By: Our Correspondent

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.