US nuclear strategy on China needs update

American critics of China are challenging Chinese premier Zhu Rongji, now visiting the US, to explain what they consider bad behavior by his country. While many of these critics' concerns may be legitimate, the claim that China has endangered American security through the alleged theft of American rocket and warhead technology is not.

Handled intelligently, in fact, this supposed crisis in US-China nuclear parity is actually an opportunity for the US to initiate an overdue modernization of its own nuclear strategy while actually improving ties with China.

According to standard US nuclear strategy, incremental improvement in China's arsenal constitutes an escalating threat. China-watchers at the Pentagon conclude that the US should regard China more as foe than friend. Many members of Congress agree.

Meanwhile, however, a dramatic paradigm shift in nuclear strategic thinking has occurred. Military heavyweights like the former commander of US nuclear forces Gen. Lee Butler, the former chief of Air Force Space Command Gen. Charles Horner, and dozens of other former Pentagon commanders now agree that America's old tit-for-tat nuclear calculus has become suicidal. The casualty implications of any nuclear exchange today are so staggering, they argue, that delineating degrees of threat and deterrence has become meaningless. Nowhere is this new strategic paradigm more relevant than in the current flap over China. China has been capable of lobbing a nuclear warhead at the US for almost 20 years. As many experts have pointed out, even if China has acquired more accurate launchers with multiple-warhead capability by stealing US designs, China's basic capacity to threaten American cities with incineration has not changed.

Taken to its logical conclusions, the argument being made by many members of Congress that improved Chinese nukes are a new threat is an exercise in insane hair-splitting. Could China destroy San Francisco and Seattle with two missiles, or would it take three or four missiles? Would China's obliteration of the West Coast of the US be an acceptable loss, while its destruction of a few more cities further east would not?

Such calculations are a disturbing relic of cold war brinkmanship, insulting the American public with the implication that Washington would allow tensions with Beijing to degenerate so far that millions of American lives could be endangered.

Meanwhile, the US makes slim acknowledgment of the geopolitical imbalances that push China, long insecure in the face of an overwhelming US nuclear superiority, to modernize its arsenal. Rapidly becoming a world-class power, China can hardly be expected not to seek the accouterments of its status by the usual means, which - like it or not - include the pilfering of military know-how through high-tech trade and espionage.

The US should tighten site security at its nuclear weapons laboratories, but should also reconsider its overall strategic approach to nuclear war. This would include being reconciled as soon as possible to China's inevitable ascension to improved nuclear capability. An American military stance that is more accommodating than confrontational will mitigate China's sense of strategic inferiority, encouraging eventual cooperation toward arms control rather than precipitating imprudent escalation.

THE nuclear force that the US maintains in the Pacific theater alone dwarfs China's entire arsenal. For the US to welcome China as a nuclear "equal" now will never again be less of a foreign-policy concession nor more of a military boon. By embracing the emerging post-cold-war consensus on nuclear strategy, the American security community will both modernize itself and gain a degree of influence over China's attempts to modernize. The alternative is an arms race more dangerous to US security than any instance of Chinese espionage.

*Trevor Corson is executive editor of the Harvard China Review, in Cambridge, Mass.

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