States would like to have a discussion of the broader issues of nuclear modernization and ballistic missile defense with China," Phillip Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at National Defense University, told the Times.
The university, located at Fort Lesley McNair in Washington, is financed by the Pentagon and trains the military's future senior commanders.
"The Chinese have been reluctant to have that discussion in official channels," Saunders told the Times, though he and other experts have had unofficial conversations with their Chinese colleagues about the warhead refurbishments.
President Xi's move has further alarmed Obama administration officials because he is "building military airfields on disputed islands in the South China Sea, declaring exclusive Chinese 'air defense identification zones,' sending Chinese submarines through the Persian Gulf for the first time, and creating a powerful new arsenal of cyberweapons," the Times reports.
"China’s little force is slowly getting a little bigger — and its limited capabilities are slowly getting a little better," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based policy research group.
He told the Times that the new Chinese warhead deployments represented "a bad day for nuclear constraint."
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