China struggles with stance on nuclear power as summit nears

By John Pomfret
Monday, March 29, 2010

BEIJING -- Two weeks before the United States hosts a summit on nuclear security, one of its most important invitees, China, has yet to RSVP.

Chinese President Hu Jintao will be in the neighborhood for a meeting in Brazil three days after the Washington summit is scheduled to end April 13. But China's coyness in accepting an invitation that went out to the leaders of more than 40 countries reflects an uncertainty about how to deal with the Obama administration's call for a nuclear-weapons-free world and its role as a rising nuclear power, even while the United States and Russia move to cut their nuclear stocks, according to Chinese government sources and Western analysts.

Officials in Washington had assumed that China would not participate in the summit as punishment for a $6.4 billion U.S. weapons sale to Taiwan that was announced in January. But some U.S. officials and analysts say China's failure to announce its intentions suggests that the government is trying to figure out how it can take part.

"China is going to have to weigh its desire to punish the United States with its own desire to send a signal to the world that they are a responsible player that need not be viewed as threatening," said Christopher P. Twomey, an expert on China's nuclear strategy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

China is also concerned that developments in Washington could make its participation in the summit politically difficult at home. First, China is sensitive about how the Obama administration will describe it in the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review, which is expected before the start of the summit. China was named as a targeted country in a leaked portion of the last report in 2001.

China also wants to ensure that the Treasury Department does not brand it a currency manipulator in a report due to Congress by April 15. The Obama administration has called on China to allow its currency, the yuan, to appreciate against the dollar to help right a huge trade imbalance between the two countries.

Being named a currency manipulator "would be a big loss of face for President Hu if he attends the meeting," said a Chinese government source with knowledge of the discussions surrounding the upcoming summit.

China's interest in the nuclear summit has increased since the United States and Russia announced last week that they had agreed to reduce their limits on deployed long-range nuclear warheads by 30 percent, to 1,550 each.

"China has been actively participating in the preparatory work of the Nuclear Security Summit, and I believe China will send a delegation to the summit," said Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "But it's not decided yet as to who will head the Chinese delegation."

China has a good story to tell when it comes to nuclear security.

An upcoming report by the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute identified China's nuclear weapons storage site deep inside Shaanxi's Qinling mountain range. The report, by Mark Stokes, a former U.S. defense attaché in Beijing, concluded that the storage center is perhaps one of the most secure nuclear weapons stockpile facilities in the world, the Defense News reported this month.

China is also involved in projects with the United States to improve security at its civilian nuclear power plants, according to Linton Brooks, former head of the National Nuclear Security Administration. Brooks described that cooperation as "fairly extensive."

But China seems unsure about how to engage other countries in a discussion with respect to its nuclear weapons strategy. Unlike the United States and Russia, China has little experience in arms control talks. It has conducted one discussion of its nuclear strategy with the United States -- a meeting in April 2008 between experts from the People's Liberation Army and the Defense Department in Washington.

China canceled subsequent meetings after the Bush administration sold weapons to Taiwan in October 2008. China has since rebuffed Obama administration attempts to resume the dialogue. And despite repeated invitations, the head of China's strategic forces has never been to the United States, preferring such places as Bulgaria.

Li Bin, director of the Arms Control Program and deputy director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, said China is not reluctant to talk about its nuclear strategy. It's just that China's strategy, he said, needs little explanation: Beijing has declared that it won't use nuclear weapons first. But most Western analysts and officials do not take that stance seriously.

"On one hand, the Western experts tell us not to abandon no-first use," Li said. "On the other, they say it's not credible. We can never win."

Compared with the United States and Russia, China has a tiny nuclear arsenal. It probably has less than 100 delivery systems and an estimated total of 800 warheads, experts say. The United States has more than 2,000 deployed long-range warheads and an estimated 5,000 working warheads.

Nonetheless, the U.S.-Russian deal comes at a time when China is modernizing and increasing the scale of its nuclear arsenal, Twomey said. China has deployed a new mobile rocket called the DF-31A that can reach anywhere in the United States. China is beginning to put to sea a genuine sea-based deterrent in the form of the Jin-class nuclear submarine armed with a variant of the DF-31.

Twomey said the United States is concerned that as it and Russia decrease their forces, China might attempt a "rush to parity" by building more Jin-class submarines or by placing multiple warheads on their land-based mobile missiles. That would make future arms control measures in the United States almost impossible.

Twomey and Chinese officials said there is a growing realization in China that the longer it waits to engage the United States on the nuclear issue, the more difficult it will be to affect the rules being hammered out between Moscow and Washington.

Another conundrum for China is deciding which official, if not Hu, to send to the summit in Washington.

Hu is the only member of the Communist Party's all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo who sits on the Central Military Commission. His apparent successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, did not get on the military commission in the last round of promotions, so he probably wouldn't be asked.

Premier Wen Jiabao could go; he has no military experience but does chair the National Energy Commission. However, it would be unusual for both leaders to be in the Americas at essentially the same time.

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