China Plays Down General's Nuclear Remarks

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - Beijing has played down remarks by a senior Chinese general who warned of a nuclear response in the event of a conflict with the United States over Taiwan. The Chinese government reiterated that the military officer was expressing personal views.

Gen. Zhu Chenghu, who is also attached to China's National Defense University, was quoted as telling reporters last week that his country was determined to respond if necessary, and he referred to the resulting destruction of hundreds of cities in China and the U.S.

Zhu said at the time he was giving his own assessment, not government policy, and he also said he did not anticipate that the two countries would go to war.

The official Xinhua news agency quoted an unnamed foreign ministry official as saying Zhu's remarks were his "personal views."

Beijing's stance with regard to Taiwan was consistent and clear, he said.

"We will firmly abide by the principles of peaceful reunification ... and exert the greatest efforts to realize peaceful reunification."

But the foreign ministry official also reiterated Beijing's position that it would never tolerate Taiwan declaring independence or "allow anybody with any means to separate Taiwan from the motherland."

He tied health U.S.-China relations directly to Washington's handling of the Taiwan issue.

China regards Taiwan as a rebel province and earlier this year passed a controversial year allowing for "non-peaceful" means, if necessary, to prevent the self-governing island democracy from formally breaking away. The U.S. is committed by law to help Taiwan to defend itself in the event of unprovoked aggression.

Zhu's remarks were widely reported, and drew a strong response from Washington, where State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called them "highly irresponsible" and "unfortunate."

"We hope that these are not the views of the Chinese government."

"The United States is not a threat to China," McCormack said. He described ties as "good" and "constructive," but acknowledged that "there are mixed elements to it."

Another Western country whose improving political and economic relations with China run into occasional rough water is Australia, which recently annoyed Beijing by providing asylum to a defecting Chinese diplomat.

Prime Minister John Howard, who is in Washington for talks with President Bush Monday, said at the weekend that Zhu's remarks were "unhelpful" and "irresponsible."

Canberra is seeking a free-trade agreement with China, but a recent decision to grant a visa to Chen Yonglin, a diplomat who fled his post and then from hiding accused China of running large numbers of spies in Australia, sent a chill through relations.

Australia has for half a century had a military pact with the U.S., ANZUS, which could require an Australian response should U.S. forces come under armed attack in the Pacific.

Last March a Chinese diplomat warned that ties between China and Australia could suffer badly if Australia invoked the ANZUS alliance against China.

See earlier story:
Chinese General Warns of Nuclear Conflict Over Taiwan (Jul. 11, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow