The US State Department has condemned as "highly irresponsible" remarks by a senior Chinese military officer that Beijing should use nuclear weapons if the US intervenes to defend Taiwan against an attack from China.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack made the comment in response to statements made Thursday by People's Liberation Army General Zhu Chenghu (
"We hope these comments don't reflect the views of the Chinese government," McCormack said at his regular daily news briefing. "I haven't seen all the remarks, but what I've seen of them, I would say that they're highly irresponsible."
The Pentagon declined comment on Zhu's statements, deferring to the State Department.
Zhu's comments come at a time of both increasing friction between Washington and Beijing and intense communications between the two. McCormack stressed the positive signs in the relationship.
"The United States is not a threat to China," he said. "We have a broad and deep relationship in which we try to work closely with the Chinese government on a variety of issues."
He noted that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has just visited China and that her deputy, Robert Zoellick, will be in Beijing later this month to begin a strategic dialogue.
"So we have, we believe, good constructive relations with China," McCormack said.
Zhu said China's leadership was under internal pressure to change its "no first use" policy toward nuclear weapons, and if the US targets Chinese territory in defending Taiwan, "I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons," according to news reports of his meeting, which was arranged by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Zhu's remarks have sparked a tidal wave of reaction in Washington, as officials and observers try to make out what he had in mind, whether he spoke for himself or for the Chinese government, and whether his remarks signal a dire turn in relations.
The Chinese Embassy, for instance, took to extraordinary step of distancing itself from Zhu's remarks and seeking help from US opinion-makers in damage control.
A senior embassy diplomat sent what is seen as an unprecedented e-mail message to think- tank members and other academics in Washington asking for their advice in countering the impact of Zhu's remarks, the Taipei Times has learned.
"I feel very much concerned over these obviously very personal remarks," wrote the envoy, whose name was not revealed to the Taipei Times. "I am afraid that this will provide ammunition for some in America for bashing China."
"I write to you to seek your comments on the effects of the remarks on US-China relations and your advice on damage control," the envoy continued.
Although Zhu said his comments were his personal opinion and the embassy e-mail seemed to reinforce this, that was widely ridiculed among Washington detractors of the Chinese government.
"Since when is anyone in China allowed to express their personal opinion," said John Tkacik, who works for the Heritage Foundation.
"It never is independent opinion," he said.
"One has to put General Zhu's comments in context, and you're left with only two possibilities," Tkacik said. "One is that he is a complete psychopath who says that it is worth the complete destruction of China to invade Taiwan, or, two, that this is officially sanctioned propaganda with the purpose if intimidating American public opinion, if not policymakers."
Zhu, who speaks fluent English, is considered in Washington a strident hawk when it comes to US-China relations and to Taiwan. While this is believed to be the first time he has specifically advocated the use of nuclear weapons against the US over Taiwan, he has made similar saber-rattling statements in the past.
In February, 2000, for instance, he wrote an article in the PLA Daily, widely quoted in Washington, advocating a hard line against the US.
Warning that the US would pay a "high price" for intervening in Taiwan, Zhu wrote, "if they get involved, the American policy makers will have to consider the ... high costs they will pay. [China] is a country with certain strategic attack capabilities and long-distance attacking capabilities,"
A fight with China would, he wrote, would "seriously damage [America's] economic interests."
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