Nuclear frisson

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 April, 2010, 12:00am

The world should feel a little safer this month, after the nuclear security summit called by US President Barack Obama in Washington, which was attended by representatives from 47 countries. The summit itself was preceded by the signing of a new US-Russia arms-control agreement, under which each country agreed to cut the number of its deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550.

Washington also unveiled a new policy in its quadrennial Nuclear Posture Review, in which it pledged not to conduct nuclear strikes against non-nuclear states even if it was first attacked with biological or chemical weapons. This was a significant departure from its previous position.

China's nuclear arsenal is much smaller than those of the United States and Russia. However, in its review, Washington said that both the US and China's Asian neighbours 'remain concerned about China's current military modernisation efforts' in view of 'the lack of transparency surrounding its nuclear programmes'. China quickly disputed the charge. Asked about the document, a Foreign Ministry spokesman declared: 'China's nuclear policy has been consistent, unequivocal and transparent.'

Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai pointed out that China's nuclear policy had remained unchanged for almost half a century and should not be cause for suspicion. 'We have since the 1960s repeatedly stressed our position on this issue,' he said. 'It has not changed.'

On the face of it, that is true. China conducted its first atomic bomb test in 1964 and, the next day, then-premier Zhou Enlai sent telegrams to all world leaders saying: 'The Chinese government declares solemnly: at any time and under any situation, China will not use nuclear weapons first.' This message has since been reiterated on many occasions, including this month by President Hu Jintao in Washington.

But what about Zhu Chenghu? 'Zhu Cheng who?' you ask. Why, he was the senior military officer who, in 2005, told me and other members of a media delegation organised by the Better Hong Kong Foundation that Beijing would use nuclear weapons first against the United States if war ever broke out between the two over Taiwan. I was shocked to hear him say this since it directly contradicted China's stated no-first-use policy.

He said China could not possibly win a conventional war with the US and so would have to resort to nuclear weapons. But, I thought to myself, did Beijing think it could win a nuclear exchange?

It didn't quite make sense to me. What he said was promptly reported by members of the media delegation even though he asked them at the end of his presentation not to file reports. But the reporters would not go along: after all, their tape recorders and notebooks were clearly visible during his presentation and they felt the rules should not be changed at the end of the game.

Moreover, his remarks were startling: the Chinese would 'prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian 'and, in return, 'the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese'.

What he said is now part of the record. A leading Chinese military official - a major general who at the time was dean of the Defence Affairs Institute of China's National Defence University of the People's Liberation Army - had openly said Beijing would be the first to use nuclear weapons.

The fact that these things were being said by someone who was teaching at the National Defence University suggests that other military officers were thinking similar thoughts. Certainly, it is not enough today to say that, just because Beijing has always said it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, the rest of the world must believe it.

China has still not explained why its stated policy says one thing and a senior military officer can say something totally different. Unless there is some clarification, there are bound to be questions, perhaps unspoken, about China's real intentions and policies.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator