In a September 4 statement, the White House refuted reports that it plans to consent to Chinese strategic modernization efforts in exchange for muted Chinese opposition to U.S. missile defense plans. Instead, the Bush administration says that it will repeat assurances that its missile defense plans pose no threat to Beijing and argue that Chinese modernization plans are unwarranted.
The Bush administration’s statement came two days after newspapers, quoting unnamed senior administration officials, reported that Washington would not object to a buildup of China’s nuclear forces and would discuss the possibility of both nations resuming nuclear testing, in exchange for China dropping its objections to U.S. missile defense plans.
The reports elicited a wave of criticism, and Bush officials quickly backed away from the statements. In the September 4 release, the White House declared, “The United States will not seek to overcome China’s opposition to missile defense by telling the Chinese that we do not object to an expansion of their nuclear ballistic missile force.” The statement continued, “Nor will we acquiesce in any resumption of nuclear testing by China.”
Resumed nuclear testing might enable China to build new and smaller warheads, potentially increasing the possibility Beijing could field missiles with multiple, independently targeted warheads.
Both the United States and China have signed but not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bars countries from conducting nuclear test explosions. Although the Republican-led Senate rejected giving its advice and consent to the treaty in October 1999 and the Bush administration has said it will not ask the Senate to revisit its decision, the White House declared September 4, “We are respecting the nuclear testing moratorium and all other nations should as well.”
Chinese officials have acknowledged the conflicting reports but have said that Beijing has yet to receive formal U.S. proposals on the issues and is awaiting a bilateral dialogue. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao added September 4, “We believe that what is urgent at the moment is to work for the early coming in force of the CTBT.”
Chinese officials also reiterated that their opposition to U.S. missile defense plans remains unchanged. Speaking September 18 in Washington, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Chinese Embassy He Yafei argued that U.S. missile defense plans would destabilize international security and spark a new round of arms races.
Although China has been as outspoken as Russia in its opposition to U.S. missile defense plans, the Bush administration has publicly paid far less attention to Beijing’s concerns, which it contends are misplaced. The administration argues that only countries harboring hostile intent toward the United States or its allies need to worry about U.S. missile defenses. Even though it is exploring a layered defense system of sea-, air-, ground-, and space-based missile interceptors and lasers, Washington has described its future defenses as being limited, capable of intercepting only handfuls of missiles.
But China, which possesses approximately 20 ballistic missiles capable of striking the continental United States, fears that even a limited U.S. defense would negate its nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis the United States. Zhu said China would need to “ensure the effectiveness of China’s nuclear forces” in response to a U.S. missile defense, while Chinese President Jiang Zemin told The New York Times in an August interview that China “would increase” its “defense capability in keeping with the development of the international situation.” President George W. Bush will meet with Jiang for the first time at the October 20-21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in Shanghai.
Bush administration officials, particularly Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have repeatedly downplayed predictions that China will increase its nuclear arsenal in response to a U.S. defense, contending that Beijing already has a modernization plan underway. Yet critics of the administration’s missile defense plans, such as Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), argue that China would react to U.S. missile defenses by accelerating and expanding its nuclear buildup, potentially causing India and Pakistan to do likewise.