China lowers the threshold of its nuclear threats

Kyodo News, the Japanese news agency, has announced (on 5th January) that the Chinese People’s Army (CPLA) will consider pre-emptive nuclear strikes on any other country with nuclear weapons that hits strategic Chinese targets with what it calls “advanced conventional weapons”.

This is an apparently new policy, in which non-nuclear attacks on Chinese cities, nuclear plants and hydro power plants risk nuclear retaliation.  The policy seems to refer specifically to American development of “Prompt Global Strike” (PGS) weapons capable of destroying missile sites or killing individuals, with great speed and accuracy – but without crossing the nuclear threshold.  Such weapons can hit with the “localised destructive power of a nuclear warhead” commented a New York Times report earlier last year.

The CPLA documents quoted by Kyodo News say that China would warn an adversary before launching nuclear missiles, and that “media outlets” are specific targets for such a strike.  It’s not clear whether this warning would be after the PGS strike, or before – if such an attack seemed likely.

This would seem to be a message to President Obama not to develop this alternative to nuclear weapons as a more usable option.  If the use of PGS attracts a nuclear response, then an aggressor might just as well go nuclear in the first place plus save a huge amount of R&D money – but be less likely to use them…..

By targeting media outlets with its nuclear weapons, the CPLA is signaling the political context of its threat, in which Western civilian opinion-makers (rather than military missile crews) would be killed – along with everyone else of course.

China feels vulnerable, and the more it invests in infrastructure and creates dependency on electricity for it’s burgeoning electronics industries and influential urban populations, the more it has to lose.

And threatening to nuke  media like the New York Times rather than US nuclear delivery systems,  seems more like a dig against Western politicians’ dependency on media reaction than serious targeting  Presumably the television networks would also be included, which requires a seriously impressive targeting effort by the Chinese. Are they going for buildings and journalists, or for the more valuable communications nodes that will stop transmission…?

So the detail of this story is more probably part of China’s internal political dialogue; an allegory for internal military consumption rather than actual foreign policy, leaked as a warning hint to Obama.

But it is nevertheless a lowering of the nuclear threshold, which is of course what more powerful nations fear when less powerful nations acquire nuclear weapons.

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