BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao takes tricky baggage to the nuclear security summit opening on Monday, representing a superpower in the making that is a relatively small nuclear arms state, wary of its big peers.
The meeting in Washington D.C. hosted by President Barack Obama will focus on making atomic sites and materials safer from theft and terrorist attack, not broader questions about arms controls and cuts.
But the unprecedented 47-nation meeting that could test China’s approach of staying inside the exclusive club of five official nuclear weapons states and yet sometimes acting as an outsider, critical of the biggest nuclear powers.
“China wants to be grouped with the recognized (nuclear) weapons states, but also wants to be seen as a voice for the demands of the non-nuclear developing world,” said Jing-dong Yuan, an expert on China’s nuclear arms policies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.
For all its rising wealth and military spending, China keeps a relatively small stockpile of perhaps 200-240 nuclear warheads. Since China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, it has said it will never be the first to use such weapons in any conflict.
Yet China is gradually upgrading its nuclear missiles, developing new submarines capable of firing nuclear missiles. It also has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, probably until the United States does.
Washington has urged Beijing to be more candid about its nuclear arsenal to avoid possible catastrophic miscalculations.
China is likely to counter those pressures by urging the other powers to embrace its “no-first-use” vow, demanding the two biggest atomic powers make firmer arms cuts, and calling for greater heed to the needs of developing countries wanting to develop nuclear energy, said several experts.
“I think that during the Non-Proliferation Treaty review (in May) and in future nuclear non-proliferation treaties, we’ll certainly give more due to the voice of the developing countries,” Major General Zhu Chenghu of China’s National Defense University told a forum in Beijing this month.
“Although there have been major reductions, their symbolic significance far surpasses their practical significance.”
After a bout of quarrels between Beijing and Washington that prompted speculation President Hu would not attend the summit, his presence will be a reassuring signal that Beijing values both bilateral ties and nuclear security.
China faces no pressing threats to the security of its atomic plants and stockpiles and is not among the problem countries grabbing attention in Washington, said Li Bin, an expert on nuclear proliferation at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
“This (summit) is a largely symbolic promotional exercise,” said Chu Shulong, also a professor at Tsinghua, who studies international security. “The issues are important but it is also about setting the right tone for subsequent negotiations.”
The Obama administration’s recent nuclear posture review urged greater “transparency” from China. After signing the new arms cut pact with Obama, Medvedev said other nuclear states should do more to follow their lead.
“Nobody expects China to provide exact numbers” about its nuclear arms, said Yuan, the California-based expert. “But what they want is a clearer sense of why China is modernizing its nuclear arsenal, where this leads.”
Members of the U.S. Senate could make an issue of China when debating whether to ratify the new arms cut pact with Russia, and also if Obama asks the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Some U.S. opponents of deep nuclear arms cuts have said the reduction could allow China to “sprint to parity.”
Beijing has no such intentions and will not take well to demands to disclose more about its nuclear weapons, said Chu.
“At the same time that the United States is pushing the world to do more to prevent nuclear proliferation, it can’t even ratify this (Test Ban) treaty,” he said. “China’s doesn’t like feeling subjected to double standards,” he added.
But Chu said there was much in Obama’s nuclear initiatives that China will welcome, including reducing the number of countries that could be targeted by U.S. nuclear strikes.
Unlike a nuclear posture review by the Bush administration released in 2002, Obama’s did not mention conflict over disputed Taiwan — the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own — being a potential trigger for using U.S. nuclear weapons.
Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Bill Tarrant