China’s military is delaying the U.S. visit of its strategic nuclear forces commander despite a promise by Chinese President Hu Jintao last year that the general would hold talks with the U.S. Strategic Command leader.
Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, the commander of U.S. nuclear forces, recently invited his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Jing Zhiyuan, to visit Strategic Command headquarters in Nebraska for talks on nuclear forces.
However, Chinese military officials have not responded to the invitation, and instead privately informed the Pentagon that scheduling problems will delay the visit until later this year at the earliest.
Gen. Jing traveled extensively throughout South America last month, but did not visit the United States.
Caroline Bartholomew, chairman of the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said Beijing’s failure to respond to the U.S. office is a concern.
“The commission recommended a [U.S.-China] dialogue on strategic-forces issues to ensure that both China and the United States understand the lines in the sand,” she said. “There are certain acts which have traditionally been and will continue to be seen as hostile, such as blinding satellites and threatening a nuclear attack on our cities.”
Miss Bartholomew said “we must hope that Gen. Jing’s lack of responsiveness to the invitation to visit U.S. Strategic Command, despite the fact that he has been elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, does not reflect Chinese government disinterest in strategic warning and mutual threat-reduction measures.”
The proposed visit by the nuclear commander was raised privately by President Bush in April during his meeting with Mr. Hu, who agreed that the visit would take place.
A White House official last week confirmed that the president told Mr. Hu the Pentagon wants a dialogue with Gen. Jing on nuclear strategy and doctrine, and Mr. Hu replied that China would like such talks.
However, Chinese officials privately informed the Bush administration later that the visit cannot take place this month, and that in February and March, Gen. Jing’s travel will be limited because of the Chinese New Year and the upcoming Chinese Communist Party Congress, defense officials said.
“They’re indicating later in 2007. We want it earlier,” one official said, noting that the strategic nuclear discussions are “near the top” of U.S. priorities in military-exchange programs with China’s military.
Michael Pillsbury, a former Pentagon policy-maker, said a meeting would help “to reduce misperceptions” and so “it’s better to have it sooner than later.”
A major worry of defense officials is a proposal being worked on by some U.S. government consultants who would like Gen. Cartwright to offer to share nuclear-weapons technology with China during the Jing visit. The arms-control officials fear that unless U.S. “nuclear sustainability” know-how is shared, China will expand its nuclear arsenal or resume underground nuclear tests.
“This has to be stopped,” said one defense official opposed to the plan, which has not reached senior policy-makers in the Pentagon or the Strategic Command.
National security officials oppose sharing nuclear technology with China for many reasons, including Beijing’s past nuclear espionage. China also supplied Pakistan with nuclear-weapons technology during the 1980s. The technology, including small-warhead design data, was sold to Libya, Iran and North Korea by the Pakistani supplier network of A.Q. Khan.
The Jing visit is being sought as a first step in trying to learn more about top-secret Chinese nuclear forces.
“We’re not looking for anything in terms of an agreement,” the defense official said. “We want it to be more of a discussion about their intentions and policy, and if there are changes being debated, what are they.”
China’s nuclear forces are hidden in underground facilities close to its nuclear missile and bomber forces. Chinese military officials have shrouded details of their nation’s nuclear programs in secrecy — estimates of the number of nuclear warheads range from 100 to as many as 900 — for fear the United States will use any information it gets for target-data for bombing raids.