BEIJING — A possible showdown on the high seas this week between a Greenpeace ship and China could further spotlight Beijing's difficulty in changing its public stance on nuclear testing.
The ship MV Greenpeace is steaming toward Shanghai in an aggressive attempt by the environmental group to confront Chinese officials after Saturday's underground nuclear test in western China. The test came two days after a surprise announcement that China would end - under certain conditions - such testing after one more nuclear blast before September.
Greenpeace's action, similar to its past confrontations with nuclear powers, is just one of many protests worldwide against the Chinese testing. But among Western diplomats, China's "concession" at talks in Geneva to finalize a global test-ban treaty is seen as encouraging.
"They said they were going to stop testing - period - after one more test.... They've never said that before," said the chief US arms negotiator, Thomas Graham, yesterday.
China's announcement at the 93-nation negotiations on a comprehensive test ban treaty came just three weeks before the talks are set to conclude. China was the only one of the five declared nuclear powers, including the United States, Russia, Britain, and France, that opposed the ban on all nuclear tests.
Where China backed down
China specifically abandoned its previous demand that so-called "peaceful" explosions be exempted from the nuclear-testing ban. However, its concession appears to be linked to another demand to restrict systems for detecting illegal testing, limitations that are cause for concern among American and Japanese negotiators.
China is also lobbying hard for a loophole under which nuclear tests would be banned only when all 93 countries ratify the treaty. That process could take a decade and would allow many more tests at the test site at Lop Nor in the desert of Xinjiang Province.
"China's nuclear testing is justifying testing for other nations. We think this is a very slippery slope and very dangerous," says Damon Moglen, a Greenpeace activist in Hong Kong.
Although China has backed down from its hard-line resistance at the Geneva talks, last Saturday's nuclear test has cast doubts over the negotiations just ahead of the deadline. The proposed treaty must be wrapped up by the end of June to be included at the United Nations General Assembly in September and be adopted by the end of the year.
"It's very hard to believe everyone is sitting in good faith at the table when someone says we're going to blow one off tomorrow," Mr. Moglen says.
Some analysts say that Asian and Western worries about China's nuclear role are exaggerated. The most recent test was only its 44th since 1964. Since 1945, the US has conducted 1,030 tests and the former Soviet Union 715 tests.
China's 300 warheads make up the smallest arsenal among the five major nuclear powers. China's weapons also lack the flexibility and mobility of those of other countries. As the other major powers push for a test ban, Beijing worries that they are blocking China from developing what the others already have. The Chinese Foreign Ministry insists that the country's nuclear weapons are only intended for self-defense and defends the testing. The number of Chinese tests is "extremely limited," says a ministry spokesman.
"They think the United States and the other countries are trying to block their nuclear development," says a Western diplomat in Beijing. "China is still considerably behind the other nuclear powers in terms of the size of its arsenal."
In contrast to other major nuclear powers, China is expanding its nuclear capability. Beijing is developing new, smaller warheads for use on solid-fuel missiles, which is new Chinese technology. Those missiles can be used on mobile launchers and fired over a medium range against enemies in the region. The Chinese military now uses liquid-fuel missiles, which can propel heavier warheads but are not as mobile.
Alastair Iain Johnston, a Chinese arms control expert at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., wrote recently in The Journal of Chinese Studies that "in an era where much international effort is being put into delegitimizing the utility of nuclear weapons, Chinese military strategists have apparently been moving in the opposite direction."
Military's strong influence
Indeed, nuclear analysts say that China's hard line on nuclear issues reflects the strong hold of the military on arms-control policy. The Chinese military is rushing to upgrade its nuclear arsenal before a treaty is adopted by the end of the year, analysts said.
The military is the key powerbroker in the political struggle leading up to the succession of China's most senior leader, Deng Xiaoping. Still, China is likely to sign the test-ban treaty because it can't appear isolated and risk injuring relations with Japan and other countries in the region. "China can't afford to be the only country that doesn't sign," says an Asian diplomat in Beijing.