I’ve been doing some thinking about the abortive comments of General Zhu. Here’s a guy with a career in the miltary, who’s spent time working with foreigners, and says stuff like this:
“War logic dictates that a weaker power needs to use maximum efforts to defeat a stronger rival,” he was reported as saying by the New York Times.
“If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons.”
Echoing threats last made in 1995, Mr Zhu, who has a reputation as a hawk in Chinese military circles, said his country was ready to sustain heavy casualties in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other heavily populated areas.
“We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian,” he said. “Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”
Although Mr Zhu said war was unlikely, his proposal that China should adopt a first-strike nuclear option against the US will alarm the Pentagon. (emphasis mine)
Now there are several ways to think about Gen Zhu’s comments. These might include:
- It could be merely one guy mouthing off.
The general said his comments were â€œmy assessment, not the policy of the government,â€ the Journal said.
- It could be a trial balloon, or a rhetorical overreach.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the remarks “highly irresponsible” and “unfortunate”, and expressed the hope that they did not reflect the views of the Chinese government.
Echoing the official Xinhua News Agency, the People’s Republic of China’s Foreign Ministry officials said that Zhu was expressing personal views, and had warned the reporters accordingly, but stated that China would never tolerate “Taiwan independence”. Reportedly, Maj. Gen. Zhu is not directly involved in the formulation of
As one of my friends puts it, a Chinese general does not publicly say something Not Official. He may well be right.
On the other hand, one Chinese government acquaintance is insistent that her country’s intentions are pure, and expresses surprise that we should not trust China’s intentions.
- It could well be I have no idea why he said what he said. Maybe he really thought that and just didn’t think it was anything special.
- The general may be working on a different plane entirely. Paul Bracken of Yale wrote in an excellent book (pre-9/11 but still worth reading) called Fire In The East that
These situations are often worsened by cheap talk. With atom bombs to back them up, governments have a tendency to say things that aggravate a crisis. The same thing happened early on in the Cold War, for example, when Khruschev threatened “to bury the United States”. But the dangers of such explosive rhetoric soon became apparent. By the end of the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union were using only the most restrained diplomatic language, even when their military moves were much more aggressive.
In Asian crises this lesson hasn’t yet been learned. In the 1987 crisis between India and Pakistan, an Indian journalist was told by a senior Pakistani official that Pakistan would use an atomic bomb against India if its survival was endangered. The report appeared a month later in an Indian newspaper, and predictably greatly increased tensions.
It could be that our general hasn’t figured out these things yet and is teaching a lesson to the rest of the leadership by getting in trouble for letting his nationalism run ahead of his common sense.
- The general’s words may indicate a point of decision for the Chinese, where they’re trying to figure out whether or not to build massive amounts of nukes. If this is so perhaps we and the Indians and the Russians may have an opportunity to influence that internal decision with skilled diplomacy and awareness of the implications of such an arsenal.
This provides an excellent study for deterrence theory and for diplomacy opportunities. The way to frame the questions might be “So how would you react to such an outburst? How should we have, or should we now, react?”
While I’m typing in Bracken’s words I might as well add this in from his excellent book. Note the book was written well before 9/11 and before the India-Pakistan near-war over Kashmir that fortunately came back from the nuclear brink, so the observations are a little old.
The shaky control of Asian nuclear forces increases the danger of accidental or unintended war. Asian states share all the problems of physical security and reliable communications that plagued the first nuclear states, but unique conditions in Asia heighten the dangers. The United States and the Soviet Union had confidence in their armed forces. their commanders would not have moved reclessly forward without orders or with cavalier indifference to the meaning of those orders. Trust and understanding between civilians and the military is generally much lower in Asia than in the West. The level of mistrust is extreme to the point of pathology in North Korea and Iraq, but it also characterizes civil-military relations in India, Pakistan and Iran. The lack of trust is compounded by deep mutual suspicion, by a history of plotting and coups, by wthnic and religious schisms, and by a military rife with threachery and ambition. These vary from country to country, but it seems fair to say that the world has reason to worry about whose fingers are on the nuclear triggers in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and North Korea.
Transitions of power could be especially dangerous. At these times there are generally no clear lines of authority. Chains of command that may be ambiguous under the best of conditions become even more obscure during a transition. In India the assassination of two prime ministers set a dangerous precedent, suggesting one possible way to paralyze the command system, possibly blunting any return blow. In nations where the military has demonstrated recklessness, such as Syria and Iran, only the civilian leadership holds them in check. An upheaval in the government could open the way to military adventures with catastrophic consequence.
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