BEIJING (AP) -- China strictly adheres to its policy of no first use of nuclear weapons "at any time and under any circumstances," its Defense Ministry said Tuesday in a scathing response to a U.S. report alleging a major buildup in Beijing's nuclear capabilities.
The Pentagon last week released an annual China security report that warned Beijing would likely have 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, and that it has provided no clarity on how it plans to use them.
That report "distorts China's national defense policy and military strategy, makes groundless speculation about China's military development and grossly interferes in China's internal affairs on the issue of Taiwan," ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei said in a statement.
Tan accused the U.S. of being the "biggest troublemaker and destroyer of world peace and stability," and repeated that Beijing has never renounced the use of force to conquer self-governing Taiwan, a U.S. ally that China considers part of its territory.
Tan did not directly address the report's allegations about a Chinese nuclear buildup, but blamed the U.S. for raising nuclear tensions, particularly with its plan to help Australia build a fleet of submarines powered by U.S. nuclear technology, which the French president has described as a "confrontation with China."
Australia has said it will not seek to arm the submarines with nuclear weapons. Tan also accused the U.S. of having the world's largest nuclear arsenal, although that title is actually held by Russia, a close Chinese military, economic and diplomatic partner.
As of 2022, Russia possesses a total of 5,977 nuclear warheads compared to 5,428 in the U.S. inventory, according to the Federation of American Scientists. China currently has 350 nuclear warheads, according to the federation.
China has long adhered to what it calls a purely defensive national security strategy, including a claim that it will never be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. That stance has frequently been challenged at home and abroad, particularly if it comes to a confrontation over Taiwan.
"What needs to be emphasized is that China firmly pursues the nuclear strategy of self-defense and defense, always adheres to the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and maintains its nuclear force at the minimum level required for national security," Tan said in the statement, which was posted on the ministry's website.
His remarks came days after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. is at a pivotal point with China and will need military strength to ensure that American values, not Beijing's, set global norms in the 21st century.
Austin's speech Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum capped a week in which the Pentagon was squarely focused on China's rise and what that might mean for America's position in the world.
China "is the only country with both the will and, increasingly, the power to reshape its region and the international order to suit its authoritarian preferences," Austin said. "So let me be clear: We will not let that happen."
Austin was on hand Friday for a dramatic nighttime rollout of the U.S. military's newest nuclear stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, which is being designed to beat the quickly growing cyber, space and nuclear capabilities of Beijing.
The bomber is part of a major China-centric nuclear overhaul underway that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated will cost $1.2 trillion through 2046.
Already-tense relations between Washington and Beijing soured even more in August when U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. China responded by firing missiles over the island and holding wargames in what was seen as a rehearsal for a possible blockade of the island.
While the U.S. and Taiwan have no formal diplomatic relations in deference to Beijing, the U.S. maintains informal relations and defense ties with Taiwan, along with a policy of "strategic ambiguity" over whether the U.S. would respond militarily if the island were attacked.
Despite some moves to improve relations, China has shown an increasingly hard line on military affairs. Following a rare meeting last month between Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, the Chinese side issued a statement saying, "The responsibility for the current situation facing China-U.S. relations is on the U.S. side, not on the Chinese side."
In his remarks on Taiwan, Tan warned that, "The Chinese military has the confidence and capability to thwart any external interference and separatist plots for 'Taiwan independence' and realize the complete reunification of the motherland."