China seen staking "middle" role at nuclear talks

BEIJING Mon Apr 26, 2010 12:48am EDT

China's President Hu Jintao is pictured during the first plenary session of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington April 13, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed

China's President Hu Jintao is pictured during the first plenary session of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington April 13, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China is likely to stake out a position between the big nuclear weapons states and the non-nuclear-armed countries at an international conference next month, a prominent Swedish think tank said on Monday.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said in a report that Beijing faces pressure over its nuclear weapons modernization after Washington and Moscow signed a treaty to cut their much bigger arsenals of atomic missiles.

For now, however, China is likely to fend off calls to formally curb its nuclear weapons development and could seek to use the conference on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to push back by backing demands from non-nuclear-armed states for deeper cuts from Washington and Moscow, the report said.

"China is unlikely to take part in any unilateral or multilateral (nuclear) disarmament steps in the near- to medium-term," said the report written by Bates Gill, the director of SIPRI and an expert on Chinese security policy.

"On the contrary, Chinese steps to modernize its nuclear arsenal will stand out among the world's major nuclear weapons states," said the report.

President Barack Obama announced this month a shift in U.S. doctrine, vowing not to use atomic weapons against non-nuclear states that abide by the NPT.

CHINA'S AWKWARD POSITION

The deepening diplomacy over nuclear arms has thrown into relief China's awkward position in atomic diplomacy -- as a member of the club of five nuclear weapons states formally accepted by the NPT, but one claiming to share many developing countries' demands and grievances with that club.

Gill said that ambivalence is likely to play out at the conference throughout much of May discussing the NPT's future.

"Beijing will probably expect the United States in particular, but also Russia, to do much of the heavy lifting" over disarmament commitments, Gill said in an email.

China is also likely to use the conference to "defend the right of non-nuclear states, and particularly developing countries, to access nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes," said the SIPRI report.

Beijing faces growing calls from Western powers to support a fresh round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear activities. Although China has been discussing possible sanctions, it has also long stressed that Iranian demands for peaceful nuclear power must also be heeded.

Under their new treaty, the United States and Russia vowed to limit their deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, 30 percent fewer than the limit set in a 2002 treaty.

The SIPRI has estimated that as of 2009 China possessed 186 deployed strategic nuclear warheads.

Since conducting its first nuclear test in 1964, China has said it will never be the first to use such weapons in any conflict.

But Beijing wants to preserve some leeway to upgrade its arsenal, insulating its deterrent against possible moves by potential foes, including the United States developing anti-missile technology.

China wants to have a limited nuclear "second strike" force to deter foes, the nation's main military newspaper said last week, spelling out the ideas behind the country's atomic modernization.

China has been replacing liquid-fueled ballistic nuclear-capable missiles with solid-fuel missiles, which will make launching them faster. It is also building new "Jin-class" ballistic missile submarines, capable of launching nuclear warheads while at sea.

"It remains too early to expect China to enter into official multilateral disarmament discussions with the other nuclear weapons states," Gill said in response to questions.

But if the United States and Russia were to contemplate cutting their strategic warheads to below 1,000 each, that would "depend on the other nuclear weapons states, and especially China, showing a willingness to engage in multilateral disarmament discussions," said Gill.

The report will be available on the SIPRI website (www.sipri.org).

(Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Ron Popeski)

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