U.S. Ambassador to China nominee Nicholas Burns speaks during a hearing to examine his nomination before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 20, 2021.

U.S. Ambassador to China nominee Nicholas Burns speaks during a hearing to examine his nomination before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 20, 2021. AP / Patrick Semansky

China Ambassador Nominee ‘Concerned’ By Beijing’s Nuke Buildup

In his confirmation hearing, Nicholas Burns also talked about more American help for Taiwan and NATO’s views on China.

China is rapidly growing its nuclear arsenal in a way that should concern all Americans, according to the nominee tapped to be the top diplomat to Beijing. 

Nicholas Burns, who has been nominated to be ambassador to China, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that he’s worried about Beijing’s exponential growth of nuclear capabilities both in terms of missile silos and advanced tools to deliver nuclear weapons. 

“We should all be concerned by the buildup of China’s nuclear forces in the western part of China,” Burns said. “What I think has to bother all of us is the attitude of the Chinese government. They don’t believe they should be constrained in any way shape or form by arms control.”

China is thought to be constructing more than 200 new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Chinese officials have not explained why they are pursuing a ten-fold increase from the 20 silos Beijing has maintained for the past few decades. In addition, China is also building more mobile missile launchers, growing its fleet of stealth nuclear submarines, and has been working on a secretive fleet of strategic bombers that have not yet entered operations.

Last year, the Pentagon estimated that China has a nuclear warhead stockpile “in the low 200s,” but predicted that number would “at least double.” The United States has about 5,500 nuclear warheads.

In August, China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle, suggesting that it might be on the path to developing a weapon that could deliver a warhead just about anywhere on the globe.

“This new military capability is deeply worrisome, but I believe the bigger alarm is continued complacency about China,” Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., said at the hearing. 

The American military is modernizing its own nuclear triad, including replacing and updating its intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines, and bombers. Though some progressives on Capitol Hill have proposed cuts to those modernization efforts, citing high costs and dubious need, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said the Chinese build-up proves why investing in the American stockpile is critical.

“Some folks don’t think we need to be improving and upgrading and modernizing our own nuclear triad,” Rounds said. “China is aggressively growing their own, and I think this is a critical part of their foreign policy strategy, and I think it’s one way in which the PRC, in terms of their diplomatic efforts, uses it as a hammer when they deal with other countries.”

Burns, who has not yet been confirmed, emphasized that he has no knowledge of classified information or insight into the outcome of the administration’s ongoing nuclear posture review, which will explain Biden’s plan for the future of the American nuclear stockpile. 

Burns also fielded questions about how he would approach a number of other priorities if he becomes ambassador to China, including the American position towards Taiwan. He said he believes the United States should “deepen our involvement” to help Taiwan defend itself against mounting Chinese aggression, including frequent flights by Chinese fighter jets and bombers into airspace near the country. 

“We obviously have a self-interest, and under the Taiwan Relations Act, an obligation and commitment to help deepen our involvement in helping Taiwan to defend itself,” Burns said. “Everyone here who has talked about Taiwan, myself included, ought to be more concerned because the Chinese are on a different path than they were 30 or 20 years ago.”

Burns also talked about China’s global reach, saying that the nation is getting increasing attention from alliances not focused on the Indo-Pacific region, such as NATO. 

“It’s been really interesting for me, as a former ambassador to NATO, to see how high on the agenda China has become,” he said. “Certainly, Russia is the immediate focus...but I think the NATO countries...also understand that China’s Belt-Road initiative is now in 16 countries in Eastern Europe.”