China building 100 missile launchpads across desert in 'incredible' expansion of nuclear capabilities

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The silos were spotted in Yumen, Gansu province - Planet Labs Inc./Center for Nonproliferation Studies
The silos were spotted in Yumen, Gansu province - Planet Labs Inc./Center for Nonproliferation Studies

China is building 100 new missile silos in the northwestern desert, according to satellite imagery, raising fears of an 'incredible' expansion of its nuclear capabilities.

The satellites picked up construction work on a site near Yumen, including underground bunkers, cable trenches, roads and a small military base, according to researchers from James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

The silos seem to mirror existing launch facilities for China's arsenal of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

The acquisition of more than 100 new silos would represent a shift for China, which was only thought before now to possess a relatively modest total stockpile of 250 to 350 nuclear weapons - far fewer than the US and Russia.

Analysts warned the expansion signified an “alarming development” but also urged caution against “worst-case thinking”, noting tension between major nuclear powers over disarmament.

 A commercial satellite photo taken Monday over northwestern China shows what experts say is a construction site for a new silo for a nuclear-tipped ICBM - Planet/Center for Nonproliferation Studies
A commercial satellite photo taken Monday over northwestern China shows what experts say is a construction site for a new silo for a nuclear-tipped ICBM - Planet/Center for Nonproliferation Studies

“We believe China is expanding its nuclear forces in part to maintain a deterrent that can survive a US first strike in sufficient numbers to defeat US missile defences,” US nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis told the Washington Post, which first reported the existence of the silos. The images were taken by commercial company, Planet.

The scale of the build up is "incredible", Mr Lewis said.

Earlier this year the head of US nuclear forces warned of an “breathtaking expansion” of Chinese nuclear capabilities, which they said was of great concern amid worsening relations between Washington and Beijing.

It came as Xi Jinping, China’s leader, on Thursday threatened to “bash the heads” of any foreign powers that try to bully Beijing.

“We will never allow any foreign power to bully, oppress or subjugate us,” Mr Xi declared in a speech to celebrate the ruling Communist Party’s centenary.

 Researchers using commercial satellite images spotted 119 construction sites - Planet/Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Researchers using commercial satellite images spotted 119 construction sites - Planet/Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Global criticism is growing over China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and concerns abound about the health of its economy, the world’s second-largest.

Still, Mr Xi’s remarks were defiant and foreboding, saying “China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party.”

He extended “sincere greetings to compariots in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan special administrative regions,” a departure from how Taiwan is usually referenced, in a translation of his remarks.

Taiwan, an island with its own democratic government, military, currency and foreign policy, has long been regarded by Beijing as a renegade province. Chinese military incursions into Taiwanese airspace and waters have ramped up lately, fueling worries that Mr Xi will use force to bring the island to heel.

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