Is China Rattling Nuclear Sabres over Shangri-la?

June 6, 2014
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

On 5 June 2014 Chinascope.org, “a media research entity that gathers, translates, and periodically analyzes Chinese-language media reporting,” posted a commentary on an editorial by Chu Shulong, a well-known Chinese scholar of international relations. The commentary claims the Tsinghua University professor calls “for China to maximally increase its nuclear deterrence against the U.S. and Japan.”

That’s a bit of an exaggeration.

Chu’s editorial is a long-winded, angry response to U.S. Secretary of Defense Hagel’s speech at the recently concluded IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore. The title doesn’t mention nuclear weapons at all, but calls on China to “Quickly Improve Air-Sea Strength in Response to Japan-U.S. Provocations.” The bulk of the text is a blustery fusillade of historical reminders, criticisms and denunciations aimed at the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia that closes by reminding readers,

“China did not succumb to U.S. provocations and threats during the Korean War and the Vietnam War when it was farther behind, and today and tomorrow should be better prepared to respond to U.S. and Japanese provocations, threats and attacks against China in the East Sea, South Sea and Western Pacific.”

But buried in the concluding paragraphs, after stating that China should quickly correct weaknesses in its air and sea defenses, is the following single-sentence reference to Chinese nuclear weapons.

“同时,还要最大限度地提升导弹、核武器等战略威慑能力,防止美国对中国更大规模的威胁和讹诈.”

Chinascope translated it as,

At the same time, [we] should also maximally increase the strategic deterrent capability of our missiles and nuclear weapons, in order to defend against the U.S.’ threats and blackmail on a larger scale.”

I would translate it somewhat differently.

At the same time, [we] should, to the greatest degree, improve the strategic deterrent capability of missiles, nuclear weapons, etc., and prevent greater U.S. threats and blackmail against China.”

The differences are minor but significant. Improving the strategic deterrent capability of China’s small nuclear arsenal does not necessarily imply “maximally increasing” its size. China has been working steadily to bolster the credibility of its ability to retaliate from a nuclear attack for many decades, and Chu may simply be calling on his government to accelerate that effort. It is unlikely that the Tsinghua professor is recommending a massive Chinese nuclear build-up. It is worth noting this is not the first time his comments on Chinese nuclear weapons policy have been misconstrued by the U.S. media.

 

Posted in: China, Nuclear Weapons

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Gregory Kulacki is an expert on cross-cultural communication between the United States and China. Since joining UCS in 2002, he has promoted dialogue between experts from both countries on nuclear arms control and space security.