WikiLeaks Fears Over Chinese Nukes

Top 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 US-China defence consultations, leaked to WikiLeaks and provided to Asia Sentinel, have revealed that US diplomats have repeatedly failed to persuade the rising Asian superpower to be more transparent about its nuclear forces and Chinese officials have privately acknowledged a desire for military advantage underpins continuing secrecy.

According to the US diplomatic cables, 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 that 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 in nature and that China would "never enter into a nuclear arms race," Ma acknowledged that "frankly speaking, there are areas of China's nuclear program that are not very transparent." However in order to maximise the effectiveness of its nuclear forces Ma reiterated that "China must limit transparency regarding its nuclear facilities, the nature of its weapons systems, and its force structure."

Assistant Chinese Foreign Minister He Yafei similarly told US officials in June 2008 that nuclear transparency was "a sensitive issue" and that "now is not the time for China to tell others what we have." He added 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 that Japan fears that China's nuclear arsenal will eventually 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 United States."

"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 Cooperation Director Kiyoshi Serizawa told US diplomats. Serizawa warned that China was "making 'step-by-step' overtures toward claiming the islands."

Similarly a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official warned that China's "troubling" nuclear build-up had to be viewed in context of other Chinese 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,' Japan-US Security Treaty Division senior coordinator Yusuke Arai said.

In a separate discussion with US diplomats, senior Japanese Defence Ministry officials expressed concern that the Obama Administration's intention to negotiate with Russia deep cuts in nuclear forces would encourage China's nuclear build up.

Defence Policy Bureau Director-General Nobushige Takamizawa claimed that comments by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates' during the 2009 International Institute for Security Studies' Asia Security Summit in Singapore -- the Shangri-La Dialogue – on the need for the US and Russia to reduce their respective nuclear arsenals "gave the impression that the United States considered China's nuclear force as small enough not to warrant halting its build-up, thus 'encouraging' China to continue to increase its nuclear arsenal."

"Given that Japan has consistently urged China to decrease its nuclear weapons, China and other Shangri-La Dialogue participants would have interpreted the Secretary's comments as indicative of a gap in positions between the United States and Japan. General Ma Xiaotian, People's Liberation Army Deputy Chief of the General Staff, appeared to be genuinely 'happy' with Secretary Gates' comments," Takamizawa asserted.

In the same discussion, another senior Japanese Defence official warned that while China had long declared a "no first use" nuclear weapons posture, "no nuclear expert believes this is true."

The Japanese Foreign Ministry also highlighted what the Japanese government considered "desired" characteristics for US nuclear strike capabilities: "flexible - credible - prompt - discriminating and selective - stealthy and also demonstrable - sufficient to dissuade others."

Both US and Japanese officials agreed that the opaque nature of China's nuclear build-up was troubling and the Japanese underscored that close US-Japan coordination was "critical" before to any US decisions on "deep cuts" in nuclear weapons talks with Russia.

"Japan basically welcomes nuclear arms reduction by the United States and Russia, but the two governments need to be cognizant of China's expanding and modernizing nuclear capabilities," the US Embassy in Tokyo reported to Washington, adding that Japanese officials had emphasised that "the foundation of Japan's national security rests on the credibility of US extended deterrence."

Following the release of the Obama Administration's Nuclear Posture Review early last year, the US and Russia signed a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty on April 8, 2010, in which Washington and Moscow agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals by half, to 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons, over the next seven years.

The International Institute of Strategic Studies estimates China currently has up to 90 inter-continental range ballistic missiles - 66 land-based ICBMs and 24 submarine launched ballistic missiles – together with more than 400 intermediate range missiles targeting Taiwan and Japan. Similar estimates were published in the US Defence Department's 2010 report to Congress on Chinese military power – though it was estimated that the number of short to medium range missiles available to target Taiwan and Japan could exceed 1500. According to media reports the US intelligence community predicts that by the mid-2020s, China could more than double the number of warheads on missiles capable of threatening the United States.

Owing to the great sensitivity of the subject, the US and Japanese Governments agreed that they would not publicly release any details of their June 2009 nuclear consultations.

Other leaked US diplomatic cables reveal that Beijing has offered some assurances about the safety and security of its nuclear forces with the China's strategic nuclear and conventional missile force commander, Second Artillery General Jing Zhiyuan telling a US congressional delegation in August 2007 that an unauthorized or accidental launch of a nuclear weapon was "definitely impossible."

General Jing explained that China nuclear weapons were subject to strict monitoring and direct control by China's Central Military Commission. He cited as a personal example "that even as the Second Artillery commander, he has to apply for access to launch facilities and be escorted by his staff."

Asked about the hundreds of conventionally armed ballistic missiles China has deployed along its southeast coast opposite Taiwan, General Jing asserted China's longstanding position that Taiwan is part of China and claimed that "the deployment of these conventional missiles is not targeted at 'our Taiwan compatriots' or other countries ... These missiles target independence forces."

Another version of this story appeared in the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.