You have to be pretty paranoid to see China as a direct nuclear threat to the United States, but that doesn't stop some from trying.
A report to be released Wednesday by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, created by Congress, is just the latest in a line of studies that hype the China threat. This report, like others before it, raises concerns that China may be hiding hundreds of nuclear weapons in underground tunnels. This might be scary but for the fact that the Pentagon says it's not true -- and that even if it was, it would not directly affect U.S. national security.
Seemingly wringing its hands, the commission -- chaired by Republican appointee Dennis Shea, and vice-chaired by Democratic appointee William Reinsch -- worries that "numerous uncertainties remain about China's nuclear warhead holdings" and that Beijing could have a larger nuclear stockpile than currently believed or could "obtain additional warheads, if so inclined." Citing unsubstantiated claims from Taiwan, Russia, and elsewhere, the commission recommends that Congress "assess disparities in estimates of the size and disposition of China's nuclear forces."
The report goes so far as to question "the desirability of further cuts" to U.S. and Russian nuclear forces "without clearer information on China's nuclear forces." President Obama has called for another round of U.S.-Russian reductions beyond those called for in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START.
But the U.S. Defense Department, for one, seems quite confident about how many bombs are in Beijing's basement. In its 2012 annual report to Congress on China's military, DOD said that China has "about 50-75" intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), "may" have an operational submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in two years, and is upgrading its small bomber fleet.
Moreover, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) has rejected previous claims that China's nuclear arsenal is much larger than commonly thought. "I do not believe that China has hundreds or thousands more nuclear weapons than what the intelligence community has been saying," Gen. Robert Kehler said in August. "The Chinese arsenal is in the range of several hundred" nuclear warheads, he said.
Gen. Kelher is in accord with independent estimates that China has about 240 nuclear warheads.
For comparison, according to the Pentagon, the United States has about 5,000 nuclear warheads in its active stockpile -- about 1,700 of which are deployed on missiles and bombers that can reach China. Of China's 240 warheads, only 50-75 could be deployed on its single-warhead missiles that could reach the United States.