NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently urged China to join international efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons amid concerns that the Asian superpower is rapidly developing missiles capable of carrying atomic warheads.
However, Beijing hit back at NATO, saying that China pursues a defensive nuclear strategy and keeps its nuclear weapons to a “minimum necessary for its national security”, and accused the body of hyping up the threat from China.
Laying out his priorities for nuclear disarmament at NATO’s annual arms control conference on Monday, Stoltenberg said that more countries must be included in future missile restriction talks, not just Russia.
“As a global power, China has global responsibilities in arms control. And Beijing, too, would benefit from mutual limits on numbers, increased transparency, and more predictability,” Stoltenberg said. “These are the foundations for international stability.”
Warning that Beijing’s nuclear arsenal is rapidly expanding, he said “China is building a large number of missile silos, which can significantly increase its nuclear capability. All of this is happening without any limitation or constraint. And with a complete lack of transparency.”
In 2019, the United States pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, treaty, blaming Russia for violating the bilateral pact. It was the first arms control measure to ban an entire class of weapons: ground-launched cruise missiles with a range between 500 kilometers and 5,000 kilometers. Russia denies that it broke the rules.
As the pact fell apart, China continued to build such weapons and it has shown little sign that it’s inclined to join in such arms proliferation talks.
However, China has maintained a belligerent stance to this suggestion and has rejected the out-of-hand fears voiced by Stoltenberg about a Chinese nuclear weapons build-up.
NATO hyping up China's nuclear threat, says China
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin dismissed the NATO chief's comment by saying that the Chinese government has “serious concern and firm opposition to NATO playing up China’s nuclear threat"
He reiterated that China follows a self-defensive nuclear strategy, with nuclear forces always kept at the minimum level required to safeguard national security.
"We are committed to no first use of nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances and pledge unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones. China has never taken part in any form of the nuclear arms race, nor has it deployed nuclear weapons overseas. No country will be threatened or should feel threatened by China's national defense capability as long as it does not intend to threaten or undermine China's sovereignty, security and territorial integrity," Wenbin said.
He further warned that what the member countries of NATO should be really worried about was the body's nuclear sharing policy. As a political and military organization formed during the Cold War, NATO has the largest nuclear arsenal enabled by the nuclear sharing arrangements to this day.
Wenbin further stated that some NATO members are ramping up efforts to modernise nuclear power. Many countries share the view that NATO's nuclear sharing arrangements violate the stipulations of the NPT and that its nuclear capability lacks transparency, which exacerbates risks of nuclear proliferation and conflicts.
"It is typical double standards when NATO chooses to be evasive about its own issue while trying to mislead the public and hyping up the so-called "China nuclear threat". If NATO truly cares about nuclear arms control, it should abandon the Cold War mentality, abolish nuclear sharing arrangements, and pull out the large number of nuclear weapons deployed in Europe," he added.
Wenbin instead asked NATO to urge the US to earnestly fulfill its special and primary responsibilities in nuclear disarmament and "further drastically and substantively reduce its nuclear stockpile, so as to create conditions for realizing comprehensive and complete nuclear disarmament."
Not the first time
Earlier this year, in May, Beijing had accused NATO of exaggerating the threat from China and "creating confrontation", after a vow from the Western allies to work together to counter the "systemic challenges" posed by its policies.
This came after NATO leaders made the commitment, as US president Joe Biden renewed Washington's transatlantic ties at his first summit with the allies.
In a broad statement of intent, the leaders said China's increasingly assertive actions in building a nuclear arsenal and space and cyber warfare capabilities threatened the international order.
In an angry response, a statement from the Chinese mission to the European Union called for NATO to "view China's development rationally, stop exaggerating various forms of 'China threat theory' and not to use China's legitimate interests and legal rights as excuses for manipulating group politics (while) artificially creating confrontations".
China's military budget — the second largest in the world after the US, though still less than a third of Washington's — is set to increase by 6.8 percent in 2021, the finance ministry had announced in March.
Beijing has also poured billions into its space programme in a bid to make up ground on pioneers Russia and the United States.
During the NATO summit earlier this year, leaders had said that they were "concerned" by China's coercive policies — and highlighted its "rapid development" of nuclear arsenal, greater military cooperation with Russia, and "lack of transparency and disinformation".
These concerns came after the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) published a study in July-end on new construction work. With the help of satellite images, FAS discovered a large area near Hami in the northwestern region of Xinjiang where silos for nuclear missiles were under construction. Even The Washington Post reported about a similar new site with missile storage or launch facilities near Yumen in Gansu province.
But NATO also held out the prospect for "a constructive dialogue with China where possible".
"Based on our interests, we welcome opportunities to engage with China on areas of relevance to the Alliance and on common challenges such as climate change," the leaders said.
"Reciprocal transparency and understanding would benefit both NATO and China."
With inputs from AFP