His unsettling comment came in response to a WikiLeaks revelation that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a classified cable sent January 9, 2010, instructed American embassies to warn four friendly governments of upcoming Chinese missile launches two days later. The cable included details that had to come from one or more sources inside China’s strategic missile corps.
At the end of August, General Xu, in the words of the South China Morning Post, said that “if China could no longer keep secret its missile launches, it would not be able to launch a surprise attack on the U.S.”
As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we of course have to remember that terrorists can still sting the United States. Yet without nuclear weapons, they cannot land a deadly punch. The Soviets had tens of thousands of nukes, but after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 they saw themselves as status quo players.
The Chinese have hundreds of nukes, and we have assumed we could deter them just as we deterred the Soviets. General Xu’s comments, however, force us to reexamine our assumptions.
Beijing, unfortunately, may be approaching the world much like Moscow did in the turbulent 1950s. For one thing, China’s generals do not look like they share the understandings that have underpinned the concept of nuclear deterrence. Obviously, they have considered the possibility of launching a surprise attack on the United States—otherwise General Xu would not have blurted out his comment.
And his comment was not a one-off remark. Currently servicing Chinese generals have talked in public of initiating a nuclear exchange, thereby abandoning Beijing’s no-first-use pledge. In 1995, General Xiong Guangkai famously mentioned the incineration of Los Angeles. In 2005, the People’s Liberation Army upped the ante when Major General Zhu Chenghu said we should be prepared for the destruction of “hundreds of cities.”
Is this just empty talk? It would seem so, but we don’t really know. We need, therefore, to think through the implications of this distressing series of inflammatory comments, especially at this solemn time, ten years after the deadliest attack ever on American soil.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China." He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.