May 17, 2015
WASHINGTON — After decades of maintaining a minimal nuclear force,China has re-engineered many of its long-range ballistic missiles to carry multiple warheads, a step that federal officials and policy analysts say appears designed to give pause to the United States as it prepares to deploy more robust missile defenses in the Pacific.
What makes China’s decision particularly notable is that the technology of miniaturizing warheads and putting three or more atop a single missile has been in Chinese hands for decades. But a succession of Chinese leaders deliberately let it sit unused; they were not interested in getting into the kind of arms race that characterized the Cold War nuclear competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Many of those steps have taken American officials by surprise and have become evidence of the challenge the Obama administration faces in dealing with China, in particular after American intelligence agencies had predicted that Mr. Xi would focus on economic development and follow the path of his predecessor, who advocated the country’s “peaceful rise.”
Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Beijing on Saturday to discuss a variety of security and economic issues of concern to the United States, although it remained unclear whether this development with the missiles, which officials describe as recent, was on his agenda.
American officials say that, so far, China has declined to engage in talks on the decision to begin deploying multiple nuclear warheads atop its ballistic missiles.
“The United States would like to have a discussion of the broader issues of nuclear modernization and ballistic missile defense with China,” said Phillip C. Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at National Defense University, a Pentagon-funded academic institution attended by many of the military’s next cadre of senior commanders.
“The Chinese have been reluctant to have that discussion in official channels,” Mr. Saunders said, although he and other experts have engaged in unofficial conversations with their Chinese counterparts on the warhead issue.
Beijing’s new nuclear program was reported deep inside the annual Pentagon report to Congress about Chinese military capabilities, disclosing a development that poses a dilemma for the Obama administration, which has never talked publicly about these Chinese nuclear advances.