China Defense Minister Says Nuclear Buildup Is Justified

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SINGAPORE—China’s defense minister said the country’s nuclear weapons buildup is an appropriate response to a more threatening international environment, a rare official acknowledgment of Beijing’s expanding nuclear arsenal.

Speaking at a defense conference in Singapore on Sunday, Gen.

Wei Fenghe

also pushed back on an assertion by U.S. Secretary of Defense

Lloyd Austin

that China’s military has grown increasingly aggressive, saying instead that U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region is responsible for propelling the two sides toward confrontation.

Gen. Wei, who previously commanded China’s missile force, said the military modernization included the deployment of all new weapons displayed in a 2019 military parade in Beijing. Among them is the Dongfeng-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which can carry multiple nuclear bombs in one warhead that could be detonated over the U.S. mainland.

“China is developing nuclear capabilities at a moderate and appropriate level,” Gen. Wei said. “That means being able to protect our nation’s security so that we can avoid the catastrophe of a war, especially the catastrophe of a nuclear war.”

Beijing’s nuclear-weapons program has trailed far behind those of the U.S. and Russia for decades. In recent years, China has begun to rapidly expand its nuclear arsenal, according to U.S. intelligence estimates. People familiar with the Chinese leadership’s thinking say the buildup is driven by an assessment that the U.S. may be more willing to challenge it militarily, including in a possible clash over Taiwan.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing over the issue of Taiwan flared in May when President

Biden

said that the American military would respond militarily to defend Taiwan if China invades, the third time he has made such a statement. U.S. administrations have long maintained a policy of not stating whether its military would help to defend Taiwan from attack, while selling the island weapons to defend itself. Mr. Biden later said the U.S. position was unchanged.

An increase in Chinese military flights near Taiwan this year has elevated concerns among Taiwanese and U.S. government officials of Beijing’s intentions. China also has held military exercises simulating an amphibious assault that military experts say would likely be part of any invasion. China says the self-ruled island is part of its territory and hasn’t ruled out the use of force to bring it under its control.

In a meeting on Friday that was dominated by the issue of Taiwan, Mr. Austin told Gen. Wei that U.S. policy toward the island hadn’t changed, according to the U.S. side. The Chinese defense minister said Beijing’s military would fight to prevent any move for independence by the island, according to a spokesman, but both sides gave accounts of the meeting that suggested an easing of friction, and each side emphasized the need to keep open lines of communication to head off crises.

On Sunday, Gen. Wei brought up Taiwan in his speech with a defiant message that is often used by Beijing to push against the island’s possible independence. “No one should ever underestimate the resolve and ability of the Chinese military to safeguard its territorial integrity,” he said.

China has declined to provide any clarity on its nuclear program and has rejected U.S. moves to start arms-control talks. Japanese Prime Minister

Fumio Kishida

criticized Beijing’s nuclear secrecy at the conference on Friday and said it should engage in talks with Washington.

The Pentagon forecasts China may have around 1,000 nuclear warheads by the end of this decade, compared with a few hundred now. The U.S. and Russia each have around 4,000 nuclear warheads.

Chinese Dongfeng-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles on parade in 2019.



Photo:

Xu Yu/Zuma Press

Beijing has also developed and deployed more missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. Satellite images suggest construction has accelerated this year on more than 100 suspected missile silos in China’s remote western region that could house Dongfeng-41 missiles.

At the Singapore conference, Gen. Wei didn’t answer a question about the suspected silos, but he reaffirmed Beijing’s stance that it wouldn’t initiate a nuclear conflict. Some U.S. officials and analysts doubt those reassurances.

Speaking a day earlier at the same conference, Mr. Austin portrayed China as an increasingly bellicose force in the region, citing incursions by Chinese fishing fleets into disputed waters and a sharp increase in incidents of Chinese military aircraft flying dangerously near military planes from the U.S. and its allies.

Gen. Wei rejected that portrayal of Chinese actions and warned that the U.S.’s strategic moves in the region—including its alliance with Australia, Japan and India, informally known as the Quad—could create conflicts by encouraging Asian countries to target China.

Gen. Wei also addressed Beijing’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—another point of tension with the U.S.—by repeating previous assurances that China isn’t providing Russia with any weapons.

Write to Keith Zhai at [email protected] and Alastair Gale at [email protected]

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