WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, seeking to overcome Chinese opposition to its missile defense program, intends to tell leaders in Beijing that it has no objections to the country's plans to build up its small fleet of nuclear missiles, according to senior administration officials.
One senior official said that, in the future, the United States and China might also discuss resuming underground nuclear tests if they are needed to assure the safety and reliability of their arsenals. Such a move, however, might allow China to improve its nuclear warheads and lead to the end of a worldwide moratorium on nuclear testing.
Both messages appear to mark a significant change in American policy. For years, the United States has discouraged China and all other nations from increasing the size or capability of their nuclear arsenals, and from nuclear tests of any kind.
The purpose of the new approach, administration officials say, is to persuade China that the administration's plans for a missile shield are not aimed at undercutting China's nuclear arsenal, but rather at countering threats from so-called rogue states.
The administration decided on this strategy during a review by officials preparing for Bush's trip to China next month. The president's top advisers concluded that China's nuclear modernization is inevitable and that they might as well gain advantage by acquiescing to it.
"We know the Chinese will enhance their nuclear capability anyway, and we are going to say to them, `We're not going to tell you not to do it,' " one senior administration official deeply involved in formulating the strategy said last week. "Why panic? They are modernizing anyway."
But word of the new approach drew scathing criticism from Democratic Del. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "This is absolutely absurd," he said yesterday.
"It shows that these guys will go to any length to build a national missile defense, even one they can't define. Their headlong, headstrong, irrational and theological desire to build a missile defense sends the wrong message to the Chinese and to the whole world" - especially to India, which he said would try to counter any Chinese buildup. "This is taking 50 years of trying to control nuclear weapons and standing it on its head."
Though Beijing has long planned to build up its arsenal, outside experts and a review last year by the Central Intelligence Agency have warned that an American missile shield could prompt China to expand its deterrent even further, possibly setting off an arms race across Asia.
Beijing has a fleet of fewer than two dozen nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States, as part of a minimal deterrent that Mao Tse-tung created in the 1950s and 1960s. China is now developing mobile, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles that would be far more likely to withstand a first nuclear strike.
A report to Congress last year noted that intelligence officials predicted in 1999 that by 2015 China was likely to have "a few tens" of missiles with smaller nuclear warheads" that could hit the United States.
Some in the Bush administration believe that the Chinese buildup might be larger - and that by acquiescing to it, Washington could defuse objections to its missile defense plans. If the missile defense plan is causing any change in Chinese nuclear strategy, administration officials insisted in interviews, it is only at the margins.
A number of China experts disagree. Robert A. Manning of the Council on Foreign Relations, who published a lengthy study last year of China's nuclear capability, said Friday: "It's hard for me to accept the idea that what we do is totally irrelevant. If you are a Chinese military planner, your architecture and force structure depend on what the United States is doing, first and foremost."
As for the ban on nuclear testing, the United States and China have signed but not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Bush administration has made clear that it wants that accord to remain in indefinite limbo in the Senate, which rejected it two years ago.
In related news, the Associated Press reported yesterday that the Bush administration has imposed trade sanctions on a major Chinese arms manufacturer after failing to persuade the Chinese government to stop exports of missile technology to Pakistan.
A senior State Department official said the move came as China continued to break international guidelines designed to control sales of missile parts and technology that are essential for weapons that can carry nuclear warheads.
The Chinese manufacturer, China Metallurgical Equipment Corp., a private corporation with close ties to the Beijing government, had transferred missile parts and technology, not whole missiles, the administration's announcement said.