When US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright meets today and tomorrow with the Beijing leadership, she will not find a receptive audience for the proposed American missile defense system.
If Washington proceeds with a $60 billion defense umbrella, analysts say, it's likely to prompt China to begin tapping its vast hard-currency reserves to build a larger, newer strategic arsenal.
In two weeks, the United States plans a key $100 million test of the system. Secretary Albright, who will hold nonproliferation talks here and discuss the recent North-South Korean summit, says the sole superpower needs a Star Wars-like antimissile system to protect the US from a nuclear attack by a "countries of concern" such as North Korea.
But Chinese arms control and nuclear weapons experts, along with some of their American counterparts, say the US already holds the globe's most formidable nuclear sword.
Armed with a nuclear shield, they add, the world's "hyperpower" would have the capability to neutralize Beijing's relatively small atomic arsenal in a nuclear first strike.
"Many [US] politicians have called for building a national missile defense (NMD) that could protect the US from a Chinese attack," says Charles Ferguson, an expert at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
But China's 400 warheads and two dozen intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) "are not designed for a first strike," adds Mr. Ferguson.
"China's arsenal is pretty clearly just a deterrent - their warheads are not positioned on their missiles." China's small stockpile, less than 1/15th the size of the US's [stockpile] "is aimed at riding out a first strike, and then using missiles that survived to launch a retaliatory strike," he adds. Ferguson, a leading scholar on arms control in the US, says the size, contours, and posture of any nation's nuclear arsenal make it clear whether "the government is focusing on nuclear war fighting or just nuclear deterrence."
Ferguson says, "The US arsenal totals almost 12,000 warheads, including 6,000 deployed strategic, long-range missiles, 1,000 tactical missiles, and thousands more in reserve."
This high-tech stockpile, he adds, makes it look like the US arsenal "is designed for nuclear war fighting" rather than defense.
Li Bin, an arms control analyst at the China Youth College for Political Science in Beijing, says not only the strength of US nuclear forces, but also a series of moves Washington has taken to flout international nonproliferation laws, are creating the perception that the US could be preparing for a first strike.
Mr. Li says the US Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the US helped write, is being seen by some as proof that the US may think it's too powerful to be controlled by global nonproliferation agreements.
He says that the building of "NMD would abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and provide further evidence that the US doesn't want to be hemmed in by the nuclear control regimes."
The test ban treaty, which proscribes experimental explosions of nuclear bombs, was rejected by the Senate in 1999. The ABM Treaty was signed by Washington and Moscow in 1972, and bans the construction of large missile shields.
"The US has repeatedly said NMD is not directed at China or Russia," but rather at "rogue states" that might one day launch a nuclear-tipped missile, says Stan Norris, a senior fellow at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council. "But military planners don't look at intentions, they look at capabilities," adds Mr. Norris, co-author of the Nuclear Weapons Data Book.
And when Chinese defense strategists look at the 100 interceptors planned for the first phase of the antimissile system, they realize that "part of China's missiles could be destroyed in a first strike, and any remaining could be shot down by the antimissile missiles," says Ferguson.
Rendering China and the world's nonnuclear nations vulnerable to a first strike with the defense system "would be tantamount to triggering a [new] nuclear arms build-up," says Sha Zukang, China's top arms-control official.
Mr. Sha was recently quoted in the official China Daily as saying the move would also "upset the world strategic balance and hinder the process of international nuclear disarmament."
Nuclear bomb experts on both sides of the Pacific say that China would have little choice but to try to counter the strength of the defense shield by rapidly expanding its own arsenal.
"China already feels that the US is trying to contain it, especially after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade" last year, says Norris. The defense shield "is the perfect way to stimulate China to double, triple, or quadruple its stockpile."
"[China] has the financial wherewithal to build as many missiles and warheads as it believes are necessary to oppose projected NMD plans," Ferguson says. "Building 200 ICBMs would cost about $2 billion ... and would represent less than 2 percent of China's current foreign currency reserves."
But a nuclear weapons engineer in Beijing says that China now has $150 billion in reserve, and adds that it could decide to build up to 1,000 more long-range, nuclear-capped missiles to counterbalance the US missile shield.
"Other options include developing advanced decoys and other coutermeasures to defeat the shield," he adds.
But the Chinese official, and many US experts, say it would be wiser for Washington and Beijing to agree on confidence-building measures rather than compete in a 21st-century arms race.
Ferguson says while China and the US have taken tentative steps toward dispelling the nuclear fears of the other side by setting up a presidential hotline and detargeting their nuclear missiles, much more needs to be done. He says they "could construct nuclear risk reduction centers in China and the United States" and adds the US should bring its ICBMs down to the same low level of alert that now guides China's forces.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society