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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

China: No Limit To Nuclear Expansion

Philip Dorling [The Age, Australia]

High-ranking Chinese officials have declared that there can be no limit to the expansion of Beijing's nuclear arsenal, amid growing regional fears that it will eventually equal that of the United States, with profound consequences for the strategic balance in Asia.

Records of secret defence consultations between the US and China reveal that US diplomats have repeatedly failed to persuade the rising superpower to be more transparent about its nuclear forces and that Chinese officials privately admit that a desire for military advantage underpins continuing secrecy.

According to US diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and provided exclusively to The Age, the deputy chief of China's People's Liberation Army General Staff, Ma Xiaotian, told US Defence and State Department officials in June 2008 that the growth of China's nuclear forces was an ''imperative reality'' and there could be "no limit on technical progress''.
Rejecting American calls for China to reveal the size of its nuclear capabilities, Lieutenant-General Ma bluntly declared: ''It is impossible for [China] to change its decades-old way of doing business to become transparent using the US model.''

While claiming in a further July 2009 discussion that Beijing's nuclear posture has "always been defensive'' and that China would "never enter into a nuclear arms race", General Ma acknowledged that, "frankly speaking, there are areas of China's nuclear program that are not very transparent''.

China's assistant foreign minister He Yafei similarly told US officials in June 2008 that there will be an ''inevitable and natural extension'' of Chinese military power and that China ''cannot accept others setting limits on our capabilities''.

Other leaked US cables reveal Japan fears China's nuclear arsenal will grow to equal that of the US, and Tokyo has urged Washington to retain strong nuclear capabilities to deter an "increasingly bold" China from ''doing something stupid".

In top-level nuclear policy consultations in June 2009, senior Japanese Defence Ministry officials told US representatives that Tokyo's assessment was that "China is rapidly upgrading its nuclear capability beyond its relatively insignificant levels from the 1980s and the 1990s, and is trying to reach parity with Russia and the US''.

"China is displaying newfound confidence in its military capabilities and is visibly showing its strength in the region, particularly with respect to the [Japanese] Senkakus [island group],'' Japan-US Defence Co-operation director Kiyoshi Serizawa told US diplomats.

A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official also warned that China's "troubling" nuclear build-up had to be viewed in the context of its other activities, including its 2007 anti-satellite test, cyber-attacks and growing naval capabilities.

"If China perceives the United States having difficulty accessing the region, it is more likely to do something stupid,'' said Japan-US Security Treaty Division senior co-ordinator Yusuke Arai.

In a separate discussion with US envoys, Japanese Defence Ministry officials expressed concern the Obama administration's plan to negotiate a cut in nuclear forces with Russia would encourage China's nuclear build-up. A senior Japanese official said that while China had declared a ''no first-use'' nuclear weapons posture, "no nuclear expert believes this is true''.

US and Japanese officials agreed that the opaque nature of China's nuclear build-up was troubling, and the Japanese stressed that close co-ordination was "critical" before any US decisions on "deep cuts" in nuclear weapons talks with Russia.

But after the release of the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review in early 2010, the US and Russia signed a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty on April 8 to halve their nuclear arsenals to 1550 strategic weapons over the next seven years.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates China has up to 90 intercontinental ballistic missiles (66 land-based and 24 submarine-launched) and more than 400 intermediate range missiles targeting Taiwan and Japan. The US intelligence community predicts that by the mid-2020s, China could double the number of warheads on missiles capable of threatening the US.

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