Not wholly trusting of the answers they are receiving from the Chinese Defense Ministry on its nuclear deterrent posture, U.S. security planners have turned to poring over internal Chinese military literature, which is now published by a large number of state institutions.
"We’re looking for the worst kind of thing we can find," Kulacki said.
It is difficult for U.S. analysts to discern which authors are credible and actually speak for decision-makers in the Chinese government, he added. This had led to instances in which U.S. researchers have assumed that musings found on personal websites of private Chinese citizens or poorly sourced international news stories about rumored changes in China’s nuclear posture represented Beijing’s actual thinking, according to the specialist.
Kulacki blamed much of the United States’ misreading of Chinese nuclear-weapons policy on the "debilitating bad" quality of U.S. government translations of military texts and other sources.
Official U.S. translations of Chinese nuclear-weapons terms misidentify parts of speech, obscure the correct identification of the subject of the sentence, or omit key phrases -- all of which significantly interferes with the ability to interpret the text’s meaning, he said.
"The translation is abysmal. It’s just bad. My guess is they’re starting with machine translations and then fixing the English," Kulacki said. "This is the reason dialogue is critical. You have to get together at a table and talk about what you actually mean."
In an e-mail message to Global Security Newswire, Pentagon press officer Lt. Col. James Gregory said, "Department of Defense analysis of any U.S.-China strategic issue is based on a variety of sources, both classified and unclassified, to include direct interactions with both PRC [People’s Republic of China] government and military officials, as well as authoritative PRC writings.
"When translations are necessary, DOD uses official translations and we do not rely on either private blog sites or unofficial translations," Gregory stated.
A key point of concern for U.S. defense planners is their perception that Beijing has secretly altered its policy of using its nuclear weapons only as a means of deterring attack to also using them as tool of coercion.
In a classified military textbook published in 2003 for use by the Second Artillery, one scenario involves a conventional war between the sides where a superior U.S. force is bombing or threatening to bomb Chinese atomic energy plants, large population centers, and key infrastructure.
In this scenario, Chinese military policy permits Beijing to respond by threatening the United States with a nuclear attack. These threats are to be conveyed through signaling that would gradually be escalated -- beginning with a media propaganda campaign and verbal warnings, followed by nuclear-strike drills, and ending with the naming of which U.S. cities would come under nuclear attack.
"The whole thing is about 'shock and awe' for them," said Kulacki, who has translated sections of the textbook. "The goal is to try to figure a way to knock us off balance, to keep us confused about where things could [lead] to in an escalating scenario" so that the United States decides to halt its conventional-military campaign against China.
Kulacki underlined that the textbook, entitled The Science of Operations of the Second Artillery, clearly states the policy of no first use still holds even in the scenario described above. "If you follow the text, clearly they are talking about bluffing."
The importance and centrality of China’s no-first-use posture is addressed repeatedly in the textbook, Kulacki said. "They tell their soldiers over and over again in this text that this is really important, that this is a fundamental part of their strategy," he said.
Kulacki recommended the Pentagon devote more resources to improving its internal Mandarin translation capabilities in order to avoid further misunderstandings of Chinese nuclear and military policy.
"We have a lot of resources that we devote to national security and this is kind of blown over as if it doesn’t really matter," he said. "This really matters. It’s not glamorous, but it’s essential stuff so that when we actually do get together we can [have an actual conversation]."
Li, who is also a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, suggested that the United States continue to support Track 1.5 diplomacy with China. This type of engagement typically involves high-ranking officials or empowered nongovernment officials engaging in informal dialogue.
He also recommended the United States translate another document -- the Chinese military’s official glossary book of terminology.
In order to successfully engage with China on its nuclear-weapons policy, Washington needs to make a "long-term investment" in fostering and supporting more U.S. analysts and academics with China-specific language skills, nuclear expertise and cultural understanding, Kulacki said.