China tested new missile capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads

Launch would come amid growing tensions with US, but one mainland expert warns the PLA is not trying to send a message to Donald Trump

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2017, 11:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 9:30am

China reportedly tested a new version of a missile that can carry multiple nuclear warheads last month, amid heightened anxiety over ties with the United States.

But one mainland analyst cautioned that such a test would not be tied to the change in American leadership, given the months of preparation it requires.

The Dongfeng-5C missile, carrying 10 dummy warheads, was launched from the Taiyuan Space Launch Centre in Shanxi province, and flew to a desert in western China, the Washington Free Beacon reported on Tuesday, citing two unnamed defence officials.

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The missile is a new variant of the DF-5, an intercontinental ballistic missile that first went into service in the early 1980s.

“The [Defence Department] routinely monitors Chinese military developments and accounts for PLA capabilities in our defence plans,” Pentagon spokesman Commander Gary Ross was quoted as saying by the report.

For decades, the US has put the estimated number of warheads in China’s nuclear arsenal at about 250. But the report suggested that the latest test with 10 warheads meant the actual number could be larger.

China also began adding warheads to older DF-5 missiles in February last year, according to US intelligence agencies.

The US has about 4,000 stockpiled warheads, according to the US State Department.

US defence officials have previously warned that China’s rapid development of long-range ballistic missiles, coupled with a lack of transparency about its nuclear capabilities, could bring uncertainty to stability in the region.

The administration of US President Donald Trump has signalled it intends to take a tougher stance against China over a range of issues, from the trade deficit to Beijing’s military build-up in the disputed South China Sea.

But a Chinese military expert from an institute affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army said a new test would not have been aimed at Trump.

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“The test of a nuclear missile requires permission from the highest level – the Central Military Commission. It takes at least one year for the military to get the approval and to prepare for it,” said the expert, who refused to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter. “It is not a random decision to be made just because Trump is now in office,” the expert said. Although China had made steady progress in nuclear arms development in recent years, the government had no plans to drastically adjust its nuclear policy, the expert said.

Recent images purporting to show China’s Dongfeng-41 missile have surfaced on mainland websites, and reports suggest Beijing has deployed them in Heilongjiang province, which borders Russia. The missile, with a range of 14,000km and a payload of 10-12 nuclear warheads, is considered one of the military’s most powerful.

The Global Times, a state-run tabloid that carries fiery nationalistic rhetoric, said in a commentary last week the deployment of the DF-41 was a “strategic deterrence tool” and Beijing would “ready itself for pressures imposed by the new US government”.

The US defence chief is visiting Asia this week, in the first foreign trip by any of Trump’s cabinet secretaries. Retired Marine General James Mattis is due to arrive in Seoul today, and is expected to underscore US security commitments to key allies South Korea and Japan amid mounting concerns over North Korea’s missile programme and tensions with China.