A senior Chinese defense strategist has said his nation needs to build offensive strength and an "effective nuclear force" but has no intention of renouncing its no-first-use nuclear doctrine.
The rare official comments on Beijing's doctrine come at a time when officials in Washington and other capitals have voiced fears that China is flexing growing military muscle and upgrading its atomic arsenal.
Rear Admiral Yang Yi, director of the National defense University's strategic studies institute, said China's modernizing military "would not actively fire the first shot", the official China News Service reported on Wednesday.
But in an interview with the news agency, Yang said China needed offensive capabilities to deter potential foes.
"China's military forces will not serve as a tool for strategic expansion," he said. "But that does not mean China does not have the right to or should not develop offensive military capabilities. China's military capabilities must be both offensive and defensive."
Beijing has said it will increase defense spending by 17.8 per cent to about $45 billion in 2007, but US intelligence officials say China's total real military-related spending for the year could be between $85 billion and $125 billion.
Beijing's priorities are deterring Taiwan -- the self-ruled island that China says must accept reunification from embracing full independence, or winning a war over the island that could involve the United States.
Part of the increased military spending is going towards upgrading the nation's nuclear weapons.
With about 200 nuclear warheads according to a recent estimate by the Federation of American Scientists, China's arsenal is far smaller than the United States' near 10,000. China had about 20 missiles capable of hitting the US mainland, compared to 830 US missiles that could hit China, the study said.
SomeUS observers say Beijing could be wavering from its long-time vow never to be the first to fire nuclear weapons under any circumstances.
"There is an open debate among civilian strategic thinkers, younger military officers, and the older leaders of the PLA on the utility of the 'no-first-use' doctrine for China," wrote Larry Wortzel, an expert on the PLA, in a study recently issued by the U.S. Army War College.
But Yang said Beijing remained committed to no-first-use and accused critics of seeking to undermine his country's plans to develop an effective nuclear deterrent.
"China adheres to the principle of limited development for self-defense and counter-attack, with a focus on developing a capable and effective nuclear force to satisfy national security needs," he said.