Use China's Bomb Test to Start New Talks
CHINA'S 40th nuclear test held on June 10 exploded with a bizarre 100-kiloton silence. Long anticipated, the test was lost amid the crisis in North Korea. The United States responded by simply declaring that it ``deeply regrets this action.''Skip to next paragraph
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Washington must seize the occasion of the latest test as an opportunity to engage Beijing about its nuclear testing and general nonproliferation concerns.
Beijing has been clear about both its intention to sign a comprehensive test ban treaty when completed in 1995 or `96 and its plans to continue testing in the interim. Establishing a dialogue on nuclear-testing issues would reinforce China's support for a permanent test ban and possibly curtail its future plans to test by convincing Beijing that its testing goals should reflect its responsibilities as a nuclear power.
To be sure, this ``nuclear dialogue'' must be coupled with stern reproach concerning the irresponsible timing of the June 10 test. Conducting a nuclear explosion in the middle of the post-cold-war nonproliferation crisis in Korea sends exactly the wrong message to Pyongyang, namely that nuclear weapons are so vital to a nation's security that China, North Korea's last major ally, must upgrade and expand its arsenal while others dismantle.
The primary function of China's nuclear-testing program is to develop smaller, higher-explosive-yield, and more-accurate warheads, which are needed for a set of more-advanced ``second generation'' ballistic missiles under development. These new missiles would replace outdated models, some of which have been deployed for over 20 years.
China is investing in these new missiles to provide a more reliable and survivable (i.e. less vulnerable to enemy targeting) nuclear missile force. Since the more advanced missiles are all solid-fueled and road-mobile (not liquid-fueled or stationary), they can be moved and launched more quickly than their predecessors.
Given the low technological base of China's current missile force, these missile-warhead modernization plans that rely on nuclear tests do not drastically increase China's future nuclear capabilities. The majority of China's new nuclear missiles will have the same range, meaning China cannot add new targets, and will have smaller payloads, which forsakes the ``flexible response'' option since such miniature warheads are only good for nuclear, not conventional, munitions, unlike their forerunners.
Thus, China's nuclear renovation efforts aim to develop a more reliable second-strike, retaliatory nuclear force, not a first-strike capability to attack several targets on a moment's notice, as some argue. Indeed, China has always been at the forefront of advocating ``no first use'' pledges by all nuclear-weapons states.
Therefore, China's nuclear tests, and the warheads upgrades that these tests support, pose a marginal, if any, increase in threat to US security. However, the real danger lies in a deteriorating Sino-US relationship that results in an unrestrained expansion of the number and sophistication of China's weapons in defiance of global efforts toward a test ban and extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.