The Dragon’s Claws

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Melbourne’s The Age newspaper reveals that high-ranking Chinese officials insist there can be no limit to the expansion of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal.

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. Chinese officials, meanwhile, privately admit that a desire for military advantage underpins continuing secrecy.

This is amidst growing regional fears that it will eventually equal that of the United States, with profound consequences for Asia’s strategic balance.

According to US diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, the deputy chief of China’s People’s Liberation Army General Staff, Ma Xiaotian, told US Defense 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”.

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 coordinator Yusuke Arai.

A senior Japanese official said that while China had declared a ”no first-use” nuclear weapons posture, “no nuclear expert believes this is true”. 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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