July 15, 2005 7:50 pm

Beijing plays down general's threats

Beijing on Friday distanced itself from comments by a senior Chinese general that China could use nuclear weapons against the US in the event of any military conflict with America over Taiwan. “What he talked about were just his personal views,” said Shen Guofang, an assistant minister of foreign affairs.

In an interview with foreign reporters in Beijing on Thursday, Major General Zhu Chenghu, who is also a dean at China’s National Defence University, said Beijing should respond with nuclear weapons if the US targeted Chinese territory. “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all cities east of Xian [in central China], he said. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”

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Taiwan on Friday criticised his remarks but steered clear of blaming the Chinese government. Michael You, vice-chairman of the mainland affairs council, Taipei's cabinet-level China policy body, said: “The statement reveals the ferocious face of the hawks in China. It should be condemned and the person making it should apologise.”

Chinese government officials emphasised that Gen Zhu's remarks were seen as a minority opinion and being the first to use nuclear weapons would contradict Beijing's military strategy.

Gen Zhu, who is understood to have made similar comments in the past, said his remarks were his personal opinion and not government policy. But his comments come at a sensitive time for US-China military relations.

The Pentagon is next week expected to release its annual report on the Chinese military, which is likely to take a more hardline stance than previous years. A string of US officials have raised concerns about the rise of the Chinese military recently. Gen Zhu's comments are also likely to further inflame anti-China sentiment in Washington. Lawmakers have complained of unfair trade practices, allegations of currency manipulation, and opposition to a bid by CNOOC, a state-owned Chinese oil company, for US-owned Unocal.

“This one sentence from a PRC general has probably nuked any remaining possibility that CNOOC will succeed in its bid for Unocal,” said Andy Rothman, a China strategist with CLSA, a brokerage, in Shanghai.

Some Washington analysts caution that Gen Zhu's comments should not be read as official Chinese policy. But Michael O'Hanlon, defence analyst at the Brookings Institution, said Gen Zhu stated a reality that cannot be ignored. “He was right on the merits, but as a policy statement it was a stupid thing to say.” Mr Shen played down any conflict with the US emerging over Taiwan, saying Washington had consistently recognised Beijing's claim to sovereignty over the island.

“We don't wish to see any dispute or disagreement between the US and China, or any scenario of conflict with the US,” he said.

China has long vowed to retake Taiwan by force, should its government declare formal independence from Beijing, a scenario under which the US may use its military to defend the island from attacks.

Mr Zhu's claim that China might destroy hundreds of US cities might be beyond the capability of the country's nuclear forces at the moment, according to a paper published last month by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Quoting “the intelligence community”, the paper said China would increase its strategic nuclear warheads from “18 to 75-100” over the next 15 years, primarily targeted against the US.

Additional reporting by Kathrin Hille in Taipei

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