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Chinese military threatens nuclear war against the United States over Taiwan

In a briefing organized by a private Hong Kong organization, the Better Hong Kong Foundation, on July 15, 2005, Zhu Chenghu, a Major General and Dean at China’s National Defense University, told reporters that China could use nuclear weapons to attack the United States in any conflict arising over Taiwan.

“If Americans aim their missiles and position-guided ammunition on a target zone in China’s territory, I think we would have to respond with nuclear weapons,” said Zhu, “We ... would prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian. Of course the Americans would have to be prepared that hundreds ... of cities would be destroyed by the Chinese.”

Zhu’s comments, published by the Financial Times and the Asian Wall Street Journal, triggered an immediate alarm in Washington. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, “I haven’t seen all the remarks, but from what I’ve seen of them, I’ll say that they’re irresponsible.”

Although Zhu had stressed that he was expressing his own views, not that of official policy, and that he did not anticipate a conflict with Washington, analysts usually regard such views coming from an influential professor in the Army as a voice from the government. It’s very rare that a Chinese military general would take the liberty to publicly express such a sensitive argument.

The Chinese government didn’t back off from the claim either. The Chinese foreign ministry said that Beijing has repeatedly made clear that “properly handling the Taiwan issue is crucial to the healthy and stable development of China-U.S. ties,” the Xinhua News Agency quoted a spokesman as saying.

As a matter of fact, Zhu is not the first to threaten the United States with nuclear weapon attacks. Choosing newspapers outside the mainland to publish the news draws much more serious attention from the world.

Prior to Zhu’s comments, many pro-Chinese government websites were circulating a headline article published by the Chinese Weekly of Extensive Military Knowledge, a top military newspaper sponsored by the People’s Liberation Army, with similar messages, but it was receiving little attention by the international media.

The article, entitled “United States will suffer severe attack,” claimed that, if the United States “dared to stand in the way” of China’s unification of Taiwan, China would for sure use nuclear weapons. It also said that for the sake of national interest, China was “fully prepared to engage in a nuclear war with the United States.”

The article also expressed that “China is not Yugoslavia, nor Iraq either; [China] is a current ‘well-known strong military country’ that has ‘incomparable potential in war,’ as well as missiles and nuclear weapons that can directly attack the U.S. homeland.”

“Once the United States were to get involved in Taiwan, the ‘nuclear-non-diffusion’ agreement would be nullified, and China and the United States will become ‘enemies.’

“China had expressed a long time ago that if the United States were going to put Taiwan into the Theater Missile Defense system, it would mean that the United States would destroy the mechanism of missile technology control. This could result in the acquisition of China’s nuclear missile technology by Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Consequently, the United States would face a severe global threat.”

For many years, the Chinese Communist government has maintained its official “we will not use it first” nuclear policy. Zhu’s speech signals a change in the strategic military policy. A decade ago, the Chinese missiles were not advanced enough to cause significant causality to the U.S. mainland. Chinese nuclear weapons were therefore only enough to serve as a retaliation strike. With technology advancement, the Chinese army is now capable of launching a nuclear strike against the U.S. major cities. Altering its strategic policy on the use of its nuclear weapons can help China compete with the United States; the latter has a formidable military capability for conventional war.

In March, China passed an “Anti-Secession” law legitimizing the use of force against Taiwan’s independence activities, which already triggered concerns in Washington. Conventionally, it was assumed that a non-nuclear strike might be used if the United States intervened against China’s invasion of Taiwan. Now, a threat of using nuclear weapons against U.S. major cities in case of a U.S. intervention, certainly complicates the calculation. In China, such hawkish moves are often used to boost patriotic nationalism in order to draw attention away from more pressing issues (domestically or internationally), or to emphasize the authority of the current leadership.

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