The commander of American military forces in the Pacific is pushing back against Chinese government claims that a three-nation pact to build nuclear submarines for Australia poses a danger of nuclear weapons proliferation.
Adm. John Aquilino, who heads U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, recently told reporters in Indonesia following a round of U.S.-led military exercises in the region that the sole country prompting nuclear weapons fears is China.
“We’re watching the largest military build-up in history since WWII by the PRC,” he said in reference to Pentagon assessments on increasingly aggressive armed forces expansion efforts by China, formally the People’s Republic of China.
Adm. Aquilino commented more broadly on Chinese government opposition to the Australia, United Kingdom and United States effort to help build nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian navy under a new security arrangement called AUKUS.
“This program has nothing to do with nuclear weapons,” the admiral said at a joint press conference Friday with Indonesian military chief Gen. Andika Perkasa in that country’s South Sumatra province.
“If you’d like to talk about nuclear weapons and the concern for a nuclear arms race, all you have to do is look into the PRC,” Adm. Aquilino said, adding that he has read reports of Chinese complaints about the AUKUS submarine program.
“The only nation increasing the nuclear arsenal right now is the PRC,” the four-star admiral said, asserting that China has “three hundred nuclear silos going in as we sit here today.”
“So let’s look at actions and let’s not talk about words,” he said.
A ‘strategic breakout’
China’s nuclear buildup has alarmed the Pentagon at a moment when the U.S. military is in the process of modernizing all American nuclear forces to meet the challenge of deterring two both China and Russia.
In the past, nuclear deterrence was geared to countering Soviet and then Russian nuclear forces. However, China’s government is rapidly expanding its nuclear forces with construction of missile silos in western China, with as many 350 silo sites spotted in satellite photos.
In recent congressional testimony, Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, described China’s nuclear buildup as a “strategic breakout” comparable to the Soviet Union’s nuclear buildup in the 1960s.
The most visible portion of the current Chinese buildup is the expansion from zero to 360 silos for solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles in western China in a few years, Adm. Richard testified in May.
The hundreds of silos are expected to house a new DF-41 multi-warhead missile, defense officials have said. The number of warheads carried by each DF-41 is not known. Intelligence estimates put the number of multiple, independently-targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs, at between four and 10 warheads.
China is believed to have obtained multi-warhead technology from the United States during U.S.-China space cooperation that occurred under the administration of former President Bill Clinton.
Other Chinese nuclear developments of concern include a rapid expansion of road-mobile ICBMS, nuclear-armed H-6N bombers equipped with air launched ballistic missiles, and new nuclear-tipped missile submarines.
Another major worry centers on China’s testing of an orbiting hypersonic missile that can attack from multiple angles that are difficult to detect with current missile warning systems.
China’s defense minister, Wei Fenghe, has dismissed concerns about the ICBM silos in western China as “moderate and appropriate.”
“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,” Mr. Wei told reporters during a visit to Singapore in June.
Disinfo on AUKUS
Chinese state media in July launched what U.S. analysts say is a disinformation campaign targeting regional states, with the goal of getting them to oppose the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal.
Two Chinese government nuclear research agencies, China Arms Control and Disarmament Association and the China Institute of Nuclear Industry Strategy, issued a report in July urging the international community to stand against the nuclear submarine program.
The report said halting the program is needed to “safeguard the integrity, authority and effectiveness of the international nuclear nonproliferation regime.”
Following the report’s circulation, Chinese engineer Zhao Xuelin, with the China Institute of Nuclear Industry Strategy, claimed that weapons-grade nuclear material sent to Australia could produce between 64 and 80 nuclear weapons.
Mr. Zhao asserted that the program will violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The State Department in the past has said China’s refusal to conduct arms control talks on its nuclear forces is a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Taiwan in crosshairs
Adm. Aquilino’s response on Friday to the Chinese allegations came during multinational military exercises in Indonesia that were called Garuda Shield and involved around 5,000 troops.
The exercises are held annually with Indonesian and U.S. military forces. This year’s drills also included forces from Australia, Singapore and Japan, along with observers from nine other nations.
“Our forces, operating together, delivers a deterrent effect against any destabilizing effort in the region,” said Adm. Aquilino, who cited recent Chinese military provocations around Taiwan as an example.
“The destabilizing actions by the PRC as it applied to the threatening activities and actions against Taiwan is exactly what we are trying to avoid,” he said. “I can tell you from my seat, I spend every waking minute doing everything to ensure we are preventing conflict in the region. Every day we try to prevent war.”
“We’ll continue to help deliver a free and open Indo-Pacific and be ready when we need to respond to any contingency,” the admiral said.
His remarks were reported by multiple news outlets in Asia, including The Associated Press.
A spokesman for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command told The Washington Times a transcript of Adm. Aquilino’s remarks was being prepared. Later, however, Navy Cmdr. Tiffani Walker, a spokeswoman for the command, said no transcript or audio of the admiral’s press conference would be made public.