The substantial growth of China’s military is an indication of how quickly the Asian country can build up its nuclear arsenal to a capability that can directly threaten the United States, the head of the U.S. nuclear forces warned on Monday.
Adm. Chas Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters at a Pentagon press briefing that Beijing’s building of hundreds of ships since 2013 is just one example of how quickly the country can work to achieve its military ambitions.
"Don't shoot behind the duck, right? It's not where they are, it's where they're going,” Richard said. “When China sets its mind to something, they are very impressive in their ability to go accomplish it.”
In seven years, Beijing has built 255 ships for China's new Coast Guard "on top of all the other ships they're building," he said.
In this Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015 file photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping is displayed on a screen as Type 99A2 Chinese battle tanks take part in a parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender during World War II held in front of Tiananmen Gate in Beijing. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)
“I get apprehensive that we are not fully conscious as a nation of the threats that we face,” Richard said. “China now has the capability, and we can get into the specifics, to directly threaten our homeland from a ballistic-missile submarine. That’s a pretty watershed moment.”
His comments come weeks after the Pentagon issued its annual report to Congress about China’s military capabilities.
The report found that China “has the largest navy in the world,” overtaking the U.S. Navy. China now has approximately 350 ships and submarines, compared to about 293 for the U.S.
It also said China has built a considerable arsenal of land-based ballistic and cruise missiles and has one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems.
Last year, the report said China had the largest military in Asia. Its 2 million-member People's Liberation Army is now the world's largest standing military.
Richard warned China's nuclear stockpile is "next on their to-do list."
Asia analyst Gordon Chang reacts to China’s growing military threat.
The 2020 report said China would double its nuclear stockpile from the “low-200s” over the next decade.
In comparison, the U.S. military currently maintains 3,800 nuclear warheads.
China on Sunday responded to the 2020 Pentagon report, calling it a “wanton distortion” and saying that it is the U.S. instead that poses the greatest threat to world peace.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.