Even as President Clinton plans to travel to Beijing next month, some of China's long-range nuclear missiles are pointed at targets in the United States, a U.S. intelligence report says.
White House officials played down the issue Friday, saying China keeps its nuclear warheads in storage, eliminating the risk of an accidental launch. The United States could plug Chinese coordinates into its weapons more quickly than China could place a warhead on a missile and launch it at the United States, according to Bruce Blair, a nuclear weapons specialist with the Brookings Institution.
A Chinese official said Beijing wants the two governments to pledge never to use nuclear weapons on each other.
The U.S. nuclear arsenal vastly outnumbers China's. The United States removed China from its strategic war plan in 1982, suggesting greater pessimism in Beijing than in Washington about relations between the two countries.
The Clinton administration has been pressing China, so far unsuccessfully, to reach a detargeting agreement similar to the one that led the United States and Russia to program their missiles to land in the ocean. The missiles can be quickly reprogramed to strike cities, but the detargeting agreement at least reduces the potential destruction stemming from an accidental launch.
"We are aware the Chinese do have a limited capability to target several countries including the United States," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin, who was with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in South Korea on Friday. "We believe the emerging strategic relationship with China is the best way to make progress."
Word of the CIA report comes a month before Clinton is to travel to Beijing for talks on issues including human rights, weapons exports and trade.
The CIA report, disclosed Friday in the Washington Times, found that 13 Chinese CSS-4 missiles, each with a range of more than 8,000 miles, are targeted at the United States. China has 18 of these long-range weapons, which were first fielded in 1981. By contrast, the United States has about 6,000 intercontinental range nuclear warheads.
The spokesman for the Chinese Embassy, while declining to comment on specifics of the report, noted that China has proposed to the United States that the two nations commit themselves publicly never to use nuclear weapons against each other. Washington has not yet responded to the offer, he said.
"To retarget a missile takes only a few minutes," Yu Shuning said Friday. "That's why we proposed a no-use pledge by the two countries."
The United States has long maintained its right to first use of nuclear weapons and has been pressing Beijing to reach a detargeting agreement outside the context of no-first-use pledges.
Clinton has asserted in scores of speeches, including several State of the Union addresses, that no nuclear weapons are pointed at the United States.