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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 39, July - August 1999

China Announces Neutron Bomb, Missile Test as Tensions Mount over Spying Allegations and Taiwan

On 15 July, China announced that, since the 1970s, it had possessed the capacity to develop and test neutron bombs and miniaturized nuclear warheads. The disclosures were made by chief Government spokesperson Zhao Qizheng, who stated: "China had no choice but to carry out research and development of nuclear weapons technology and improve its nuclear weapon systems, mastering in succession the neutron bomb design technology and the nuclear weapon miniaturization technology." Zhao stated clearly that he was making the announcement in response to the claims of the Cox Report that China had been systematically pilfering nuclear secrets from the US (see above). According to Zhao, China was determined to refute the essentially racist assumption at the core of the Cox investigations, namely that "the Chinese can't be as smart as the Americans, therefore they must have stolen the technology." US Defense Secretary William Perry responded to the declaration by observing (15 July): "I don't find it to be a particularly fruitful discussion as to whether they claim to have this capability internally or [to] have acquired it elsewhere. The fact that's of concern to all of us is that there seems to be a proliferation of nuclear technology to a number of countries." On 2 August, China announced it had successfully tested a new long-range strategic missile, widely thought by experts to be the Dong Feng (East Wind), or DF-31, designed to carry a 1,500 pound warhead over a 4,300 mile range and replace the DF-4 missile, possessing half the range and in service since the 1960s. There was rife media speculation that both the neutron bomb disclosures and the missile test were intended in part to intimidate Taiwan, after Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui called on 2 July for 'State-to-State' relations to be established between the two sides. However, both the US and Taiwan questioned the linkage, particularly with regard to the DF-31. A 2 August statement from Taiwan's Defence Ministry noted: "The purpose is to intimidate the world's powerful nations; it's unlikely [because of its range] to be used to attack Taiwan." The same day, US State Department spokesperson James Rubin asserted: "We do not have any basis to conclude that the timing of this launch is linked to issues with [regard to] Taiwan... There's nothing new about China having medium- and long-range missiles. They've had them for a long, long time." On 4 August, the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, Chaired by Jesse Helms (Republican - North Carolina) held a hearing into proposed legislation - The Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (S. 693) - which would authorize the Administration to significantly increase its military assistance to Taiwan. Helms set out the case for the Act as follows: "This legislation will ensure that Taiwan will have the essential self-defense capabilities. To accomplish this, we propose to bolster the process for defense sales to Taiwan, and to help Taiwan achieve an adequate military preparedness. ... [P]art of Beijing's strategy [to absorb Taiwan] is to continue its pressure on the US to limit or cease arms sales to Taiwan. ... Of course, it was the Reagan Administration which signed the regrettable 1982 Communiqué which set a ceiling on arms sales to Taiwan and promised China that we would gradually reduce these sales. ... [J]ust two weeks ago, the Clinton Administration withheld several arms sale notifications to Congress and is reported to be considering further such measures in an obvious attempt to curry favour with Beijing and punish Taiwan for President Lee's recent remarks on Taiwan's status." Speaking to the Committee at its 4 August hearing, Kurt Campbell, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Security Affairs, argued that the proposed Act was "unnecessary" and would prove "counterproductive": "Taiwan's' security rests not only in its defense posture but also in a continued, constructive cross-Strait dialogue... We believe a cross-Strait dialogue that contains confidence-building measures is a critical ingredient to long-term stability across the Strait." Campbell's remarks were echoed by Stanley Roth, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and Pacific Affairs, who told the Committee that the measure before them was "potentially dangerous", threatening to unravel "a policy which has worked through four Administrations and continues to work today." Most graphically of all, the Committee's ranking Democrat, Joseph Biden (Delaware), predicted: "Far from enhancing Taiwan's security, I am convinced that passage of this legislation would be the equivalent of waving a red cape in front of Beijing and inviting China to charge..."

Washington's existing plans to sell arms to Taiwan - E-2T early-warning radar aircraft, plus $550 million of equipment for Taiwan's F-16 fighter aircraft - are already exciting Chinese censure.

Editor's note: On 3 August, the Xinhua news agency reported that, as part of celebrations to mark 50 years of Communist rule, the Government would be producing, at a cost of $1.8 million, a feature film entitled Birth of the Chinese A-Bomb, filmed at the Lop Nor test site and designed, in the words of the agency, "to show how the Chinese independently developed nuclear weapons without the use of foreign technology."

Reports: China - we have our own neutron bomb, Associated Press, 15 July; China declares its own neutron bomb, Associated Press, 15 July; China acknowledges bomb development, Associated Press, 15 July; Cohen voices US nuclear concern, Associated Press, 15 July; China reportedly test fires missile, Associated Press, 2 August; China tests new long-range missile, Associated Press, 2 August; China test launches long-range missile, Reuters, 2 August; US downplays China missile test, Associated Press, 2 August; Taiwan not worried by missile test, Associated Press, 3 August; China commemorates its atomic bomb, Associated Press, 3 August; US Senate Panel warned over Taiwan defense bill, Reuters, 4 August; Text - Defense's Campbell on Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, United States Information Service, 4 August; Text - Senator Helms on Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, United States Information Service, 4 August.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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