China won’t hear suggestions that it’s a disarmament slacker

by Michael Richardson

SINGAPORE — As the only country to have been attacked with atomic bombs, Japan has been a leader in the campaign for nuclear disarmament since the end of the Second World War.

However, when Japan’s Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada called on China the other day to join the United States and Russia in cutting its nuclear arsenal and suggested that Beijing was failing to keep its promise to disarm, his comments drew a sharp rebuke.

A spokesman in Beijing said May 17 that China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, at a meeting with Okada in South Korea, had immediately rebutted such “irresponsible” remarks, pointing out that China was the only nuclear-weapons state that undertakes not to be the first to use nuclear arms and not to use or threaten to use them against nonnuclear- weapons states or zones established by treaty to be free of nuclear weapons.

One of these zones covers the South Pacific and includes Australia. Another zone covers Southeast Asia. In fact, four of the world’s five nuclear-weapons-free zones — in which countries commit themselves not to develop, possess or test nuclear arms — span almost the entire Southern Hemisphere.

The spokesman added that China would “continue to keep its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security.” The Japanese and Australian foreign ministers had agreed in March to develop a package of proposals for the international conference in New York this month that is reviewing the future of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

One proposal calls on all states possessing such weapons to make an early commitment to cut, or at least not increase, their arsenals and to agree to reduce the role of nuclear arms in their security strategies.

The U.S. and Russia have recently done this. They signed a pact last month to limit their deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, 30 percent fewer than the limit set in a 2002 treaty.

Afterward, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said other nuclear states should do more to follow their lead. The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review in April urged greater “transparency” from China.

As the top nuclear powers take steps to cut their arsenals, it is throwing the spotlight on lesser powers, particularly China. The Arms Control Association in Washington estimates that China, with about 240 operational warheads, now has the fourth-biggest arsenal of the nine countries known to have nuclear weapons.

The ACA puts France, with fewer than 300 warheads, in third position after the U.S. and Russia. Britain is fifth, with less than 160. Israel is estimated to have between 75 and 200 nuclear weapons, India up to 100, and Pakistan between 70 and 90, while North Korea has separated enough plutonium for up to 12 warheads.

China has a point when it emphasizes the implications of its pledge never to use nuclear arms unless another country uses them against China first. It means that the world’s most populous nation must have an effective deterrent and that the only way to achieve this is to ensure that Chinese nuclear forces can survive a first strike and retaliate in a devastating counterattack.

Yet until quite recently, China lacked a credible second-strike capability. It is now in the midst of modernizing the main means of delivering its nuclear warheads, by long-range ballistic missiles. It is also developing a new force of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to launch warheads while submerged at sea.

Both the mobile land-based launchers and the Jin-class subs, each carrying 12 JL-2 nuclear-tipped missiles, are much more difficult to detect and strike than their predecessors.

The Pentagon, in its most recent assessment of Chinese military power, concluded that while U.S. strategic forces still far outnumber those of China, the latter would be able to “inflict significant damage on most large American cities with these survivable systems.”

The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) said in a report last August that the missile-armed Jin subs gave the Chinese navy “its first credible second-strike nuclear capability.”

However, China only has three operational Jin subs, according to the ONI. Britain bases it nuclear deterrent on four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and China is expected add several more Jins to its fleet.

By contrast, both the U.S. and Russia rely on a triad of systems to deliver their nuclear weapons. They include nuclear weapons launched from aircraft, as well as land- and sea-based missiles. A key question is whether and where China will draw the line in building a modern and very expensive nuclear arsenal. This may depend not just on further U.S. and Russian cuts to their arsenals but also on what other nuclear-armed states, including India, decide to do, and whether Iran and perhaps other countries get deliverable nuclear weapons.

China has also expressed concern about the potential of U.S. and other antiballistic missile systems to negate its second-strike capability.

In a commentary earlier this month, Xu Guangyu, a researcher in China’s Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said that calculating the number of nuclear weapons required for a sufficient deterrent was complicated.

He added that although for the foreseeable future China would keep limited nuclear forces, “it does not intend to use nuclear power to seek regional or global hegemony.” Yet some opponents of the U.S.-Russia nuclear deal in Congress have said the proposed bilateral arsenal cuts could allow China to “sprint to parity” with America and Russia in nuclear weapons.

China and the four other official nuclear powers — the U.S., Russia, France and Britain — clearly need to find new ways of building confidence among themselves.

They must also convince other countries that they mean what they say about capping and then cutting their nuclear arsenals.

Michael Richardson is visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.