As the ruling elite of China celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist party of China on July 1, they have much to boast about the country’s rise as a major world power.
The Pentagon's annual report to the US Congress on military and security developments of China for 2020 noted China may "at least double" the size of its nuclear arsenal, currently estimated to number around 200 weapons, over the next decade.
The doubling of its arsenal size comes as China undertakes a wide-ranging modernisation of its nuclear delivery systems, inducting new missile-armed submarines and bombers and modernising missiles.
The Pentagon report noted China, as of 2020, had around 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS). The report estimated the number of warheads on China's ICBMs, which could hit the continental US, could rise to 200 by 2025, as Beijing develops new multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (i.e., multiple warheads on a single missile) and also works on decoy systems to fool enemy missile defences.
The dizzying pace of China's military modernisation in the past four decades, perhaps, means many are at risk of forgetting an era when China faced the risk of nuclear attack in the period before it tested its first atomic bomb in 1964.
The first such instance was in the Korean war (1950-1953). Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung ordered 300,000 PLA troops to cross the border into North Korea in October 1950 to assist the beleaguered North Korean forces, who were being driven back by the US and its allies. The Chinese launched a massive counterattack on the allies in November that year, destroying all hopes of an early end to the war and raising the spectre of the Korean war leading to a wider conflict.
At the time, the US was the only nation that could deliver nuclear bombs across large distances as the Soviet Union had just tested its first nuclear device in 1949. Celebrated US general Douglas MacArthur, a hero of World War 2 who was commanding the allied forces in Korea, argued for targeting China. He wanted to use nuclear weapons in the conflict and also hit Chinese bases and factories in Manchuria, which supplied the war effort in North Korea. According to historians, MacArthur even wanted the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to invade the mainland and trigger a revolution against the nascent Communist regime.
In an interview published posthumously, MacArthur claimed he would have dropped "30 or so atomic bombs… strung across the neck of Manchuria" to hasten the end of the Korean war.
However, MacArthur's demands were not acceptable to then US president Harry Truman, who did not want the conflict to widen. Truman dismissed MacArthur in April 1951, to the world's shock. Despite the departure of MacArthur, the US never took the option of nuclear weapons off the table. Both Truman and his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, hinted that nuclear weapons were an option to force an end to the conflict in Korea.
In 1956, John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state in Eisenhower's administration, claimed in an interview to Life Magazine that he had warned China, using Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as an intermediary, that "U.S. was prepared to attack Manchurian bases with atomic weapons if the Communists did not sign a truce agreement..."
In addition to attempting to arrange for repatriation of prisoners of war in the Korean war, Nehru also frequently reached out to China, in particular premier Zhou Enlai, in attempts to end the conflict.
An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, to formally cease fighting in the Korean war.
Later accounts have downplayed the claim made by Dulles; they cite the changed geopolitical situation due to the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in March 1953 as the reason for the end of the Korean war. The new leadership in the Soviet Union leaned on China and North Korea to accept an armistice. It is true that Dulles visited New Delhi in late May 1953 for talks with Nehru.
The New York Times reported in 1984, "On May 21, 1953, Mr. Dulles met in New Delhi with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and told him that, if the armistice negotiations failed, 'the United States would probably make a stronger, rather than a lesser military exertion, and that this might well extend the area of conflict'." Experts argue that the claims by Dulles did not explicitly mean use of nuclear weapons.
The risk of US nuclear attack on China did not go away after the Korean war. In 1958, the Eisenhower administration was advised by the US military to prepare for possible use of nuclear weapons against China as Beijing was believed to be preparing for a possible invasion of Taiwan. China had begun artillery strikes in August 1958 on islands controlled by Taiwan, triggering fears of an invasion.
General Nathan Twining, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was quoted in documents as saying, "United States would have used nuclear weapons against Chinese air bases to prevent a successful air interdiction campaign" and if an invasion continued, "no alternative but to conduct nuclear strikes deep into China as far north as Shanghai".
The crisis in August-September 1958 ended with Communist China deciding to end artillery strikes on islands controlled by the Chiang Kai-Shek regime.
One of the after-effects of the Korean war and the 1958 crisis was that the conflicts bolstered Mao's determination to acquire nuclear weapons.
Mao had reached out to the Soviet Union, Communist China's main benefactor, for assistance. While the Soviet Union provided considerable civilian nuclear technology and training, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was lukewarm to Beijing's requests for more help on nuclear weapons and by August 1960, the last Soviet nuclear advisers left China. However, the foundation laid with Soviet assistance and the work of Chinese scientists paved the way for the test of China's first atomic bomb on October 16, 1964.
Not surprisingly, the US was worried about China's nuclear weapons programme. In fact, after he took over as president following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, a key item on the agenda of Lyndon Johnson was the need for a policy on China's nuclear weapons programme. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1998, "The State Department had asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in mid-1963 to draw up a contingency plan for an attack, with conventional weapons, on China’s nuclear facilities. On Dec. 14, 1963, the answer came back. The Joint Chiefs said a bombing operation against China would be feasible. But, they added, if there was to be such an attack, they recommended consideration of the use of nuclear weapons."
Joint US-Soviet action against China?
The US also toyed with covert action by the CIA to destabilise China nuclear weapons' programme and bolster surveillance. But one of the more 'unbelievable' options contemplated by the Johnson administration was cooperating with the Soviet Union to thwart China's nuclear weapons programme. By the mid-1960s, China and the Soviet Union had become inimical, owing to a host of factors such as border disputes and divergence on the need to support Communist revolutions globally.
Johnson's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, met the Soviet ambassador to the US Anatoly F. Dobrynin in September 1964 to see whether Moscow would be interested in joint action. The ambassador indicated the Soviet Union was reconciled to the reality of a nuclear China. The US followed suit soon and by the end of that decade was courting China as a possible ally.
A Pakistani twist
The US may have used Nehru as an intermediary to warn China of more aggressive military action to end the Korean War. In the ultimate twist of fate, by 1970, Washington was using the services of two dictators—Pakistani general Yahya Khan and Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu—to open channels of communication to normalise ties between the US and China. Richard Nixon’s secretary of state Henry Kissinger praised Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan for acting as an intermediary between Zhou Enlai and Nixon.
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The work done by Yahya led to Kissinger’s trip to Beijing in July 1971, which, in turn, laid the foundation for Nixon’s ground-breaking visit to China in 1972. Nixon’s trip to China is considered a turning point in modern geopolitics as it began the process of integrating China into the world economy and making it the world’s factory.